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Excerpt from the book's Prologue


Nitrogen, pillar of life

Science and war

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From the Prologue:

It's possible to walk in Fritz Haber's footsteps without knowing it, for the trail is rarely marked. Twenty five years ago, as a teenager, I wandered occasionally through the courtyards of the university in Karlsruhe, Germany, where Fritz Haber first achieved fame. No statue marked his accomplishments. A few times, I rode streetcars past the hotel in Basle, Switzerland, where he died. There, too, one finds no marker.

In 1989, a month after Berlin's wall crumbled, I spent a few weeks in a disappearing country called East Germany, writing about the country's various environmental disasters. I ended up standing in the darkness on a hill near the town of Leuna, staring at distant flames that consumed exhaust gas from a chemical plant that stretched for miles across the landscape. I had no idea that this factory, the Leuna-Werke, was the fruit of Haber's labors; that it had been Germany's primary source of both munitions and fertilizer during World War I.

Eight years later, I visited the institute in Berlin that once was Fritz Haber's fiefdom. Since 1952, it has borne his name: The Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society. I never asked who Fritz Haber was while I was there, and no one bothered to tell me. The name is mildly controversial at the institute; occasionally someone suggests that it be changed.

In the fall of 2001, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks waved Fritz Haber's name in front of me with a passion that I could not ignore. Sacks was promoting Uncle Tungsten, a book about his boyhood love of chemistry. This innocent and cheerful book arrived in bookstores during a dark and fearful time, immediately after the attacks of September 11 and the mysterious release of deadly anthrax spores in Florida, New York, and Washington, DC. Naturally, an interviewer at National Public Radio asked Sacks about the ominous side of science, its power to kill and terrify. And Sacks started talking about Fritz Haber, a man who embodied the capacity of science to nourish life and destroy it.

Intrigued, I began to trace the path of Haber's life. At every turn, it led to places that were already familiar, from Karlsruhe to Berlin. And I soon realized that legacy of this forgotten scientist was present in every day's newspaper headlines and in every bite of food.

Actually, Fritz Haber's name wasn't so much forgotten as it was driven from view. Haber died homeless in 1934, an exile from the Nazis, his name suppressed in his homeland. Later generations, both in Germany and abroad, preferred to ignore his memory.

The reason, I suspect, is that he fits no convenient category. Haber was both hero and villain; a Jew who was also a German patriot; a victim of the Nazis who was accused of war crimes himself. Unwilling to admire him, unable to condemn him, most people found it easier to look away.

Yet while Haber's name disappeared from view, the shadow of his work continued to grow. Haber was the patron saint of guns and butter. He was a founder of the military-industrial complex and the inventor of the chemistry through which the world now feeds itself.


In any recounting of Fritz Haber's life, the Holocaust stands in the shadows, just out of sight. We know what's coming, but Fritz Haber doesn't.

With our gift of hindsight, many of Fritz Haber's passions and choices - especially his devotion to Germany - seem foolish and shortsighted. One aspect of his work seems downright macabre.

During the years immediately following World War I, Haber oversaw the research that led to the insecticide called Zyklon, then its successor, Zyklon B. A decade after his death, the SS ordered tons of that poison for the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Among those who died in those gas chamber were Haber's own relatives.

Despite all that, it's worth repeating the obvious: During the years when Fritz Haber climbed toward fame and fortune, the Holocaust was still unimaginable, and it was not inevitable. Haber's Germany was a nation with the same potential for good and evil as any other, unburdened by any particular load of guilt. He lived in an era of globalization, imperial rivalries, and breathtaking technological change. His life takes place, in other words, within surroundings that look surprisingly familiar to a 21st century reader. And the moral choices that he confronted during his life were not so different from those that we face today.

Haber lived the life of a modern Faust, willing to serve any master who could further his passion for knowledge and progress. He was not an evil man. His defining traits - loyalty, intelligence, generosity, industry, and creativity - are as prized today as they were during his lifetime. His goals were conventional ones: To solve problems, prosper, and serve his country. And this is what makes his story tragic, for those goals, however familiar and defensible, led down twisting paths toward destruction.