The strange connections of Fritz Haber

Patriotism and brilliance left a tragic legacy

In the mid-to late 90’s, cable channel TLC had what is likely one of my favourite shows on called “Connections 2.”

Hosted by James Burke, a British author and historian, the show illustrated the unusual, surprising and even disturbing ways in which technological and scientific advances are connected to each other. Watching this show really made me a better thinker as I tried to look at issues in a deeper way to recognize the connections that exist just below the surface.

No doubt the name of Fritz Haber won’t be overly familiar to readers; Haber, destined to be a Nobel-prize winning chemist and scientist for Germany in World War 1, was born into a Jewish family in Prussia (which is actually now part of Poland).

Haber’s mother died giving birth to him, and after his father remarried and had three daughters with his new wife, it’s thought that Haber felt some distancing from his father. This may have encouraged him to immerse himself to work and to German patriotism.

He was a brilliant chemist by all accounts, receiving his doctorate in 1891. He was involved in laying the groundwork for the glass electrode and studied the effects of current on metals. Perhaps his greatest achievement as a chemist came between 1894 and 1911 when he was working as part of a team at the University of Kalsrhue that invented the Haber-Bosch Process, a technique which would have unbelievably huge impact on global food production. The process was industrial in nature and allowed users to manufacture ammonia from other chemicals, the significance of which meant large-scale production of crop fertilizers was possible. A 2004 paper estimates this process is now responsible for half the world’s total food production. No small feat.

Haber was also fiercely patriotic. He was quoted in a 2011 book saying, “”…During peace time a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country.”

The chemist certainly did his part for the German Empire in World War 1. He was instrumental in the development of chemical weapons and actively recruited for a German chemical weapons unit, plus was in charge of the development of chlorine gas and witnessed a German chemical attack at the Battle of Ypres in 1915. He was totally unapologetic about developing poison gas and gave the impression he was no more morally responsible for death caused by his inventions than the person who invented gunpowder was for deaths caused by guns

Under Haber’s supervision, his laboratory also developed an insecticide called Zyklon B after the world war.

About 20 years later, a different regime was in power in Germany and as World War 2 turned more and more against the Nazis, Adolf Hitler and his black-garbed underlings turned more and more of their attention to the extermination of the Jewish people.

The head of Hitler’s SS, Heinrich Himmler, was dissatisfied with firing squads; he felt they were inefficient and wasteful. An industrial process for wiping out the Jews must be developed.

The SS struck on death camps fitted with poison gas buildings where thousands of people per day could be herded, their bodies harvested for things like hair and gold fillings and their remains cremated in an effort to hide the crime.

The SS chose a poison gas called Zyklon-A, a basic form of the gas developed by German patriot, scientist and Jew named Fritz Haber.

Stu Salkeld is editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer newspaper and writes a regular column for the paper.

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