Fritz Haber, the Monster Who Made the Modern World Possible

Fritz Haber on the Western Front in WWI, instructing German soldiers on the use of chlorine gas. Archiv der Max Planck Gesselschaft, Berlin

The Bad

Haber had a passion for chemistry, and by 1890, he was teaching it as a professor. That same year, he met and fell in love with Clara Immerwahr, a wealthy Jewish girl with a passion for learning and a brilliant mind to match Haber’s own. Although she liked Haber, Immerwahr liked her independence even more, and so turned him down when he asked to marry her. A decade later, she had become the first woman awarded a chemistry doctorate from a German university, and when Haber pursued her again, she relented. The duo were married, and by 1902 they had a son. Immerwahr managed to juggle science and domestic life, and helped her husband with his research.

The Haber process made Fritz famous, and in 1911 the family moved to Berlin, when he became chemistry professor at its university. There, Haber socialized and rubbed shoulder’s with Germany’s greats, including generals, ministers, and the Kaiser himself. As his fame and ego grew, Haber’s marriage began to fray. He left his wife and son for long stretches, and took to philandering with the many women who threw themselves at him.

Clara Immerwahr. Wikimedia

When WWI erupted in 1914, Haber saw it as his patriotic duty to help Germany in any way he could. By the end of 1914, the Western Front had stalemated into a line of opposing trenches, stretching for hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the sea in Belgium. Haber contacted the authorities, advocating the use of deadly chemicals to break the stalemate. He was made an army captain, and assigned to head the Ministry of War’s Chemistry Section. There, he oversaw the development of poison gas, pioneering its use and earning the moniker “the Father of Chemical Warfare”.

During the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, Haber oversaw the deployment of about 170 tons of chlorine gas opposite trenches occupied by French colonial troops from Morocco and Algeria. At about 5PM on April 22nd, 1915, Haber personally gave the signal Gott strafe England! (“God punish England!”), to open the valves on canisters containing the deadly chemicals. Once released, the chlorine reacted with water in the air to form hypochlorus acid, which destroys moist tissue such as that of the lungs and eyes.

In a fifteen foot high and four mile wide wave of greenish yellow mist that took on a pinkish hue with the setting sun, Haber’s invention slowly drifted towards the unwitting occupants of the French trenches. A man walking at a brisk pace could have outrun it, but nobody ran, because nobody had seen such a phenomenon before, or understood what it augured. Leaves shriveled as they were touched by the deadly mist, birds toppled from branches or fell mid-flight, and rats in the no-man’s-land between the trenches began twitching in their death throes. When the mist hit the defenders, terrified chaos ensued.