Fritz Haber (1868-1934) – The Most Polarising Character in History – Visionary or Mass Murderer?

In the complex tapestry of global health challenges, Fritz Haber’s legacy echoes profoundly. While deadly viruses, heart diseases, and diabetes often dominate discussions, the silent yet pervasive impact of hunger and malnutrition, as championed by Fritz Haber, claims the lives of 750 million people—10% of the world’s population. Join us in unraveling the surprising truth behind the world’s biggest killer and its roots in the work of Fritz Haber

Nourishing Insights: How Fritz Haber’s Impact Echoes in Global Hunger

However, if we travel back in time to the turn of the 20th century, hunger and malnutrition reached upwards of 40%. There simply wasn’t enough food to feed the world and agriculture couldn’t keep up. This nightmare scenario threatened to halt human development and regress 10,000 years of human progress.

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Fritz Haber

Enter the genius that is Fritz Haber. He managed to force super stable nitrogen, which is abundant in the air, to split and combine with hydrogen to make ammonia. The basic, most important ingredient of fertilizer. Fertilizer went on to be used on a large scale, bringing about a huge increase in crop yields, and practically banishing the fear of famine in the world; our modern world cannot function without fertilizers.

Haber was born in Germany to Jewish parents. His mum died when he was born and he was raised by his step mother. He had a thirst for knowledge, with particular curiosity for chemistry. His father had a set career path prepared for him, in the dyes, paints and pharmaceuticals industry. However, Haber decided instead, at the last moment, to study chemistry and eventually earned a PhD at the tender age of 23.

Before Haber’s novel process most of the fertilizer that Europe required was imported from South America; in the form of pigeon droppings and other nitrate compounds. However, this region of the world was politically unstable and the transportation very expensive. Consequently, when World War One broke out, the allies formed a naval blockade of all fertilizer going to Germany.

This move was meant to cripple Germany and shorten the war since the nitrate fertilizers could be used to create explosives, as well as being used in agriculture. Haber’s monumental discovery saved Germany from early defeat and lengthened the war and suffering for millions of people; the nitrates did not need to be imported from South America anymore, it was manufactured in Germany.

During the war, Haber took a role working for the Kaiser’s Research Institute in Berlin – his early work look at weaponizing chlorine gas. Which ironically, he said, would shorten the war. Instead he started the chemical weapons age and cemented his place in history as the father of all chemical weapons.

The first attack using his methods was at Ypres in 1915. Haber waited weeks for the right wind conditions and then the moment came! He ordered thousands of tones of chlorine gas to be released in the battle field. Chlorine is heavier than air and so stays close to the ground; perfect for killing soldiers who had dug themselves into the trenches. The Allied soldiers had no idea of the fate that awaited them, ill prepared and not properly advised on the danger many thousands died choking violently. It literally brought chills to the most battle-hardened soldiers.


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Soldiers on the battlefield choking on chlorine gas

Fritz Haber’s Ascent: From Recognition to Tragedy

The German government was very impressed with Haber and rewarded Haber with a promotion to Captain, and offered him the mythical status that he so yearned for. His wife, one of the first women in Germany to receive a PhD in Chemistry, was so disgusted by his work that she committed suicide. However, Haber was unfazed by her death and arranged to be flown into the battlefield the next day. He was relentless in his progress in developing more potent chemical gases including the notorious mustard gas.

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Haber’s wife, Clara

After the war, Germany had to pay back reparations to the allies; a devastating moment for a patriotic Haber. The Allies wanted to charge Haber with war crimes but instead he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for the discovery of ammonia. Many in the scientific community were disgusted by his achievement; they saw him as a traitor and a mass murderer.

The 1930s was a bad time for Haber as anti-Semitic nationalism in Germany gained ground and his claim to being a patriot offered little protection. Ironically, Haber had converted to Christianity in his 20s to distance himself from his Jewish heritage. However, this offered little sanctuary as the Nazis arrested and murdered Jew across Germany.

Haber was devastated, went briefly into exile, and died of a heart attack in 1934 alone in a hotel room, while making arrangements to immigrate to the newly formed Israel. A sober end to one of the most outstanding scientists of the 20th century.

After his death, the Nazi’s further developed a few of Haber’s newly discovered chemicals. One of those was Zykon A, a foul-smelling pesticide. They altered the insecticide and formed Zyklon B, this was the new potent odourless version. Nazi’s used Zyklon B to exterminate and eliminate all their enemies on an industrial scale including ironically, a large part of Haber’s family.

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Zyklon B, used to murder millions of people

We cannot deny the genius that Haber was; almost two in five people owe their existence to Haber’s fertilizers – what a monumental achievement. Sadly, he is also personally responsible for the deaths of millions in the world, through his chemical weapons.

Science is like a hammer, we can use it to maim or to construct. How we choose to use the hammer is a decision we make as a society.

In my classroom at Discover Learning, Motor City, my students learn about the divisive figure that Haber was, and they debate, discuss and make conclusions on whether he was visionary or a mass murderer. Learning to critically analyze a source is a skill that we develop.

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