Fritz Haber Was A Terrible Person Who Actually Saved Half Of Humanity
by Trisha Leigh
We tend to think about people in terms of good and bad, dark and light, but while that might apply to fictional characters, real-life human beings are almost always more complex.
Take, for example, Nobel Prize-winning scientists Fritz Haber – who was objectively awful at being a human, but still managed to (accidentally) save half of humanity with his work.
Haber was born in Germany in 1868 and grew up in a world where food production was precarious at best. As farmers and scientists realized that nitrogen is essential for plant growth, they began to devise ways to get that all-important nutrient into the harvest-depleted soil.
In 17th century England turnips were planted in fields that would normally have been left fallow for a season or two, and in America, bison bones were ground and used as fertilizer (before bison were nearly hunted to extinction). Other places in the world, over-used soil was simply laced with as much excrement as could be located on short notice.
As the industrial revolution led to a population explosion, however, food supply struggled to keep up with demand.
Some, like Thomas Malthus, believed humans needed to do nothing but wait (but not everyone would be around to see whether or not he’d been right).
“Famine seems to be the last, and most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
I suppose some would have been ok with letting famine and disease solve the nitrogen problem, others were more focused on solving the production and distribution problem without letting a bunch of people starve to death.
One of those scientists was Fritz Haber. In 1909 he created what would come to be known as the Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia, which is a key ingredient in fertilizer and is made from nitrogen and hydrogen.
He later sold the method to Carl Bosch who refined it by replacing Haber’s original expensive and rare catalysts. This allowed his team to produce enough ammonia to be used across the world as fertilizer, effectively ensuring over half the planet would never face a significant famine due to nitrogen-lacking soil ever again.
While Carl Bosch took Haber’s idea and used it to feed millions, Haber himself went on to be known as the father of chemical warfare.
During World War I, his lab weaponized chlorine gas, killing several German troops during the testing process. After he had perfected it, Haber was shocked to learn that the military’s top generals were reluctant to use it.
“General Falkenhayn revealed to us that a new weapon, poison gas, was to be used and that my corps area had been selected for the first attempt. The poison gas would be delivered in steel cylinders, which would be built into the trenches and opened when the winds were favorable. I must confess that the commission for poisoning the enemy just as one poisons rats struck me as it must any straightforward soldier: it was repulsive to me. If, however, the poison gas were to result in the fall of Ypres, we would win a victory that might decide the entire campaign. In view of this worthy goal, all personal reservations had to be silent. So onward, do what must be done! War is necessity and knows no exception.”
Haber was on the front lines in Ypres while chlorine gas attacks were launched against Allied troops – attacks that killed more than 10,000 soldiers within minutes.
One soldier described the deaths as “an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land.”
“The effects are there – a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. It is a fiendish death to die.”
A British soldier who witnessed the attack went on to describe the following chaos.
“I watched figures running wildly in confusion over the fields. Greenish-gray clouds swept down upon them, turning yellow as they traveled over the country blasting everything they touched and shriveling up the vegetation. Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded coughing, chest heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades.”
Germany used the gas several more times during the war. By the end of the ordeal, Haber’s gas was responsible for an estimated 90,000 deaths.
Did the good he manifested by saving millions from hunger outweigh the nearly 100,000 soldiers who died essentially his hand?
History is an objective judge, and she says absolutely not.