History

The Deadly Military Invention That Came Back to Haunt its Inventor

The tragic and important story of Fritz Haber and the repercussions of his actions.

Imagine being in a trench. Gunfire is zipping over your head. You are pinned down. You can’t escape.

You peer up over the edge of the dirt, across the blackened flat plane of destruction. You hear German shouting in the distance.

Then, you see a giant cloud, a wall of gas standing twice as high as you are tall. It is hundreds of meters wide. It’s moving towards you. You try to crawl out and run but dirt sprays up in your face as bullets hit the ground next to you.

You dive back into the trench. You peer up over the trench again. The cloud moves closer. Bugs and small animals dive out of holes and run for their lives. As the gas overcomes them, the bugs immediately turn upside down and begin spasming.

The wall moves closer and closer.

50 meters.

40 meters.

30 meters.

20 meters.

10 meters.

Your turn.

This fate greeted nearly 100,000 people in World War 1. It was caused by German Scientist Fritz Haber and there were deeply personal repercussions.¹ It’s a history we should learn and never forget.

Fritz Haber Was An Ironic Figure of Violence

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Fritz on the left, with his friend Einstein. (Credit: Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin — Creative Commons License)

Haber’s scientific brilliance can’t be overstated. He rubbed shoulders with Germany’s academic elite and was responsible for many foundational innovations in chemistry.

Quite ironically, he’s credited with one of the most life-saving inventions, and also the most important farming innovation of the 20th century: nitrogen fertilizers.²

Nitrogen fertilizer removed our dependency on natural deposits of ammonia, which were sparse and difficult to gather in large quantities. It unleashed a new era of farming that spread across the globe.

It was after his innovation, that world populations skyrocketed.

He Was Recruited By the German Military

Haber was eagerly in favor of Germany’s involvement in World War I.

His chemistry credentials attracted the attention of military leadership, who tasked him with designing a gas attack to use in the trenches, where germans were losing too many lives. He successfully complied but it soon brought great hardship to his life.

Fritz Haber frequented regal social events, networking with the soaring elites of German society. It was at one such event that his wife, Clara, finally learned of his intentions with the gas. She was furious.

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His wife (Wikimedia commons)

Clara was a great chemist herself, one of the first women scientists of her kind. She knew, intimately, the human experience that would accompany the inhalation of such gas.

They got into a heated fight at the party and continued to argue for weeks afterward. She was outraged, not only at Fritz’s willingness to move forward but at his reveling in the military glory of his innovation. In her eyes, he’d become a monster.

The Descent of Humanity Began

On May 2nd, 1915, Fritz and his wife had a particularly bitter fight. It was the night before Fritz was to demonstrate his gas weapon on the battlefields for the german leaders.

The two shouted and went back and forth. Fritz eventually went to sleep.

Clara went inside, found a gun, walked out into their back yard, and shot herself in the chest. Her 12-year-old son found her and stayed with her in her final moments. Her reasons for the suicide were never revealed. Some historians speculate it was her last-ditch protest to stop Fritz.

Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed. Though distraught, Fritz went to the front line in France to carry out the first gas attack. There was a huge standoff between forces. The Germans waited until the winds favored them, blowing towards the enemy. Then Fritz released massive amounts of chlorine gas, causing deaths undeserving of description and unworthy of humanity.

His Invention Comes Back to Haunt Him

In the early 1930s, Nazi Germany rose to power, due in part to the botched handling of the resolution to the war. The reparations and forcing of Germany to take all blame, laid the bitter groundwork for a sharp rise in right-wing nationalism.

Fritz Haber was Jewish. He was deeply troubled and unsettled by this change, and fled the country. He died in 1934, in Switzerland.

Later, the Nazis went to inspect his lab. He was a Nobel Prize-winning chemist with many innovations. One such innovation was Zyklon gas. Now if any of you know what Zyklon is, your stomach probably just turned.

Zyklon A was a nerve agent used on bugs. The Nazis took Zyklon A, modified it into Zyklon B, and then used it as the gas of choice in the gas chambers.

Let me be more blunt: Haber’s own invention was used to kill millions of Jews including many of his own family members. It is, perhaps, an excessively cruel act of karma, one which Haber could have never foreseen, but it happened nonetheless. His willingness to chase glory, feed ego, came at the expense of simple guiding principles.

More than 90,000 men died from german gas attacks in World War I, along with countless wildlife, and innocent Civilians. It led to the Geneva Conventions, which have now outlawed such weapons.

Let us hope we never use gas on humans again.

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” — WT Sherman

Sources

[1] Charles, Daniel (2005) Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber

[2] Dietrich Stoltzenberg (2015) Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew: A Biography

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Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

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