The tragic story of Fritz Haber, savior or murderer? – Dawn

The Jewish chemist who saved millions of lives, but also invented ZYKLON B, the gas used in chambers by the Nazis to kill millions.

Source: Jewish Personalities of All Time Facebook Group. Compiled by Raúl Voskoboinik.

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. However, he is the same chemical denounced as a “murderer”.

He was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the synthesis of ammonia, important for fertilizers and chemistry, which helps, to this day, to generate food for the entire world population. He has also been described as the “father of chemical warfare” for his work on the development and deployment of dichlor (formerly chlorine) gas and other poisonous gases during World War I. After his death, his inventions were used by the Nazis for their gas chambers.

No one epitomizes the debate over science’s capacity for good and evil better than Fritz Haber. And there is more to his dramatic life than even this. Because Haber also embodies the tragedy of a Jew desperate to be a patriotic German, whose life was destroyed after the Nazis came to power. And in the cruelest of all ironies, his work was used by the Nazis to create the gas used to murder millions in the Holocaust, including his relatives. Fritz Haber was born in 1868 in Breslau, in what is now Poland.

As a young man he was full of ambition. “We only have one limit, the limit of our own ability,” he wrote. He went to study chemistry in Berlin, the ideal formula, he hoped, for transforming a provincial Jewish boy into a successful German. It was an exciting time, as Germany, newly unified under the Kaiser, forged ahead with cutting-edge scientific research.

But anti-Semitism also grew as the century drew to a close, influencing Haber’s mind to consider converting to Christianity. One of his scientific advances responded to one of the great challenges of the time: feeding growing populations. Crops needed better nitrogen supplies to produce more food. Previously, this was supplied in a limited and laborious way with boats full of bird droppings or nitrates mined in South America. But in 1909 Haber found a way to synthesize ammonia for fertilizers from nitrogen and hydrogen. Working with Carl Bosch, an engineer at the BASF chemical company, the Haber-Bosch process was born, which allows large amounts of fertilizer to be created. It seemed miraculous, described as creating “bread out of thin air.” Fertilizer was used on a large scale, causing a huge increase in crop yields and virtually eliminating the fear of famine in much of the world. One observer describes it as “the most important technological invention of the 20th century,” but the process was also very useful to the military in making explosives.

Poisonous gas

When World War I broke out, Haber was working for the Kaiser’s Research Institute in Berlin and was desperate to prove his patriotism. He began experimenting with chlorine gas, which he said would shorten the war. The first attack using his methods was at Ypres in 1915. Haber was promoted to captain in the German army. In 1918 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on ammonia, he also feared arrest as a war criminal for his poison gas research. In the new Germany of the Weimar Republic, Haber continued to fight patriotically. The country faced huge reparations payments for the First War. Haber claimed that he could extract gold from seawater to pay off debts, but this time there was no miraculous breakthrough.

‘Jews not allowed’

By the early 1930s he could see that anti-Semitism was spreading around him and his claim to be a German patriot was not enough protection.

At the beginning of 1933 he went to work at his institute and there the doorman said: “The Jew Haber is not allowed to enter here.” Haber resigned, devastated, went into exile. Despite the importance of his discoveries, he remains much less well known than his friend and colleague Albert Einstein, perhaps because his reputation is so much disputed. It wasn’t just the poison gas. There was another area of ​​research in the 1920s in which Haber and his colleagues were successful: developing pesticide gases to kill insect pests, fleas and ticks. Of Haber’s legacies, this was the most bitter. with this research it was later developed into the Zyklon B process, used by the Nazis to murder millions in their death camps, including his own family. His godson, the historian Fritz Stern, says we should remember Haber “in all his complexity.” He was a man of “deeply cultivated scientific greatness” but in an “excess of patriotism” he invented gas warfare, which “has come to define the unspeakable horror of the First World War.”

His wife Clara was also a chemist and opposed his work on chemical warfare. After an argument with Haber on the subject, she committed suicide. His son, Hermann, born in 1902, later also took her own life for being ashamed of his father’s work in chemical warfare.

And as for his tortured relationship with Germany, Einstein concluded: “Haber’s life was the tragedy of the German Jew, the tragedy of unrequited love.”

He died of a heart attack in exile in 1934 without ever seeing his invention used.

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The tragic story of Fritz Haber, savior or murderer? – Dawn