The Cabinet of Dr. Haber

Fritz Haber, Chemiker, Nobelpreisträger, Deutscher, Jude: Eine Biografie

by Dietrich Stoltzenberg
Weinheim and New York: VCH, 669 pp., $60.00

Der Fall Clara Immerwahr: Leben für eine humane Wissenschaft

by Gerit von Leitner
Munich: C.H. Beck, 232 pp., DM 39.80

As far as science is concerned, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that to look upon it as a means of increasing one’s power is a sin against the Holy Ghost.

—Karl Popper, “The Moral Responsibility of the Scientist”

It was never, ever my intention, to engineer more deaths by my invention.

Your process led to death and devastation.

It saved the world that hurtled to starvation.

These lines from Tony Harrison’s play Square Rounds, which was recently produced in London, epitomize the ambiguous personality and career of Fritz Haber. He was a German chemist, born in 1868, famous for being the first scientist to have synthesized ammonia from the nitrogen in the air; this opened the way to the synthesis of the nitrogen fertilizers that have dramatically increased agricultural production throughout the world. He is also infamous for having introduced poison gas in the First World War.

Haber was larger than life in every sense. Photographs show him taller than everyone else in the picture, stiffly erect and formally dressed with a pince-nez and a starched collar turned down at the corners, lording it over his assembled laboratory staff, a Geheimrat par excellence. After April 1933, when the Nazis had forced him, a Jew by birth, from all official positions, Haber told a friend: “I have been German to a degree which I feel fully only now.” To Chaim Weizmann he described himself as one of the most powerful men in Germany:

I was more than a great leader of armies, more than a captain of industry. I was the founder of great industries. My work opened the way to the great industrial and military expansion of Germany. All doors stood open to me.

As Dietrich Stoltzenberg makes clear in his detailed biography, Haber had been devoted to the glory of Bismarck’s German Reich and the German Emperor with an intensity hard for present generations to comprehend. He continued to visit the Emperor during his exile in Holland after Germany became a republic. He was a man of intellectual brilliance, with wide knowledge, overriding ambition, and a certain lack of humanity. The father, a respected businessman trading in dyes and pharmaceuticals, was more observant of the Prussian virtues of hard work, sense of duty, order, and discipline than of the Jewish rites. He compelled Fritz to enter his flourishing, carefully managed business, but when one of Fritz’s impulsive transactions resulted in a severe loss, he allowed him to launch himself on what was then thought to be a badly paid academic career in chemistry instead. He did not foresee that one day guests invited to Fritz’s Berlin residence would dine off gold plates.

Chemistry had fascinated Haber as a schoolboy. As was customary in Germany, he studied at a succession of universities, and finally landed at the Technical University in Karlsruhe. Knowing that academic careers were closed to non-Christians, he had himself baptized in the Lutheran faith. At the turn of the …

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