A lethal humanitarian


When we assess historical people, we usually ask “Was he a good guy or a bad guy?” Sometimes the answer is clear. Stalin was a bad guy and George Washington was a good guy. That doesn’t mean that everything anyone does is completely bad or good, but with most historical figures, one side is pretty clearly predominant.
So how do we classify Fritz Haber?

You’ve probably never heard of Fritz Haber, but few people had such a profound influence on the 20th century. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well, here’s the story.

Fritz Haber was a German Jew who had converted to being a Lutheran. He was also a brilliant chemist. Around 1900, Haber was able to find a way to combine Nitrogen into a compound that became the world’s first chemical fertilizer. If you think wasn’t a big deal, consider the fact that up until this discovery, farmers used manure and compost. Haber’s discovery led to a huge leap in farm productivity and saved countless people from starvation. It was a great boon to humanity. So Fritz Haber is a good guy…right?
Not so fast.

When the first world war came along, Haber, ever the good German, went to work developing poison gas for trench warfare, including the horrible Mustard Gas and the hellish Chlorine gas that left thousands dead, blinded, or coughing up chunks of their lungs. His wife begged him to stop his poison gas research, and when he didn’t, she killed herself. So is Haber a good guy or a bad guy? Well, maybe here’s a tiebreaker.

After the war, Haber received a Nobel prize for his fertilized discovery, but was called a war criminal for his poison gas work a year later. He continued working in chemical research. One of the products he developed was an insecticide called Zyklon A. But by this time, the Nazis were in power and started to look suspiciously at Haber because of his Jewish background. Haber fled the country, leaving Zyklon A behind. Others refined Zyklon A and called it Zyklon B, which the Nazis used to kill concentration camp inmates, including some who were no doubt related to Fritz Haber.

So was Fritz Haber a good guy or a bad guy? Sometimes a person is a bit of both.

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