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January 29: The Scientist of Poison Gas

Lawrence Bush
January 29, 2017
Fritz Haber, a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in his field in 1918 for inventing a method for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gas, enabling the large-scale creation of fertilizers and explosives, died at 65 in Basel, an exile from Nazism, on this date in 1934. Like many German Jews, Haber converted to Christianity as part of his quest for advancement and social acceptance. Among Haber’s “accomplishments” was playing a major role in the development of the chemical weapons in World War I, in violation of the Hague Convention of 1907; he led the German teams that developed chlorine gas and other poisons used in the grotesque trench warfare. He also helped to develop gas masks that could protect soldiers from his inventions. After the war, scientists working in Haber’s institute developed the cyanide gas Zyklon A, a predecessor to Zyklon B, which would be used to gas Jews during the Holocaust. Haber’s inventions ultimately fed millions through improved farming, and killed millions through intensified warfare. “[B]ut for the invention of Professor Haber the Germans could not have continued the war after their original stack of nitrates was exhausted. The invention of this single man has enabled them, utilizing the interval in which their accumulations were used up, not only to maintain an almost unlimited supply of explosives for all purposes, but to provide amply for the needs of agriculture in chemical manures. It is a remarkable fact, and shows on what obscure and accidental incidents the fortunes of possible the whole world may turn in these days of scientific discovery.” --Winston Churchill

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.