Fritz Haber (1868-1934), is probably one of the most important persons in the history of the modern world, and yet almost no one today can tell you who he was. However, if you eat food to live, I hope that you will continue reading.
Haber was born in Breslau, in the Kingdom of Prussia, into a wealthy Jewish family. Germany was very prejudiced against Jews, but the Habers were not very religious, and integrated well into German society. Fritz himself later converted to Christianity, which helped his career immensely.
Haber was a very patriotic German all of his life, and jumped at the chance to serve his mandatory year of service in the Prussian Army in 1889. He served in the artillery, a branch that would later gain the most from his chemistry skills. He wanted to serve longer, but as a Jew his career ambitions were blunted.
He became an academic, earned his PhD from Friedrich Wilhelm University in 1891, and married Clara Immerwahr (herself a PhD chemist) in 1901. Haber was a contemporary and friend of some of the greatest names in the history of science.
Here is where the story becomes important to you. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was not enough ammonia and nitrates to be mined to keep up with the growing population of the world, and every country on earth faced famine and the problems it would create.
Fritz Haber knew that nitrogen was all around us; we inhale it every time we take a breath. With the atmosphere almost 80% nitrogen, he knew that he could solve this crisis, if he could just find an economical way to pull it from the sky. Nitrogen (N2) is a very stable molecule, and it would require some special coaxing to extract it.
In 1909, he developed the Haber-Bosch Process, This process converts atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia by a reaction with hydrogen using a metal catalyst under high temperatures and pressures: The formula is N2 + 3 H2 → 2 NH3.
Today, half of the human race eats directly because of this process.
Haber was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize for this amazing discovery.
When WWI broke out, there was a dilemma in the scientific community. There was a very real belief that Science belonged to everyone, and scientists should not use their knowledge to make weapons. Haber was a German patriot, and he signed the Manifesto of the 93, declaring his support for the war effort. Albert Einstein pointedly refused to sign this document. Haber said, “During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country.”. Other academics followed the lead of the 93.
Germany lacked resources to produce large quantities of gunpowder, and would have been forced to surrender in a few months based on their small stockpiles. The Haber-Bosch process was used to manufacture nitrates, which overcame this glaring problem.
Haber was made a captain in the German Army, and worked hard in the lab to develop new chemical processes for the war. He developed the use of chemical weapons, hoping to force the Allies to surrender. Many of his contemporaries in the scientific community were outraged, but Haber discovered a way to deliver quantities of chlorine gas to the enemy in quantity. He personally oversaw its first use at the Second Battle of Ypres (Spring 1915).
The Kaiser awarded Captain Haber a medal for his invention, but on May 2, 1915, his wife Clara committed suicide with her husband’s service revolver because of her horror at what he had done. Even with his wife’s death, Haber was committed to the war, and within a week was on the Russian Front gassing the Czar’s troops. He remarried in 1917 to Charlotte Nathan. (They divorced in 1927).
The Allies had their own Nobel Prize winning chemists, and they developed their own weapons. Haber was also the inventor of the gas mask, which has been a personal friend most of my life. By the end of WWI, 1/3 of all munitions fired (grenades, artillery shells, etc) contained chemical weapons.
Haber is today considered the Father of Chemical Warfare. He continued to work on Germany’s illegal chemical weapons program after the war, sometimes helping former enemies develop theirs in order to raise funds.
With the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fritz Haber once again found his past catching up with him. Although a Lutheran, and technically therefore a Christian, the Nazis saw him as “once a Jew, always a Jew.” His patriotism and his service to Germany meant nothing. Many of his co-workers at his institute were Jews, and he was forced to fire them. Secretly, he helped many to escape, including Charlotte and his three children and their families. Haber resigned and left the country, helped by several of the scientists who fought against him in WWI.
Haber was by this time sick and disillusioned. He found himself rejected by the nation that he had loved and worked for his entire life. All because he had been born a Jew. He died in Switzerland in 1934, at the age of 65.
Ironically, the institute he helped manage developed Zyklon, the hydrogen cyanide based gas that that would murder over 1 million people in the Holocaust death camps. The victims included members of Haber’s extended family, his co-workers, and his friends.
So, the next time that you sit down to a meal, I hope that you will take some time to think about Fritz Haber, this brilliant complex man who did so much to bring life, and death, to the human race.