The sad, dark tragedy of Fritz Haber

Take blood from kith and kin
and add nitrogen, chlorine and gold
and you’ll have all the elements
of a wicked good story, tears included.

Lift up, fall down, cut and combine,
put the pressure on and never let up;
push for this, grasp for that
angle to be arrived at,
to be more than just ‘me’, a ‘him.’
As for the rest,
dulce est decorum est
the darkest of the darksome roads.

He thought it was about knowledge,
I can hear him now:
Only Eden matters, it’s where I am going
and taking me and mine—
just there, just now, just watch me, see?
I made it, me alone, I made it…that’s me!
That’s him.

This poem was written in response to the tragic and horrific Fritz Haber story, told in brief below. It deals with the consequences of being willing to pay any price for knowledge and for personal advancement and recognition. True in the Book of Genesis, true in Faustus, it is still true today.

Dulce est decorum est pro patria mori (DOOL-kay eh de-KORum eh pro PAtree-ah Mor-ee) is Latin and means, it is sweet and right to die for one’s country; they are the opening lines of an ode by Horace. Widely quoted in Britain in the run-up to, and during, World War 1 (and with derision thereafter) Dulce est Decorum Est, which deals with the utter horror of chemical warfare, is a brilliant and moving poem by Wilfred Owen, a young British poet who experienced it first hand and sadly, did not survive through to the Armistice.

The Sad, Dark Tragedy of Fritz Haber

At the beginning of the 20th century, the world was in a quandary: where would it get the food to feed its exploding population? Plant cell walls need nitrogen to grow, but there just wasn’t a sufficient natural supply of the element available. Haber, a German physicist, developed a process to synthesize nitrogen from the air, where it is abundant, by using a high pressure containment vessel. The product, ammonia, in turn went on to be the base for both the agricultural fertilizer business and the manufacture of explosives.

It is fair to say that at least half, and perhaps up to 70%, of the current world’s population could not be fed without this process for the production of artificial fertilizer. One hundred percent of all ammunition gunpowder also uses it. For this work, Haber was awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1918.

Both Fritz Haber and his wife, Clara, were Jewish-German and born in what is now Poland. They converted to Lutherism early in their careers (Clara was also a physicist and one of the first women to be awarded a PhD in Germany) to open up academic opportunities. For his work, and despite his rather nondescript personality, poor social connectivity and religious background, Haber was appointed the head of a prestigious research institute.

It was the advent of World War 1 (1914-1918) that turns the Fritz Haber story so dark. Passionately patriotic and wanting to grow into his new social status, Haber convinced the German High Command—in contravention of the Hague Convention of 1907, to which Germany was a signatory—to implement chemical warfare. He not only developed the chlorine gas used in the first chemical warfare attack at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, but personally played a role in its release. Caught unawares, six thousand Allied troops died a horrible, sickening death and opened a series of tit-for-tat chemical attacks and counter attacks (for the Allies quickly retaliated in kind) that saw tens of thousands on both sides die horribly.

For this act, Haber was personally awarded the rank of captain by the Kaiser, a rare honor for an aging, non-military academic. However, returning home for a day of rest, Haber had an argument over his actions with his wife Clara, who accused him of losing all moral credibility. Late that night, in grief over his actions, she committed suicide with his new service revolver. She was found the next day by their only child, Hermann, a 13 year old boy. Hermann would later immigrate to the United States and would himself, in 1946, also commit suicide over the shame of his father’s chemical warfare work. Unrepentant, and despite his wife’s suicide, Haber left that same day for the Eastern front, there to again participate in a test chemical attack on Russian troops.

If only the story ended there, but it doesn’t. Haber returned to work after the war, and in an attempt to quickly re-pay the humiliating German reparations demanded by the Allies, worked on a process to purify gold from seawater, a scheme which was held out with great hope at the time but which was eventually proven to be a total failure. Later, in protest over the firing of Jewish academics under his patronage, and also because of his own own heritage, Haber was forced out of his academic position and leadership by the Nazis. Haber left his homeland and immigrated to England, where, owing to his background in chemical warfare development, he received a cold reception. He died in 1934 of a heart attack in a Basel, Switzerland hotel while en route to taking up a teaching post in Israel.

It was after this that the final chapter of Haber’s full legacy played out. In the 1920s, at his research institute and under his direction, his team had developed Zyklon A, a cyanide (chlorine plus nitrogen compound) gas pesticide used as a fumigant. Years later, and because of its high toxicity, the Nazis requested that this gas be reformulated to remove its artificial, warning smell. It was, and Zyklon B went on to precipitate the Holocaust as the gas used in the concentration camps and was, in the end, responsible for the death of millions of people, mostly Jews, but also Slavs, Gypsies and some political dissidents. Many of Haber’s relatives from his home region, and certainly many of his friends, were part of the roundup and sent to the camps.

All because what Haber really wanted, I suspect, was to be accepted.

Thank you for reading The sad, dark tragedy of Fritz Haber. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge,


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12 responses to “The sad, dark tragedy of Fritz Haber

  1. Glynis

    It’s amazing how much I don’t know. This was very informative and strange. How is it a man can set out to do something right and good, yet have it all come down on him. Thank you for sharing and dropping some knowledge on me today.

  2. John, you will find a public thanks, my heart to yours, in my latest post BEREFT.

    And I thought you would not mind a look at these two while at it:

    I never forget a kindness.

    • Diana, I adored the two articles immensely, of course, but I was blown away by your poem in Bereft. It is exquisite and I do very much hope that you will continue and write more poetry. We will be in a loss without it. You are very kind to point to my encouragement, but really, the quality of your work is it own reward to see.

  3. This poem is brilliant! I love it.

    • Victor, that is very kind of you. I am glad that you had the courage to plow your way through the long story and the other poetic reference to make sense out of the poem. Thank you again!

  4. The paradox of “Like” and … (what?) …. The truth can be horrific and humbling, and disruptive, and yet … all the while … enlightening, in a painful and redemptive way. Thank you for your courage in approaching the ugly truth … and bringing it to a confused and addicted world. By the way I read the post after this, and the comments were closed. Ian Hamilton’s poem is quite powerful. I want to hit the references you listed so that I can read his poem. Bro, I like your writing. Peace. T

    • Daniel, thank you so much. You are being kinder than I probably deserve, but, again, thank you. The Haber story is a hard one to get one’s head around…that is why it demanded a poem, I think. As to the comments for the Ian Hamilton poem…I am not sure what is happening there. I’ll try to figure it out.

  5. Lyn Tolar

    Thoughtful and provocative.

    • Thank you, dear! I am just so grateful that so many people took the time to read the lengthy story and attached poem! Something shorter next time, I promise!