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Fritz Haber


I went to a very good Jewish school in England, Carmel College (the one my father founded), which was known for the strength of its sciences. In those days they were divided into three separate faculties—chemistry, physics, and biology. The senior master and head of sciences was a brilliant chemist and pedagogue, Romney Coles. He had written several textbooks on chemistry and came to Carmel from one of the top public schools of the country. He built up such a strong department that within a few years of its inception its brightest pupils were winning scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge.

Carmel was a boarding school, and extracurricular, after teaching hours activities played a vital part in the whole ethos of the school. There was one society that was regarded as being for the intellectual elite called, so Romney Coles insisted, the Haber Society. As I was absolutely hopeless at math and sciences, I did not qualify. But I remember the name Haber from that society, even though I never bothered to find out who he was. And I remained in ignorance until a month ago when I began to watch a series on the National Geographic Channel on the life of Albert Einstein. In it, Fritz Haber plays a very important role, mainly as the symbol of a whole generation of men born Jewish but regarding themselves primarily as Germans, most of whom converted to Lutheranism to further their careers and better fit into a basically anti-Semitic culture.

Einstein, was from an assimilated family, too. But he never converted to Christianity. Although he was not a religious man, he came to feel more Jewish as a result of his experiences of anti-Semitism in Germany. He did not call himself a Zionist, but he did support the Hebrew University. Although he turned down Chaim Weizmann’s offer of the presidency of the Jewish state, he remained a supporter of Jewish causes. In the TV series, he is shown wrestling with his identity in contrast to Fritz Haber as the archetypical proud assimilationist.

Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was born into a well-off, highly assimilated German Jewish family. As a student at Jena, Haber converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to improve his chances of getting a better academic or military position. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas. This invention is of importance for the large-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives.

Haber was a patriotic German. He supported the First World War with enthusiasm, joining 92 other German intellectuals in signing the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three in October 1914 supporting the war. Haber is considered the “father of chemical warfare” for developing the use of chlorine and other deadly gases for trench warfare in World War I (their use in shells had been proscribed by the Hague Convention of 1907). Haber was present when it was first used by the German military at the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. He defended gas warfare against accusations that it was inhumane; he said that death was death, by whatever means it was inflicted.

After WWI ended, Haber’s institute developed the cyanide gas formulation Zyklon A, which was used first as an insecticide, and then by the Germans to murder millions of Jews. Many allied scientists did not forgive Haber’s involvement with poison gas.

From 1919 to 1923, Haber continued to be involved in Germany’s secret development of chemical weapons, helping both Spain and Russia with chemical gases. But by 1933 Haber realized he could no longer support Hitler’s Germany.

During a brief stay in England in 1933, Chaim Weizmann offered Haber the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute (now the Weizmann Institute) in Rehovot, in Mandatory Palestine. He accepted and left for the Middle East in January 1934, but unfortunately he died of heart failure on the way. Haber bequeathed his extensive private library to the Weizmann Institute; it was dedicated as the Fritz Haber Library in January 1936.

Why did Romney Coles choose Fritz Haber to be the name of his precious and prestigious society for young Jewish scientists? Coles was, on the face of it, as proudly English as you get, from tip to toe. He looked and sounded the part. Perhaps it was simply that Coles was a chemist and Haber was a chemist. And Coles was an expert in Haber’s process. But why honor someone who was responsible for the gassing of so many of his countrymen? Maybe Coles choose him because he reckoned a Jewish school trumped his English loyalty. He thought it appropriate because Haber was, at the end of his life, reconciled to his Jewish identity and about to go to live in what would become the Jewish homeland. On the other hand, Romney Coles, unlike some other non-Jewish teachers, showed absolutely no interest in Jewish affairs. Perhaps he didn’t even know that Haber was Jewish.

I have one other serendipitous theory. Lord Sieff was a governor of Carmel College.  Haber, as I said above, donated his library to the Sieff Institute in Israel. Perhaps he was paying the benefactor of Carmel a nod of recognition!

I asked someone who as at Carmel in those days if he knew how the society was named after Haber. He said that he thought a Jewish teacher had given Haber’s name to the society. In which case I wonder if that teacher did his historical homework! It will have to remain a mystery.

12 thoughts on “Fritz Haber

  1. Hi Rooky. I too watched the biography of Einstein on NatGeo. At my Protestant Scottish school, the Alan Glen’s High school of science, our chemistry master revered Haber because he had saved Europe and the rest of the world from starvation with the process to synthesize ammonia.
    Recently I had a tour of the Weitzman Institute and in Weitzman’s study there is a photo of Haber on the desk. The tour guide, a lecturer at the Institute, told us that Haber was a very controversial figure having also invented chemical warfare and his work also formed a basis for the notorious Zyclon B used in the death camps.
    In the 30’s, Haber’s wife committed suicide as she could not bear the thought of her husband being the instigator of something so dreadful.
    Haber’s conscience was subservient to his ego.
    In his case though, the good is not interred with his bones, but the bad has also lived after him.

  2. Fritz Haber’s life is one of the starkest examples of the triumph/tragedy of German Jewry. He and his wife both converted to Christianity. She shot herself with his revolver in 1915 (not the 1930’s) apparently in disgust at his role in gas warfare. His process for fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere to make fertiliser transformed our ability to maximise food production but may be leaving a legacy of polluted soil. He got the Nobel prize for it in 1918, an odd decision having regard to his role in poison gas development – the Committee I suppose bending over backwards not to be beastly to the defeated Germans. His late discovery that he was Jewish after all and desperate attempt to make aliyah is distinctly unappealing. An example of a certain strand of German Jewry’s unrequited love for Germanness – Amos Elon I think has written a good study of the phenomenon (ironically at about the time he had fallen out of love with Zionsim).

    1. Yes Elons book on German Jewry was a really good one. I wonder if Corbyn gets in next time there might not be a similar question of misplaced loyalty in the U.K.! Though of course I am not in any way comparing him to the Nazis!

  3. As someone who was actively involved in the Haber Society in the late fifties, I always assumed Romney Coles, chose this name because of Haber’s Jewish origins. So we all believed Haber was a great man and only later learned about involvement in gas warfare in the first world war.
    The ammonia made by the Haber process was used to make explosives and effectively kept Germany in the first world war after it had lost access to nitrates after losing the battle of The Falkland Islands.
    Ironically a young Jewish chemist greatly helped the British war effort by developing a process for the manufacture of acetone. His name was Chaim Weizmann.

    1. David
      So pleased to hear from you. I don’t know how I managed to miss talking to you in Jerusalem.
      And thanks for the point about Weitzman. I knew he helped the Brit Gov with chemical research but had no idea it was into poison gas. But I believe it was never used, certainly not in the War. I don’t think there was an equivalence but I could be wrong. Do you have any other information? Warmest regards

      1. Jeremy
        Weizmann wasn’t involved in poison gas research. The acetone, for which he developed manufacturing process, was urgently needed by the British government for the manufacture of cordite, an explosive propellant used in most weapons.

        Haber’s involvement with poison gas was mainly using chlorine in the trenches. Zyklon was developed as a pesticide in the twenties. Haber died in 1934 after suffering from the rising anti-Semitism during the Nazi period, in spite of his conversion to Christianity, and clearly would never have believed the it was used in the Shoah

        1. OK understood. Not being a scientist I misunderstood your comment about Weitzman. Much relieved.

  4. Ironic, rather parallels the history of Carmel Einstein said “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.” By the way has anyone read Sapiens and Homo Deus by Noah Harari (of the Hebrew University)? He puts religion where it ought to be as a way of mass control, just as other forms of religion such as Fascism, Nazism and Communism.

  5. I love reading Harary even if I and many experts completely disagree with a lot of his conclusions and implications. Sapiens is worth reading. Deus is disappointing. ButI certainly agree religions need to be criticized, particularly the fundamentalists . It’s just that setting up straw men to demolish is like blaming sex for all the evils of mankind.

  6. Fritz Habers first wife, Dr. Clara Immerwahr – the first woman to achieve a PhD In chemistry of Breslau/Wroclaw University – shot herself ten days after the first gas attack at the Ypern Salient in the Flanders. Her sister – my great-grandmother – committed suicide in 1941 in order to avoid deportation to Theresienstadt and from there to Auschwitz.

    One can say that Fritz Haber is the most tragic Jewish personality of the last century. With his scientific–military efforts he wanted to help the German military to overcome this torment situation by the war of Trenches. His efforts to “remobilize” the front failed. On the contrary ten days later Britain and Italy concluded the London Treatises by which Britain promised Triest and South Tyrol once Italy would step into the war on the side of the Allies.

    Eight years later Fritz Haber tried to alleviate the burden of the Deutschen Reich to pay reparations to the Allies by his attempts to extract gold from the seawater. The Nobel prize winner of 1918 yet miscalculated the content of gold in the seawater.

    His great scientific achievement was the artificial extraction of nytrogen from the air in 1909. Nytrogen is a basic material to produce fertilizer but also ammunition. Of course Haber received the Nobel prize in 1918 for the peaceful or humanitarian use effects of his scientific work. As far as I know two thirds to three quarters of all nytrogen on the earth is based on this artificial extraction.

    As a matter of fact Fritz Haber is supposed to have also invented chemical means to preserve weath and to avoid that weath is quickly rotten. This chemical composition is supposed to be a preliminary means to produce Zyklon B!

    The tragic life and achievements of Fritz Haber remind me a lot of the biblical story of Joseph. With his vision of coming famines Joseph counselled Pharaoh to build storehouses to stock nourishment to use later on demand because of decreased crops. Thus Joseph helped the Egyptians to survive. Some generations later the Egyptians oppressed the Jews and according to the legend even wanted to annihilate them.

    The parallel to Fritz Haber’s work an life is evident.

    Ten years later, when the Nazis kicked out all his fellow scientists of Jewish stock he resigned as head of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Physik in Berlin-Dahlem. He died on his way to Palestine in Basel in January 1934. A City in Switzerland of which Theodor Herzl had said prior to his death: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State”.

    Thus until today the most nationalistic German Jew is buried in that city of crucial importance to Zionism, together with the ashes of his first wife, since Haber altered his last will and ordered that he would be buried with her. To top the irony of history one must know that Fritz Haber’s mother in law – my great great grandmother had the maiden name Anna Krohn and was a cousin of the wife of Moses Benedikt. Moses Benedikt was the editor of the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna und thus employer of Theodor Herzl.

    As a young girl my grandmother lived with the Habers in Karlsruhe for four years. This is the reason why we do have a more intimate insight of this couple of scientists.

    Leopold v. Saint-George

    1. Thank you very much for enlarging on Fritz Haber’s life and giving us a personal connection. Altogether a tragic and emblematic example of the cultural, religious and political challenges the Jews of Europe faced and the much wider issue of the moral challenges brilliant scientists often had to face. As the saying goes, one should not judge until one has walked in another person’s shoes.

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