One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas


Haber’s life was the tragedy of the German Jew – the tragedy of unrequited love. Albert Einstein

In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland. Fritz Haber


Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Edward Jenner and Alexander Fleming are all rightly in the pantheon of science for having saved millions of lives. Then we have those unsung heroes. John Enders (measles vaccine), Karl Landsteiner (blood groups, which led to transfusions), Gaston Ramon (diphtheria and tetanus vaccines) and Abel Wolman (chlorination of water) should all be household names. However, there is one man, a bald, moustached chemist, who wore a pince-nez, whose contribution to saving lives dwarfs all of these. There is just one problem – he is considered by many to be a war criminal. Today I am going to tell you the story of this man.

Fritz Haber was born into a well-off Jewish family in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) on 9th December 1868. His mother, Paula, died during childbirth and his father, Siegfried, was a successful merchant who dealt in dye pigments, paints and pharmaceuticals. His relationship with his father was distant and often problematic; Fritz was actually closer to his step-mother and his half-sisters. In 1886 he went to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied under Robert Bunsen. He also attended the University of Berlin and the University of Karlsruhe, where he met Carl Bosch, a fellow scientist, who would play an important part in his life. After university, Haber came back to Breslau to work at his father’s chemical business. The two did not get along well; they were constantly clashing and Siegfried finally accepted that they could not work well together.

Although Haber was born to a Jewish family, in 1892 he converted to Protestantism. Many Jewish scientists, for whom religion was not particularly important, went down this path. It was a way to help them advance their careers. Clara Immerwahr also converted from Judaism to Protestantism to further her scientific career. A chemist and the first woman Ph.D. at Breslau University She would become Haber’s first wife in 1901. She may have expected to share a full intellectual life with her husband, like the Curies. Alas, it would be very different. Clara Haber became a Hausmütterchen (little domestic matron), sacrificing her career. While Clara’s ambitions were thwarted, Haber thrived.

Haber’s great contribution, in collaboration with Carl Bosch, now an engineer from the chemical company BASF, was to discover a way of synthesising ammonia for fertiliser from nitrogen and hydrogen. The Haber-Bosch process made it possible to create huge amounts of fertiliser. It seemed miraculous, and was described as creating “bread from air“. The fertiliser went on to be used on a large scale, leading to a huge increase in crop yields, doping away with the fear of famine in large parts of the world. Haber would now be regarded as a hero if he had stopped here.

It was six years later that the dark legend of Fritz Haber began. World War I had been going for less than a year. It was 5 p.m. on the afternoon of 22 April 1915, and Haber and his select squad, known as Pionierkommando 36, were dug in along a four-mile front on the German lines during the Second Battle of Ypres. Facing them were French Canadian and Algerian troops. Haber and his scientists had more than 5,000 cylinders of chlorine gas in liquid form at their disposal. The order came to attack. The operators, who were all wearing protective masks opened the valves and released the entire contents within ten minutes. A strong breeze swept a blanket of thick green-yellow gas westward into no man’s land and then over the French trenches. The unprotected soldiers began to cough and vomit blood, their chests heaving as they struggled to breathe. This just made them suck more of the poison down their lungs. Those troops that were not suffocated broke from the trenches and fled, abandoning fifty guns. The German infantry were then able to take the abandoned trenches. By the end of the day 5,000 troops had died and 10,000 more were fighting for their lives in the field medical stations. Modern chemical warfare was born.*

The action was a clear violation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Despite the success of the attack, Haber was said to have been disillusioned. He hadn’t wanted a mere experiment. He had called for an all-out attack with a far larger volume of gas, to deliver a knock-out blow. He would later complain that if the military had followed his advice and launched a massive attack the Germans would have won the war.

Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres Clara committed suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before Fritz had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. The generally accepted theory is Clara could not bear living with a man who had perverted science in this way. But Fritz’s patriotism was more powerful than any moral qualms. It was Hermann, their 13-year old son, who heard the shots and discovered his mother’s corpse. Fritz did not even wait around for the funeral. The next day he was off to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas, leaving his grieving son alone to cope with the loss.

After Germany lost World War I, the Allies sought to bring Haber to trial as a war criminal. But instead Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his ammonia discovery and he remained an important man in German science for more than a decade. He does not seem to have shown much remorse. He corresponded with the former Kaiser, who was now living in exile in Holland. Wilhelm had in mind the coming rematch with the Allies, and was especially interested in the possibility of the “total gassing of large cities”. Haber continued to defend chemical weapons as a higher form of warfare. It was Haber who provided the quote that I used for the title of this post:

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.”

He was said to be rather melancholy, one of his friends describing him as seeming to be ‘75 per cent dead’. But this appears to have been because of Germany’s defeat. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty Germany had to pay 20 billion gold marks by May 1921, and a further 132 billion in subsequent payments. This was apparently two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves. What’s more the Allies had declared the country’s patents, including the Haber-Bosch process, null and void, making it even more difficult to pay off the reparations.

Haber had a plan that would enable Germany to pay off its reparations. He would spend six years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans. He believed that a tonne of seawater contained several milligrams of gold. Accompanied by a team of 14 researchers, Haber set sail for New York from Hamburg in July 1923 on the ocean liner Hansa, which had a laboratory to test the waters for gold traces. He did successive voyages in the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific, the China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. He also had a research team testing some 5,000 samples of sea water in great secrecy in Berlin. Their conclusion that the actual concentration of gold per tonne was 0.008 milligrams, a thousandth of the original estimates, put paid to any possible commercial exploitation.

His other great project was more successful, an insecticide known as Zyklon A. A German chemical company, Degesch, tweaked his formula before WWII to produce an efficient second generation of the gas called Zyklon B. Within a few years the Nazis were gassing millions of Jews, including relatives of Haber, with Zyklon B.

Fritz Haber died in 1934 at the age of 65. The Nazis were in power and had no need for Jewish scientists. Although Haber’s war service exempted him from dismissal in 1933, he chose to resign his directorship. Having been offered the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute in Mandatory Palestine, he was on his way to the Middle East when he died of heart failure, mid-journey, while staying at a Basel hotel. It is in this Swiss city where you can find his grave. Shortly before passing away he asked that the ashes of his first wife Clara be placed in his grave. His wishes were respected.

What can we say about his legacy? The number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away. It has been claimed that as many as two out of five humans on the planet today owe their existence to the discoveries made by this brilliant German chemist. Haber’s process is one of the reasons why there are now seven billion people on the planet. Science writer Sam Kean argues that Haber cared little about fertilizers, and that what he was looking for was cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives. Be that as it may, it is impossible to deny Haber’s scientific contribution. Nevertheless, it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of blind patriotism and the power of science to do great good, but also great evil.


* According to Wikipedia: By the end of the war a total of 50,965 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory, and vesicant agents had bee4n deployed by both sides, including chlorine, phosgene, and the infamous mustard gas. Some 1.3 million casualties were directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the four years of conflict. Of these, an estimated 100,000-260,000 casualties were civilians.


One Response to One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas

  1. Alberto says:

    Excellent entry on the two sides of a coin.

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