Review: The Chemist of Life and Death

Scientist whose assimilation experiment went badly wrong.

By Simon Round, April 14, 2011

BBC Radio 4

Fritz Haber: German patriot

Fritz Haber: German patriot

If ever there was a convincing argument for the licence fee, it is programmes like this. Very few commercial broadcasters use their resources to make documentaries about industrial chemists who died nearly 80 years ago. And yet The Chemist of Life and Death, which told the story Fritz Haber, not only documented the life of a man who has is considered to be one of the most significant scientists of the 20th century, it was also a life so compelling and dramatic, one wonders why it has never been made into a feature film.

Haber, born in 19th century Breslau, was desperate to be accepted by Germany despite his Jewishness. In fact, he saw his faith as such an obstacle to his progress that he converted to Christianity.

As a trained chemist he won the race to synthesise ammonia for use as fertiliser, a process that enabled Europe to grow crops quickly enough to feed its rapidly increasing population. For this breakthrough he was later awarded the Nobel Prize.

However, there was a darker side to Haber's work. As a patriot he dedicated himself to helping the German war effort in 1914. This took the form of chlorine gas which he developed into a weapon of mass destruction used to devastating effect against Allied forces in France the following year.

It proved the turning point in his life. His wife, Clara, also a trained chemist, was so horrified by her husband's work that even as Haber was being lauded by the Kaiser himself for his actions, she shot and killed herself. Haber's reaction was to throw himself into his work - he left for the eastern front the following day, but privately he was tormented by Clara's death.

His travails did not end there. Come the end of the war he dedicated himself to Germany's reconstruction. Indeed, he went as far as attempting alchemy - trying to extract gold from sea water to pay Germany's national debt. He also formulated pesticide gases which, with the ultimate irony, were developed into the Zyklon process, used to kill millions of Jews by Hitler, including many of Haber's own family.

But Hitler did not claim Haber's life directly. Racial laws meant that he was removed from his university post in 1933 and, his dream of acceptance by Germany in tatters, he was forced to write to universities in Britain begging for work. He moved to Cambridge but several months later, perhaps affected by his humiliation, he died from a massive heart attack.

The documentary, amde by Chris Bowlby, told the story beautifully, explaining the mixture of ambition, patriotism and angst which projected Haber to greatness but also tainted his legacy. As his great friend Albert Einstein wrote: "Haber's' life was the tragedy of the German Jew; the tragedy of unrequited love."

Last updated: 12:03pm, April 14 2011