Fritz Haber: The Tragedy of a German Jew

Updated: Mar 29

Fritz Haber was born in 1868 in a Jewish family, in present-day Poland. His generation was the first where Jews were accepted into German society and had some level of social mobility and freedom. An important Prussian declaration of 1812 had stated that Jews should be treated as “local citizens”, and this allowed Jews like the Habers to establish themselves in society.

Haber passed his examinations at the St. Elizabeth Classical School in Breslau in September 1886, where he first showed an interest in chemistry. Though his father wanted Haber to join his business, he took permission to study chemistry and received his doctorate cum laude (with honour) from Friedrich Wilhelm University in May 1891. Then, Haber was appointed professor of physical chemistry and electrochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

Meanwhile, scientists all over the world had started to realize that with the growing population, humans would need to produce far more food than they were currently capable of. They warned that humans wouldn’t be able to grow enough crops to sustain themselves through the 20th century. The problem with increasing crop production wasn’t finding land to grow crops, it was finding a way to fertilize them. It was already known that nitrogen was key to fertilizing crops. Nitrogen was also abundant in nature, making up most of the Earth’s atmosphere. There was just one problem: there was no way to capture it. Due to its strong trivalent bonds, its atoms are attached with each other with immense force. A highly potent energy source would be required to separate them.

Haber busied himself with trying to solve this problem at the University of Karlsruhe. Persistence and hard work eventually paid off. At the beginning of the 20th century, Haber and his assistant R.L Rossignol invented what came to be known as the Haber–Bosch process, which successfully produced ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. Ammonia was an extremely efficient fertilizer. Many consider this to be the most important invention of the 20th century. Ammonia sustains the food base for half the world’s population today. Haber was given the Noble Prize in Chemistry for this contribution in 1918.

Haber had first met his future wife Clara Immerwahr in Breslau in 1889, while he was serving his required year in the military. She was deeply interested in the natural sciences and was studying chemistry when she met him at a dancing lesson. He asked for her hand in marriage, but she refused in order to continue her studies and remain independent. They met again in 1901, and Haber once again proposed to her. By then, she had become the first woman in Germany to earn a PhD in chemistry, graduating from the University of Breslau. This time, she accepted Haber’s proposal, and they were married soon after. After marriage, he got a professorship at the University of Berlin due to his dedication to his work. Haber gradually became acquainted with important members of German society and began to socialize with its uppermost strata, even meeting the Kaiser Wilhelm II (the German emperor) on multiple occasions. He began to love his newfound celebrity status. He was no longer a Jew to be looked down upon but a German to be treated with respect.

In April 1915, the Allies and Germany were battling for control of the Belgian town of Ypres. Germany had already lost a lot of soldiers just months before at the same front. This time, they were focused on taking control of the strategically located town and this is where Fritz Haber comes in. A staunch patriot who believed in doing as much for his country as possible, he had previously written to the Department of War explaining how he could create explosions by breaking the bonds of ammonia, a discovery that had changed the course of human history a few years earlier. Defeats on the front lines hardened Haber’s resolve to use gas weapons, despite Hague Convention agreements prohibiting the use of chemical agents in battle. Furthering his attempts to secure Germany a victory on the Ypres front, he added chlorine to ammonia to make an asphyxiating gas which could choke enemies to death. On April 22nd 1914 under Haber’s direct supervision 150 tonnes of poison gas was released across the battlefield, as the gas advanced with the win thousands of French soldiers faced a grim fate. Within a few hours, there were over 6000 bodies scattered across the battlefield, the macabre result of Haber’s work. The success of Operation: Disinfectant earned Haber a promotion to Captain in the German Army.

A week after the success of the operation a dinner party was thrown to celebrate Haber’s promotion; during the party, he was confronted by his wife Clara, an argument erupted between the two; they traded accusations with Clara vilifying him as she claimed he was morally bankrupt, Haber, on the other hand, accused her of being an enemy of the German state. Clara’s sentiment towards her husband’s research wasn’t new, she had on previous occasions publicly denounced his work calling it a ‘perversion of the ideals of science, a sign of barbarity, corrupting the very discipline which ought to bring new insights into life.’ That night once Haber had gone to bed, his wife using his army-issued revolver committed suicide, she was found that night by her son in her fleeting moments. The next morning Haber left for work, his son Hermann was left alone to deal with his mother’s death. Despite his unwavering commitment to the German ideal that emerged in the 1910’s he was haunted by the death of his wife, he wrote: ‘I hear in my heart the words that the poor woman once said... I see her head emerging from between orders and telegrams, and I suffer.’

The war ended in a humiliating German defeat, Fritz Haber much like the rest of Germany struggled to accept the new German fate. The Treaty of Versailles became the manifestation of German humiliation and shame; Haber took it upon himself to repay the treaty in full and find a way to reclaim the German pride. For half a decade he toiled to find a method of distilling trace amounts of gold from the surface of the ocean, and his failure in this endeavour hit him hard. In 1933 as Adolf Hitler assumed power of the German Third Reich, he felt he had lost his home, a home that treated him not as a Jew but a German patriot. He left Berlin after being disallowed entry at Berlin University, finding himself in a nation he longer recognized. He left for the British Isles having found professorship at Cambridge University. At Cambridge, he was in the most literal sense possible shunned by the British and the French alike, some of whom refused to shake his hand. On his way to Palestine to direct what is now the Weizmann Institute of Science, Fritz Haber died on 29th January 1934 in Basel, Switzerland of a grave and lasting illness.

One of the most complex characters in science to have ever been, Fritz Haber personifies the debate over science’s ability for history-altering good and evil unfathomable. His story was of one of a kind distinctiveness and the many, Einstein observed on his relationship with Germany: "Haber's life was the tragedy of the German Jew - the tragedy of unrequited love."

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