Hannah Gay’s lecture on “The Chemists’ War” reported in January/February’s Canadian Chemical News brought so many thoughts to mind: my stepfather, gassed with chlorine at Ypres; myself, during the Second World War in London, carrying over my shoulder a gas mask – never needing to use it. How ghastly one appeared when so equipped! But most of all, I thought about the villainous chemist on the other side: Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber who, according to historian William H. Brock in The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales from Chemistry, “knew he was right” in persuading the German authorities to use chlorine and other poisonous gases to counter Allied advances, believing this would end the war more rapidly. The Hague Convention of 1899 had prohibited use of asphyxiating weapons, but that didn’t faze Haber. His first wife, Clara Immerwahr, PhD, was not so phlegmatic, committing suicide with Fritz’s revolver around the time — May 1915 — of the first gas attack.
After the war, pretending his research was on pesticides, Haber continued work on chemical weapons, some of which were bought and used by the Spanish and Russian governments. Among the gases he favoured was hydrogen cyanide, released from Zyklon A, later replaced by the safer Zyklon B; as a Prussian Jew from Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), he surely would have been horrified to learn of its use in the Holocaust to kill thousands of human “pests,” as the Nazis perceived Jews and other undesirables.
Another Polish Jew, also a Chemistry Nobel Prize winner, Cornell professor Roald Hoffmann (along with Pierre Laszlo), has written about Haber: “Chemists are legitimately distressed by the chemophobia of the public. One of its manifestations is the stereotyped presentation of a chemist as an amoral character, having sold his soul to the Devil. The implicit sin is more than Faustian, for the betrayal is not only personal, but that of humanity. Fritz Haber is often this scapegoat. Is this stereotyping deserved?”
Tony Harrison’s 1992 London stage play, Square Rounds, seems to say “yes,” parodying Fritz Haber by having him say these lines:
“Out of the industry, which gives the world its dyes
I can chemically concoct a new shock from the skies. (…)
I’m off to devise a little surprise
Something that’s certain to stun
All those who thought that war’s only fought
With things like that vulgar gun. (…)
My gas will break the deadlock, make the war much shorter
And therefore save millions from the slaughter.”
Harrison has Haber (who versified in real life) further say:
“After the mental struggle of nitrogen fixation
I turn to verse as an effortless relaxation.”
To illustrate the key role of chemistry in the First World War, it would have been necessary only to mention the contribution that the catalytic production of ammonia for fertilizer made to Germany’s war effort. For this process also enabled large-scale production of nitric acid, which led to easily manufactured explosives. For his role in theoretically imagining a route for nitrogen fixation, something every chemist knows as the Haber-Bosch process (realized first by English chemist Robert Le Rossignol), Fritz Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
But with the Nazis coming to power in the 1930s, Haber lost his position as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, dying in exile in Switzerland in 1933, but not before being snubbed by Lord Rutherford, who refused to shake the hand of the fellow Nobelist when he visited Cambridge. Ironically, Rutherford could be said to have contributed enormously to the epithet applied to the Second World War, namely that it was “The Physicists’ War.”