Fritz Haber:
perversions of science

Michele Diego

The reason was that Haber not only saved billions of people but was also simultaneously responsible for millions more deaths. In actual fact, Fritz Haber is known to be the father of chemical weapons.

Clara Immerwahr was among the very first women to attain a doctorate in chemistry. In addition to her love for science, she also held pacifist and feminist positions during her lifetime. On the 2nd of May 1915, she shot herself in the chest, and died in her backyard as her teenage son tried to rescue her. It is uncertain why she did this, but the most widely accepted hypothesis is that she could not bear what her husband, who was also a scientist, had invented. Immerwahr had already commented on her husband’s research work in the past, judging it to be “a perversion of scientific ideals” and “a sign of barbarity”.
Yet it is estimated that her husband, Nobel Prize winner for chemistry Fritz Haber, saved more than three billion people from starvation thanks to his discoveries [1]. Let me reiterate: more than three billion people – today the world’s population is eight billion.
But what reasons did his wife have to point to Haber’s research as corrupt and barbaric, to the extent that it is assumed she chose suicide over staying by his side? And, of course, she was not alone: when Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918, there was much consternation. It is said, for example, that the great physicist Ernest Rutherford refused to shake his hand [2].
The reason was that Haber not only saved billions of people but was also simultaneously responsible for millions more deaths. In actual fact, Fritz Haber is known to be the father of chemical weapons.

In order to understand the complex figure of Haber, and his findings, we have to talk about nitrogen. Therefore, we begin our journey in the most unpleasant place we can think of: it starts with a mountain of guano. Prior to Haber’s invention, one of the most nitrogen-rich natural fertilisers commonly used in agriculture was bird guano. It was thanks to it that agriculture was able to flourish, supporting the entire world’s food demand. Guano was so important that it was a central issue in wars between Chile, Peru and Spain for the strategic control of some islands off the Peruvian coast, which were rich in mountains of this precious product. Victor Hugo devoted a chapter of Les Miserables to this topic, which focused on Parisian sewers, arguing that it was a disgrace that human excrement was lost at sea while bird guano was transported around the world.
But what does nitrogen have to do with guano? Nitrogen is a fundamental element for life as it makes up proteins and other typical complex structures of biological compounds. It is the fourth most common element in our bodies, straight after hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. And as crucial as it is for us, it is equally so for other animals and the plant kingdom. The intake of nitrogen for humans occurs through the digestion of plants, which, in turn, absorb it from the soil. Simplistically, we can say that we need to fertilise the soil with nitrogen so that more plants can grow through which we too can grow.
But is nitrogen rare? Not at all: it is found in the air, anywhere around us. The problem is that in this case nitrogen is only found in a molecule consisting of two nitrogen atoms bound together (N2), and neither we nor plants can absorb it. This is what guano is for: it is rich in molecules containing nitrogen, but in a form that can easily be absorbed by plants.
Haber was aware of this process, and his scientific efforts were geared toward making the nitrogen in the air exploitable. Several other scientists before him had been trying and had failed. The N2 molecule in the air is, indeed, extremely “tough”, i.e. difficult to break because of the strong bond between its atoms. Yet Haber was successful in breaking it up, realising that such a rupture could only occur at high temperatures, high pressure and by exploiting a catalyst (an element that does not participate directly in the chemical reaction but allows it to take place).
Hence, he was able to generate the following reaction by breaking a two-atom nitrogen molecule in such a manner so that each nitrogen atom bonds to three hydrogen atoms: N2 + 3H2 ⇌ 2NH3.
The NH3 (ammonia) molecules could be easily condensed and used in fertilisers. It was a breakthrough for agriculture. Haber became the scientist who had turned ‘air into bread’. With this discovery, one of the greatest challenges of the time was solved; a time when many predicted the looming global collapse caused by demographic growth and the inability to feed everyone.
But, as we have anticipated, Haber was more than just this. Haber had a sense of patriotism towards his country, Germany, that today could be described as degenerate. His words on the subject were “during peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country”. He, therefore, took part in the First World War with enthusiasm, even signing the Ninety-Three Manifesto – a document in which German academics expressed solidarity and support for their country, and pledged military aid when war broke out.
As a means of helping his country, Haber first worked on the invention of an explosive, reversing the formula for breaking nitrogen molecules into the air. We have indeed seen that it is very difficult to break such a molecule; “difficult” scientifically means that a lot of energy is needed to achieve this breakage. This means that when nitrogen atoms come together to form the N2 molecule, a great deal of energy is released. A bomb is nothing more than an object that, in a very short space of time, releases an enormous, often devastating amount of energy.
He then focused on developing and using toxic gases, convincing the general staff to use them militarily, even though they were banned by the Hague Convention. He was put in charge of a unit specialised in the research and development of various gases, such as chlorine gases. The strength of such weaponry consists in the weight of its component atoms: being heavier than air, the gas lies low on the ground, seeping into trenches and killing soldiers shielded from bullets. Haber personally supervised military attacks employing these substances. Even the day after his wife committed suicide, he went to the Eastern Front, where an attack against the Russians was in the making.
By the end of the war, the death toll from the gas was estimated to be hundreds of thousands. Haber was promoted in rank for the merits of his research and battlefield applications. Even after the war ended, however, his work continued and he participated in Germany’s development of chemical weapons. In 1920, he devised an insecticide based on hydrocyanic acid: Zyklon.
Nevertheless, Haber’s patriotism was bound not to be reciprocated for much longer. For although a convert to Protestantism, the German scientist was from a Jewish family. Despite his services and flinty love for his country, within a few years, Haber found himself opposed by the Nazis. In 1933 he was not allowed to enter his institution: “The Jew Haber is not allowed in here”[3]. Not even the great physicist Max Planck was of any assistance to him. Planck, Haber’s friend, visited Hitler personally in order to put in a good word for his colleague and save his career. The Führer would not listen to reason: for him, a Jew was still a Jew and he had to deal with each one equally [4]. Haber was forced to leave his country, in increasingly poor health. He died of heart failure in a hotel room in Switzerland in 1934.
His insecticide Zyklon would later be used during the Second World War in the gas chambers of the concentration camps.

Illustration by Valentina Cima.

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