Fritz Haber was a German Jew.

He wanted to be a good German so he converted to Christianity.

At University, between 1894 and 1911, he invented the Haber-Bosch process.

In 1919 he received the Nobel Prize for it.

The Haber-Bosch process is now responsible for feeding half the people on the planet.

Crops depend on nitrogen as a fertilizer, but worldwide supplies of nitrogen are limited.

This could have meant billions of people starving because they couldn’t be fed.

But Fritz Haber invented a method of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere, it’s been described as “making bread from air”.

Today we manufacture 100 million tons of nitrogen a year by his process.

It is accepted as the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.

Haber’s method makes it possible to feed half the planet, several billion people who would otherwise starve to death.

We like things simple, so Fritz Haber will be remembered as the man who saved billions of lives, right?

But wait a minute, Fritz Haber is also the man who invented poison gas.

In 1915, at Ypres, he released a heavier-than-air gas which drifted towards the British lines.

Being heavier-than-air it sank down into the trenches.

Men began to bloat, and choke, and drown as their lungs filled with their own blood.

They didn’t run because no one had ever seen anything like it before.

By the end of that first attack, five thousand were dead.

By the end of the war, ninety thousand were dead from gas attacks.

Fritz Haber was delighted, he was promoted to captain and held a party at his house in Germany to celebrate.

But his wife wasn’t so delighted.

She was also a professor of chemistry, but she believed it should only be used for the good of mankind.

During the party, she took Fritz Haber’s service pistol into the garden and shot herself.

Haber didn’t stay for her funeral, he went straight back to his unit.

He saw chemistry differently, his motto was “In peacetime, one serves humanity. In war, one serves one’s country.”

And that is how he lived his life, in service to his country.

So how grateful was his country?

In 1933 the Nazis came to power in Germany.

Haber was the Director of The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry.

One day he was prevented from entering the Institute by the porter.

The porter held up his hand and said “The Jew, Haber, may not enter the Institute”.

That was how his country showed its gratitude.

Fritz Haber escaped from Germany and became a professor at Cambridge.

But the teaching staff there had friends who died in gas attacks, they shunned him as someone who had perverted the higher aims of science.

Haber eventually died alone and friendless in Switzerland.

So do we remember him as the man who saved life, or the man who helped destroy it?

We like things simple, but Haber is an example of the difficulty of this.

Certainly Haber was a genius, but that doesn’t always have good results.

One of the chemicals he developed was the pesticide Zyklon.

This gas was modified and used in Nazi death camps.

It was used on Haber’s uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, neighbours and friends.

The products of Fritz Haber’s life could not be more contradictory.


Life isn’t always as simple as we would like it.