- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005


By Daniel Charles

HarperCollins, $24.95, 315 pages


There are two billion people alive today, one third of the human race, who owe their lives to a man none of them have ever heard of: Fritz Haber, the great German-Jewish chemist who succeeded in extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere. Haber invented a large-scale catalytic synthesis of ammonia from elemental hydrogen and nitrogen gas, reactants that are abundant and inexpensive in nature. He used exceptionally high temperatures and pressures to convert nitrogen into nitrate fertilizer in previously unimaginable quantities. Haber deservedly won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for this 1908 achievement, without which the Green Revolution of “miracle” strains of genetically engineered high-yield rice would not have been possible.

Haber therefore revolutionized the entire course of world history. The transformation of Asia and the emergence of China and India as giant, modern 21st century global economies would never have been possible without Norman Borlaug’s miracle rice strains. But they could never have been grown had not Haber “extracted “bread from air,” as his fellow Nobel laureate Max von Laue put it.

But Haber also had other “achievements” to his “credit.” Some 650,000 people were killed or horribly maimed in World War I, mainly on the Western Front, through the use of poison gas warfare. And Haber was the driving force, visionary genius and chief experimenter who made it all possible. He even personally supervised the very first poison gas attack in history against British troops at Ypres on April 22, 1915. He developed an industrially applicable synthesis of ammonia and masterminded the great ammonia factories that produced the nitrates for explosives without which Germany could not have fought on for three more years. Were it not for Haber’s dedication to his country, the Russian Revolution and the hecatombs of slaughter presided over by Lenin, Stalin and Hitler might never have happened.

It is remarkable that no major, modern biography of this towering, promethean figure has previously been attempted in English. But now Daniel Charles, a science correspondent for National Public Radio, has risen admirably to the challenge and produced a thorough, sensitive, beautifully written account filled with irony, revelation and horror.

I had expected Haber to emerge from his biography as he had been described in previous accounts as a repulsive, exaggerated monster. Instead, the figure that emerges is all too familiar. He was brilliant, and knew it, and was hungrily ambitious to get on in the world. He was in no way a racist but was a passionate German patriot who eagerly grasped every financial and honorific award that his vast services to his nation offered him.

Haber was for most of his life oblivious of his Jewishness until the Nazis forcibly reminded him of it. He had converted to Christianity in his youth, though only pro forma. He saw conversion, as the great poet Heinrich Heine had three quarters of a century before, as his “ticket” into mainstream European civilization. And like Heine, he repented virtually on his death bed, though he had a lot more than Heine to repent of.

Haber had many admirable human qualities. He was warm, gregarious, generous and outgoing. He loved good jokes and was a loyal and devoted friend who helped Albert Einstein through his divorce from his first wife. He attracted a circle of brilliant and devoted young scientists around him, including future Nobel Prize winner James Franck and the great Lise Meitner, who with Otto Hahn made the crucial breakthrough in nuclear fission.

But a curse, closely associated with his hideous enthusiasm for developing poison gas, afflicted his personal life. His first wife, the hauntingly beautiful and sweetly idealistic Clara Immerwahr, also of Jewish background, and a fine scientist herself, committed suicide with Haber’s own Army revolver when he was back on leave just after triumphantly supervising the very first poison gas attack. Ever the meticulous scientist, she test-fired a shot in the garden to make sure the mechanism was working, then blew her own brains out.

Their 12-year-old-son Hermann was the first to find his dying mother. Some 31 years later, Hermann, distraught over his own beloved wife’s early death from leukemia, committed suicide too. So did his own eldest daughter. Haber remarried. According to one story, Clara discovered him on the night of her own suicide in the arms of his far younger future second wife Charlotte. That marriage ended in divorce too.

Mr. Charles tells this awful, riveting story, with the documentation and judicious assessment of a fine scholar and with a deceptively simple, lucid style better than most novelists. It is hard to imagine that a more insightful portrait of Haber, or discussion of the two-faced, Janus-like nature of modern science, providing unimagined advances in prosperity and health with one, hand, and inconceivable tools to inflict suffering and evil with the other, could be found. Mr. Charles also provides a cautionary tale of the evil consequences of what a conscience-free, grasping ambition and vanity and a drunken perversion of healthy patriotism can lead to.

Even Haber’s most innocent-seeming activities seemed to be subsumed by his curse. He produced, almost as an afterthought of his poison gas research a useful garden insecticide called hydrogen cyanide and then forgot about it. A quarter of a century later, this same insecticide, with its warning indicator odor removed, and relabeled Zyklon B killed millions of innocent European Jews in the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. The children and grandchildren of Fritz Haber’s sisters were among its myriad victims.

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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