The man we’ll talk about today is the most brilliant chemist of the 20th century

He’s a dreadful son of a b*tch.

He saved more people than anyone before him.

He’s guilty of war crimes, of crimes against humanity

he’s a mass murderer.

Brilliant !

An asshole !

A genius !

It won’t be easy.

Today’s individual is the living proof

– well now he’s dead, but when he was alive –

that, in science, moral is a matter that can be sometimes …

Fritz Jacob Haber was born in 1868 at Breslau, which at the time was

in Prussia, but which 3 years later will be German,

due to the Unification of Germany.

He was born in a jewish family, not a very practicing one.

when you’re someone living the first decades

of 20th century in germany as a jew, it’s important.

His father, Siegfried, is an natural indigo

importer, and a dye seller.

which is a flourishing business at the time,

mostly since the Unification.

As for his mother, she died few weeks after his birth.

I’m not saying that there’s a link !

Hm ?!

A lot of people grew up without their mother, and they turned out just fine.

… but that was not his case …

at all !

Near the end of the 19th century, Germany developed a gigantic

chemical industry, mainly based on its coal supplies.

You must understand that, at that time, industries

and universities are perfectly connected and combined.

When the industry discover a new compound,

it is immediatly sent to universities, to be studied and analyzed.

And it also goes the other way around: when the universities find something

it becomes a patent for the industries.

In short : Germany, end of the 19th century,

lots of scientists !

Lots and lots of scientists !

At that time, there was 11 times more scientists in Germany than in France.

In his youth, Fritz Haber studied chemistry and earned

a PhD in organic chemistry in 1891, when he was 23.

He then abandonned Judaism and become a Lutheran,

which, from a careerist point of view, is not a fool move

because, for Jewish people, a lot of doors were closed

and, also, he didn’t give a sh*t about his religion.

He didn’t care at all.

By the way, a very important fact to know about him

is that he was educated in the greatest respect of german values

and that he was more patriotic than any other german.

And yes, I’ve said « any other german ».

In 1901, he married Clara Immerwahr who also was a converted Jew

and who also had a PhD in chemistry,

that was very rare for a woman back then.

At the same time, in 1898, sir William Crookes, president of

the British Association for Advancement of Science,

announced something terrible

world’s population, which was approximately of 1.5 billion,

exceeded the Earth’s food producing capacities by far.

He anticipates that, before 1931, famine and war on a world scale would

the only way to rebalance the world.


For him, the only solution would be to find a way to synthesize

nitrogen fertilizer, so nitrates, from ammonia

by extracting nitrogen directly from air.

Because atmospheric air is made of 80% of nitrogen.

Precisely, it’s nitrous oxyde, and that’s precisely the problem

because nitrous oxyde is a molecule with 3 covalent bonds,

and so it’s a very, very stable molecule.

But that’s not what people were worried about back then:

following the early 1900s’ crisis,

— Tangier crisis in 1905 and Agadir crisis in 1911 —

the whole Europe feared an upcoming war and, thus,

they did exactly what a reasonable person would do in that case:

arms race !

And as a matter of fact, explosives which were used to detonate gun powder

and well… to blow stuffs up,

those explosives needed considerable amount of nitrates

of which we didn’t have enough to simply feed people.

And, the leading country producer of nitrates was Chile, in Latin America.

So, to allow Germany to become independant, in nitrates’ production,

the very patriotic Fritz Haber decided to work on the synthesis of nitrates;

which would allow Germany to have

as many explosives as they want, even in case of embargo.

After the occupation of Veracruz in 1914, an act that will mark the entry of the USA into the WW2,

it’s impossible for any european country

to approach Latin America. Fritz had quite an intuition !

But Fritz didn’t care about all this, because in 1909,

he succeeded in fixing nitrogen from air to make ammonia.

In 1913, he developped with Carl Bosch the ammonia synthesis process

Process that is still today considered as one of the greatest
scientific and technical advances of the 20th century.


And so, the patriotic Haber was happy, because

Germany could make as many explosives as it wanted to.


It turned out that this ammonia synthesis process also allowed us

to manufacture fertilisers, thus saving the humanity from a foretold world hunger.

So, he saved the whole humanity.

Nothing less.

Haber will also received the Nobel Prize in 1919 for the year 1918,
Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the advancing of his works for « the well-being of humanity »

And it won’t go without trouble because Haber is nothing but a war criminal.

In 1911, Fritz Haber became director of the

Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry

Despite the seemingly obvious clarity of the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907
which prohibited clearly and definitely the use of toxic

and asphyxiating gas and poisons in war,

Haber thought it would still be a good idea

to conduct research on poison gas.

Just so you know, at that time, French were already conducting researches on tear gas,

so, he thought that there were no reason for him to bother.

That, if it’s good for them, then it’s good for them. Well, the other « them ».

But Haber was frustrated, because ethyl bromoacetate,

( tear gas ), was not very efficient.

I mean, ok, it’s irritating, it made people cry, but

with only a few wind, it dissipates.

It’s very versatile, it’s inconvenient for some hours

it can be more or less violent, but …

there’s nothing to cry about ! Ha ha !

Nope, he thought that chlorine would be much more efficient. Yup !

First, chlorine is heavier than air, so it would

tend to stick into the trenches,

Hell of a nasty thing, this one.

Second, chlorine makes more than just making people cry.

I mean, i can liquefy mucosae, the eyes, mouth, lungs, etc.

People who breathe it can litteraly

be drown to death into their liquefying tissues…

It’s disgusting !

At that time, Fritz Haber is given the rank of

captain by direct order coming directly from the Kaiser,

to supervise the first major gas attacks

How proud he was !

and, maybe he thought that

if the attacks were searing, the war wouldn’t last long.

He’s still a big assh*le… Still…

On April the 22th, 1915, 168 tons of chlorine were deployed north to Ypres,

in Belgium, under the supervising of captain Haber, who waited there

who waited there for a wind blowing from the east,

not too strongly, not too weakly, they open the valves

of all the gas cylinders they brought and …

a little green cloud — well « little cloud » .. a big cloud of green gas —

moved towards the ennemy trenches — which are in fact our allies trenches —

I mean they’re the good guys’ trenches.

Results : 5.000 deaths, 15.000 woundeds, it went extremely fast.

It was in fact so terrifying that, at one moment,

Germans opened a 7 km wide breach

in their enemies’ lines, so our allies,

and they decided NOT to use their advantage. They didn’t want to come too close.
They’re wary, and afraid … really !

It scared the sh*t out of them !

Of course, Allies considered it a blatant violation

of international laws regarding chemical weaponry

but the Germans replied that those laws

only applied to shells containing toxic gas

and not to gas cylinders with a common valve easily opened, so everything’s fine.

* applause *

What’s the quote ? « Morons dare everything ! Actually, that’s how you know they’re morons. »

Right after this battle, Haber returned home, all wrapped in himself,

inflated with pride, and his wife tried hard to convince him, urging him to stop

– « Listen to me : we’re both scientists

we can’t do that, it’s not good.

We must work on helping humanity, not on destroying the world, ja ? »

– « Nein ! »

There were no way to convince him

What happened at that very moment, is that Clara Immerwahr,

Fritz Haber’s wife, « shot herself » and « committed suicide ».

I’m using quotation marks, because there is a lot of

unclear aspects of Clara Immerwahr death,

there was no autopsy, no real investigation,

and another clue is that, after her death,

Fritz Haber was in shock, and changed all of a sudden,

he suddenly had an epiphany and said : « My goodness, what have i done ? »

Nah, i’m kidding.

Quite the opposite : the next day, he went to the Eastern front to supervise another gas attack on a large scale.

(Can you see now what kind of a great guy Fritz Haber was ?)

Meanwhile of course, Haber, in his Institute,

continued his researches, to enhance his processes.

Notably, he defined the exposure time and

the product concentration a gas needed to kill a man.

Yup, and it’s named « the Haber’s Constant », still in use today, yes.

And, of course, he developped other gases way more efficient that this chlorine, which …

Pfff, was ridiculous !

In particular phosgene and yperite.

— Yperite is named yperite based on the Ypres battle

such poetry in those hearts —

Yperite is also known as « mustard gas », which is a f*cking nasty thing.

One of the characteristics of this mustard gas was that, in addition to being

heavier than the other gases — so it could stick harder into trenches —

a simple skin contact was enough to make dreadful damages.

Until then, the enemies had gas masks,

* Are you my mummy ? *

and at that point they needed full HazMat equipment, from head to toes.

Ah !

In short, as i said, Haber was a war criminal who was never prosecuted

and who received, in 1919, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the year 1918.

But let’s stay serious a while, because

it’s not that easy to judge : today, the Haber-Bosch process

feeds more than 2 billion people on Earth.

It’s not nothing !
It’s a lot, really !

He was not prosecuted for his use of chemical weapons,

because England, during the year 1919, used
mustard gas in the face of Afghans

just like Spain did in Morocco in 1923.

So, people didn’t really want to draw attention on this subject :

and even more, many countries wanted Fritz Haber,
and asked him to build chemical weapons factories for them

like, for instance, Russia did.

But he always said « no », because he was a patriot.

And, for him, it was « Deutschland first »

— I don’t know how to say « first » in german

so I know I look silly now, but … —

There it is.


After World War I, Germany was sentenced

to pay, alone, the repairing of all war damage
caused by the war — and there was a lot of damage

an awful lot of damages during this war —

But Fritz Haber did not give up

and thought that he alone could find a way

to help Germany pay everything

by extracting gold … from oceans !

* Under the sea ! Under the sea ! *
Because, yes, there is gold in the oceans,

but only a very very very small amount

I mean : that’s impossible. That’s absurd !

Anyway, he boarded on an experimental ship,

and departed for an expedition lasting years.

— Years, literally, like 4 or 5 —

It costed a tremendous amount of money, and he came back
with empty hands : it didn’t work at all.

Nice try though !

Of course, Nazism eventually arose in Germany,

and with it came the ‘brain drain’.
Scientists ran away. Not all of them, but a lot of them.

And in particularly, Jews, of course.

But Haber didn’t. Nope ! He stayed !

For example, when Hitler got in power

Einstein was living in the USA, and Haber in France.

So, Einstein said how much no one should go back in Germany

because it was dangerous, and he said everything he had to say about the nazis

and for Haber, he simply came back in Germany, to work.

A real patriot.

One moment please … What a f*cking assh*ole !

Right after the Reichstag fire in 1933, Hitler started a gigantic repression

against communists, socialists, democrats,

unionists, gays, gipsies and jews.

At that point, all people from these communities had to quit their job

if working in public service.

And, if they refused to do so, they were simply fired

exception made for war veterans.

So, captain Fritz Haber and one of his friends,

named James Franck, were not forced to do so

and could keep working.

But, they were forced to fire every subordinate that could have been jewish.
This is too much for Franck, who resigned his job,

approximately in April at the time.

He quited, and resigned immediatly.

Then he corresponded a little with Fritz Haber

trying to convince him that this was not right, etc.

He eventually convinced him
in October: Fritz Haber resigned his job and left Germany.

He then tried to go to Cambridge for a few months

but he wouldn’t like it at all, so he went to Basel

where he died the year after.

And that’s the end of Fritz Jacob Haber.

But History loves Irony, and there’s more !

At one time, Fritz Haber worked on pesticides

No ! Not to kill people, not make people melt or explode.

Nope, goold old pesticides !

To increase agriculture production, simply !
To get rid of all the critters crawling on the plantations

with no reason.

So, he developped a liquid, somewhat volatil, that stinks like hell
which worked really well. And when it was spread

on plants, all the bugs and critters, well … they died.

It’s a very efficient liquid, stinking enough

to warn any human that there’s danger;

so a very good thing, efficient and all…

The concentration level was very weak,

so the name was given the letter « A »

Because the name is given depending of the toxicity level of a chemical

going from A to F. This one was labelled « A », so light.

Few years later, Nazis would got rid of the smell

and increased the concentration level

changing its name from « A » to « B » and thus creating

a gas that will be responsible for more than 6 million deaths

of men, women and children, some of whom

were related to Haber himself

The lesson to be learned, if there’s any, can be quoted from Hamlet :

« There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so »

and science is in no way bringer of intent.

With the best will in the world, one can commit atrocities

and, with the most dreadful thoughts, one can save humanity.

So I’m not going to tell you what to think about Fritz Haber

but until then, keep being curious

and take some time to e-penser (e-think)

[ Nitrates are today the first cause for ocean pollution ]
[ I told you: History loves Irony ] Subtitles : Soumaya LAFQIR
Translation : Cyril
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