The Complicated Legacy of Fritz Haber: The Jew Who Saved Germany

Fritz Haber

In 1909, Germany was hungry. The population had swollen beyond the country’s capacity to provide food, leaving millions at risk for starvation. Scientists, however, knew that if they could just extract enough nitrogen from the air, of which it makes up almost eighty percent, then they could create enough fertilizer to grow more crops. Many scientists tried, and they all failed.
But in 1909, a Jewish chemist from a town in Eastern Germany succeeded.
Born in 1868 in Breslau, Germany, Fritz Haber was the son of a successful Jewish merchant, and part of a Hasidic family that could trace its lineage back for centuries. Most of Haber’s ancestors would’ve had a hard life; the history of Jews in Germany is not a pleasant one. Throughout much of Christian Europe, Jews became moneylenders in order to earn a decent living, as it was one of few professions forbidden by the Christian bible. Because of their successes, and because of their differences, Jews were victimized across Europe, but especially in Germany. They were pushed into ghettos, became the victims of constant pogroms, and were excluded from Gentile social circles.
Yet this was not the Germany that Fritz Haber knew. Under the leadership of Moses Mendelsohn in the 19th Century, Jews rebelled against the existing paradigm and achieved an unprecedented level of status and recognition within Germany. They held prestigious posts in academia, became successful business leaders, and were a part of German society in many of the same ways Jews are a part of American society today.
So in 1909, when Haber, as he called it, “took bread from the air,” he was proclaimed a national hero. At a time when the population had grown to untenable levels, he had found a way to feed the masses.
Haber was thrilled. He loved his country—and all the possibility it afforded him—and he was eager to do right by his Fatherland. History is filled with figures who shine brightly for a fleeting moment, only to fade into irrelevance, and Haber could’ve easily been one of those figures, but five years later he had a chance to prove his patriotism once again when Germany found itself at war.
Haber discovered that the nitrogen he was taking from the air was useful not only in making fertilizer, but also in the development of weaponized gases. He used his scientific knowledge to build gas bombs for the German Army, and is credited as being one of the pioneers of chemical warfare. He did not seem fazed by the moral dilemma these opposing uses presented, even going as far as visiting the front to personally oversee the use of his weapons. He said: “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the World,” he said, “but during wartime he belongs to his country.”
While Haber justified his actions by claiming patriotism, his wife felt differently. Clara Immerwahr was an integral part of Haber’s work. A fellow Jew and scientist, she was one of the first women in Germany to earn a Ph.D. She assisted her husband with most of his experiments and translated all his works into English. But she felt betrayed by her husband’s zeal for chemical warfare, and soon after his return from the front she confronted her husband. They argued well into the night; Haber tried to persuade his wife that he was just doing his duty to his country, but Clara called him a murderer and a liar. They eventually tired of fighting and tried to sleep; Haber, as was his custom, took sleeping pills and fell asleep immediately, but Clara lay awake, still shaken by the night’s argument.
As her husband slept she found his service revolver in his drawer and made sure it was loaded. She looked at her husband, then at the gun, took a deep breath and fired. Their thirteen-year-old son Hermann heard the shot from his bedroom, and, unsure of what to do, searched for the source of the sound. He ran all around the house until he reached their garden, where he found his mother, a crimson hole in the middle of her chest. Hermann wrapped her in his arms and tried to save her, but she died moments later. Fritz slept through it all.
It’s impossible to know what went through his mind that morning when he saw her in the garden, but that afternoon he left for the Eastern front.
Because Germany lost the war, they were forced to pay huge reparations to the victors. Having solved the food problem, Haber, ever the patriot, tasked himself with solving the new debt problem. A common myth of the day was that large amounts of gold had dissolved into the ocean, and Haber reasoned that if he could “take bread from the air,” he could take gold from the sea. He never got close. The Nazis came to power ten years later and destroyed all the progress Jews had made over the previous century. Haber was initially granted a work exemption for his service during the war, but because they forced over half of his mostly-Jewish staff to quit, Haber quit as well.
The country he loved no longer loved him back, so, when he was offered a position at a research institute in the British Mandate, he reluctantly accepted. Sadly, he never made it to the Holy Land. On a stop in Basel his heart gave out and he died in his hotel room at the age of 65.
Haber’s legacy is complicated. He kept nearly half his country from starving death. The process he created for converting our air’s nitrogen into fertilizer still helps feed roughly one third of the world. And it’s estimated that half of the protein you eat on a daily basis comes from his invention. For that he won a Nobel Prize.
Yet his desire for recognition, and the love of a country he so badly wanted to serve, overpowered his desire for anything else. His wife killed herself thinking she had married a man without morals. His son killed himself in 1946 after 30 years of living with the image of his dying mother. And Haber himself died with the knowledge that he had killed thousands of men in a lost war.
Haber also created a pesticide that will forever associate him with one of the vilest acts of all time. Another nitrogen-based gas, this insect killer was created with a foul smell to warn people not to breathe it in. He named it after the German word for Cyclone: Zyklon A. Twenty years later the Nazis found this gas, removed the smell, and called it Zyklon B. For millions of Jews—including some of Haber’s friends and family—this would be the last thing they would ever breathe.

For more information on Fritz Haber you can visit his Wikipedia page. I also highly recommend this episode of Radiolab, The Bad Show, where I first heard this story.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)