Fritz Haber (1930)

April the 22nd, 1915, had been a clear day with just a mild wind touching the tops of the hedges. All through the day, an uneasy lull had fallen over the tiny hamlet of Gravenstafel, close to the Belgian town of Ypres. The ground had a 7 km long line of parallel trenches where 10000 French, British, Belgian, Canadian and French Colonial (Morrocan and Algerian) soldiers had dug in and waited with considerable trepidation.

The allies were facing off an even larger phalanx of the enemy, two full divisions of the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German Imperial forces, who were similarly dug in just a few kilometers to the east. Both sides appeared to be well entrenched and seemed to have reached a stalemate.

Meanwhile, incessant and heavy artillery barrages crashed into the front lines from both sides and the thick smell of cordite lay like a pall over the whole area. Desperate to stop the casualties on their side and move the front westward, the Germans waited anxiously. They waited for the wind direction to turn westward and it did, starting late afternoon.

Unseen by the other side, the Germans had been piling up canisters that had been transported up to their positions earlier that week. At approximately 5pm, they began opening those canisters by hand and letting out a yellowish gas that rolled along, hugging the ground, propelled forward by the wind. The gas, 95% pure chlorine, formed a cloud which drifted slowly toward the allied trenches. Within a half hour, 5600 canisters had been uncapped, letting out 171 tons of the lethal gas into the atmosphere.

Because it was heavier than air, the gas flowed in and filled the trenches, engulfing and smothering the allied soldiers completely. It had an odd smell, like that of a mixture of pepper and pineapple and initially as it got ingested, it tasted metallic and stung the back of the throat and chest.


Ypres, Belgium, April 1915

In itself, the chlorine gas isn’t lethal, but when it comes in contact with moisture in the mucosa present inside the lungs, it turns itself into highly corrosive hydrochloric acid and rampages through blood vessels and tissue, turning them into mush. Death comes in a very painful half hour of vomiting and choking.

When some of the allied soldiers tried to break out of the trenches and flee east, they unwittingly remained inside the gas cloud as it travelled eastward in the same direction. They perished and lay where they fell, their bodies contorted into grotesque, pain-wracked shapes. For the others, the German machine guns were waiting.

Since the gas canisters had been opened by hand, a large number of German soldiers were also injured and some even died of the exposure to the gas.

The above is the first instance of the deliberate use of chemical weapons in battle. It was also the culmination of the research efforts of a brilliant chemist by the name of Fritz Haber.

Haber had by then, already achieved international recognition for being the first to successfully synthesize ammonia fertilizer from the nitrogen present in the atmosphere, thus unlocking before a rapidly increasing world population, the secret to increasing food production multifold.

By the end of the 19th century, Germany (and the world at large) had been on the verge of maxing out on food production. There just wasn’t enough available, for a rapidly increasing population. Haber made probably the most significant breakthrough in human history. He showed the world a way to feed the growing billions through the Haber-Bosch process of ammonia synthesis, a feat that won him the Nobel Prize in 1918.

They say that two-fifths of the substance that we have within our bodies has been created through the Fritz-Bosch process of ammonia synthesis. We have been ingesting foods produced by artificial ammonia-based fertilizers for the past 100 years. Believe me, this is not an exaggeration.

In 1912, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry was started, with Fritz Haber as it’s first director. While his research on ammonia continued there, the First World War broke out and Haber, a patriot, placed the labs of the institute at the service of the military. As the war raged on and the casualties on the German side mounted, the German Army requested his help in the developing newer types of weapons that could replace explosives inside their shells. Poison gas. Haber began experimenting on the use chlorine gas as a weapon, even though the Hague convention agreements prohibited the use of chemical agents in battle. Ypres happened soon after.

In 1933, however, 25% of the staff (including three departmental heads), lost their positions under a new Nazi law aimed at purging the German civil service of Jews. Haber too was Jewish, but he was exempted from the purge for the time being, on account of his value to the Nazi state. He nonetheless refused to fire his staff. Heartbroken, he submitted his resignation and went into exile in Basel, Switzerland, where he died alone in 1934, inside a bed & breakfast hotel near the railway station.

There was one final tragic irony that occurred after Haber died. Sometime during the late 1930s, the Nazis discovered a pesticide that he had developed inside his labs at the Institute, named ‘Zyklon’. Haber had mixed a warning smell in the pesticide so that people wouldn’t ingest it accidentally. The Nazis modified it. They removed the agent that gave out the smell and labelled the gas ‘Zyklon B’ and went on to use it extensively in their gas chambers, to wipe out over 4 million ‘non-aryans’. Haber had been a Jew himself, before he converted to Christianity. The irony was that some of his own relatives perished in those gas chambers.

How do you figure out a bad guy who has done immense good through his work on artificial fertilizer and at the same time, created horrible weapons? It depends on who is telling the story. If one compared Fritz Haber to Albert Einstein or Enrico Fermi, while Haber was branded a war criminal for developing chemical weapons, why weren’t Einstein or Fermi crucified for leading the way to nuclear weapons?

Some argue that what Haber did on the fields of Ypres was appalling and difficult to understand, especially in today’s social context. But Haber believed he was helping Germany win the war. Given the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that followed a few decades later, why should Haber’s actions appall us? After all, most inventions have dual purposes.

Others go on to place the blame for today’s population explosion on the fertilizers Haber created. The very people making statements here would probably not exist without such inventions as fertilizer. How many of these people who are fixated on population control, will reject antibiotics the next time they have a deadly infection? It is one thing to deplore the misuse of science when it destroys. It is another to demonize technology just because it facilitates human life.

There are commentators who take issue with terming Haber’s ammonia synthesis as a good thing. Synthetic nitrogen certainly revolutionized agriculture and has allowed for billions of humans to live along with all our pigs, cows, chickens, dogs and cats. Nitrogen isn’t evil. But the development of artificial fertilizers, they say, has abused the soil and led to it’s degradation and pollution.

Those commentators argue that artificial fertilizers have benefited humankind in a very limited sense and in the long run, the world will suffer from the consequences. That the Haber-Bosch process demonstrates the tragic habit in our culture of seeing human benefit exclusive of environmental benefits. Haber would have contributed much greater things had he considered the whole biosphere in his invention rather than just the human need.

Branding someone as having been either good or evil can be a slippery slope. People and their actions have so many ramifications, especially when they do huge, revolutionary things like this Haber did. This dude’s discoveries fed billions. They also killed millions. Whenever we create something on such a grand scale, it invariably slips out of our control at some point in the future.

With game-changing discoveries, there’s no way to tell how things will pan out. Even if one could foresee what his invention would lead to, down the road, it wouldn’t help. He would argue for his invention on the strength of either his nationalism or the benefits. Humans are too complicated for us to bestow a single judgement on them.

Personally, if I had been in Haber’s place, I’d probably do exactly what he did.