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ood or bad, generous or selfish, right or wrong: the easiest thing is to label people with categorical epithets. But scientist Fritz Haber proves to us that things are not always in black and white and that reality is painfully complex. Fritz Haber has gone down in history as a man with two sides, one generous and one dark. On the one hand, he helped many people not to starve, and on the other hand, he developed chemical weapons that would generate piles of dead.

The angel of chemistry

Fritz Haber (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fritz Haber was a German chemist. He was born in Breslau, Prussia, in 1868, into a respected Jewish family. In 1886, he began studying chemistry under the guidance of renowned chemists Robert Bunsen and Carl Liebermann. In 1891, he received his doctorate from Friedrich Wilhelm University. In 1894, he accepted a professorship at the University of Karlsruhe.

Between 1894 and 1911, he worked with chemist Carl Bosch and developed what is now called the Haber-Bosch Process. This is a revolutionary method by which ammonia can be synthesized directly from hydrogen and nitrogen. The main utility of ammonia is in the process of obtaining potassium and ammonium nitrates, used for fertilizer. Before the development of the Haber-Bosch Process, there was no easy or cheap way to create ammonia.

The process developed by Haber and Bosch made it possible to create fertilizer in industrial quantities. Due to the discovery of the two, crops increased significantly in volume, and millions of people thus had food provided.

For his revolutionary discoveries, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. The Haber-Bosch process is still used worldwide for the manufacture of ammonia. Half of the world’s food production is based on this method of making fertilizer. According to statistics, two out of five people on the planet are kept alive thanks to Haber’s discovery.

The ugly twist

If the German chemist’s story ended here, people would remember him as a hero. But the course of his life took a dark turn, as a result of which Fritz Haber came to be called “the father of chemical warfare.”

After the outbreak of World War I, Fritz Haber was appointed head of the chemistry department of the German Ministry of War. At that time, Haber had already gone from Judaism to Lutheranism.

The reasons for his conversion are not very clear, but anti-Semitism had begun to spread and it was speculated that, through conversion, Fritz Haber wanted to obtain a better academic position.

However, the chemist was also a patriot. During the war, he led the team that worked on the development of chlorine gas, which was to be used in trench fighting, along with other deadly gases.

While studying the effect of toxic gases, Haber concluded that prolonged exposure to the same toxins, but with a low concentration, had deadly effects.

Fritz Haber on the Western Front in WWI, instructing German soldiers on the use of chlorine gas. Archiv der Max Planck Gesselschaft, Berlin (Source: History Collection)

This equation became known as the “Haber’s rule” and resulted in the use of gas in war. After the end of the First World War, Haber continued to work secretly on the development of chemical weapons for Germany.

He also took over the leadership of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. By 1931, German nationalism had grown. Jewish scholars had fallen into disfavor, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was ordered to fire all Jews. Haber was outraged. He tried to delay the departure of his Jewish colleagues until they found another job.

Haber’s legacy

On April 30, 1933, Fritz Haber resigned as director of the Institute. He left Berlin the same year, with the help of British chemists, who had been in the opposite camp during World War I.

Haber was already in poor health and died in 1934, at the age of sixty-five, of heart failure. After the death of Fritz Haber, through a horrible irony, his work on chemical gases was used by the Nazi regime. His research was used to develop Zyklon B, the gas used in concentration camps to kill millions of Jews, including Haber’s friends and acquaintances.

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