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Book Review Conflicts of Conscience Fritz HaberЧChemiker Nobelpreistrger Deutscher Jude. By D

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BOOKS
Conflicts of Conscience
Fritz Haber --Chemiker,
Nobelpreistrager, Deutscher, Jude. By D.
Stolrxnhrrg. VCH Verlagsgesellschaft, Weinheim, 1994. XIV, 669 pp.,
93 figures, 8 tables, hardcover DM
98.00. -ISBN 3-521-29206-3
Dietrich Stoltzenberg’s new book is the
first substantial and truly comprehensive
biography of Fritz
Haber (1868 1934)
ever
published -~
sixty years after
Haber’s death and
at a time when German literature is the
forum for a lively
debate about the
subject.
The author of his
biography is himself a chemist. as well as a son of the industrialist Hugo Stoltzenberg (one of Haber’s
co-workers as early as the gas-warfare
days of World War I) and the chemist
Margarethe Stoltzenberg-Bergius (a sister
of F. Bergius. developer of the coal-hydrogenation process and onetime assistant to
Haber). Stolt7enberg has therefore been
familiar with Haber and his career since
childhood. ;I genuine stroke of luck for
this particular biographer of the Nobel
laureate. The resulting account of Fritz
Haber’s career is as well-informed, engaging. and authoritative as one would expect. and i t offers a balanced and fair examination of every stage of the subject’s
life. Despite his obvious empathy with
Haber the man. Stoltzenberg is not uncritical. and he is certainly not deferential -a
temptation to which many biographers
unfortunately succumb. Nevertheless.
~
Thih scction contains hook reviews and a list of
new book3 receibed by theeditor. Book reviews are
written by invit‘ition from the editor. Suggestions
for hook\ t o he reviewjed a n d for hook reviewers
w e uclcoine Puhlishcrs should send brochures or
(better) hook.; 10 Dr. Ralf Baumann. Redaktion
Anpcwnndle Chcmie. Postfach 10 11 61. D-69451
Weinheini. Federal Republic of Germany. The editor reserves thc right o f selecting which hooks will
he reviewed Uninvited hooks not chosen for
I % Y I C W will i i o t he returned.
Stoltzenberg often introduces his criticism
in subtle ways and between the lines. The
overall treatment is to the point, albeit occasionally very detailed.
Haber’s career is examined very thoroughly and documented by many new
sources, with appropriate attention to his
origins in a Jewish family. his early
schooling and education at a number of
universities. and his doctoral work in the
field of organic chemistry. Haber undertook several years of academic and practical apprenticeship followed by internships
in various industries before finally presenting a habilitation thesis in physical
chemistry to the University of Karlsruhe
(1896). A 17-year sojourn in Karlsruhe,
rightfully characterized by Stoltzenberg
as Haber’s “personal and scientific climax,” earned for him a reputation as an
outstanding electrochemist, and it led to
the creation of a chair in physical chemistry equipped with all the facilities necessary for industrially oriented research.
The Karlsruhe years also witnessed the
solution to the nitrogen-fixation problem,
ensuring the availability for the first time
of an adequate supply of nitrogenous fertilizers for agriculture through Haber’s
epochal development of an ammonia synthesis based on the catalytic hydrogenation of nitrogen. This was the famous
Haber process. later known as the HaberBosch process, for which a Nobel Prize
was awarded in 1918. The ammonia work
necessarily entailed close and fruitful collaboration with chemical industry, an involvement which together with the Janusfaced character of ammonia itself (a
starting material not only for fertilizers
but also explosives) and Haber’s own intellectual propensities (C. Engler described him in a letter to BASF as “a
sharp and adroit dialectician”) laid the
groundwork for points of friction that
certain contemporary critics and their
present-day apologists subsequently
transformed into major stumbling blocks.
In 1911 Haber became director of the
newly created Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem. The Institute personnel were later merged with staff from
the War Ministry, after which Haber occupied various official positions within
the Ministry itself. eventually becoming
director of the Chemical Division
(“Haber’s Office”)- and thereby the “instigator of chemical warfrire.” His tireless
and ultimately self-destructive efforts in
this capacity led to the systematic development and subsequent battlefield deployment of poison gas, which was to become another stumbling block for Haber
and a major source of the controversy that
continues to surround him. After World
War I he occupied himself with various
chemical projects (including attempts to
exploit the gold reserves in sea water) and
miscellaneous contributions to scientific
policy and the support of scientific research. On April 30, 1933. at the age of 64.
he submitted his formal resignation. expressed in the most emphatic of terms
both verbally and in writing one month
after the government organized its first
boycott and enacted the first of the laws
directed against the Jews. Haber died in
1934.
Based on Haber’s curriculum vitae
alone it is difficult to understand the intensity of the dissonant debate over guilt
and entanglement provoked by his career.
or to explain the current renaissance of
the controversy, but the extent of the polarization itself is readily demonstrated.
“Haber was more than a great leader of
science-he was a great man. His rich. full
life, the institutions he made. his service to
his country. even his failures -all were on
the grand scale.” These noble words were
delivered by J. E. Coates on the occasion
of the 1937 Haber Memorial Lecture ( J .
C‘lzcm. Soc., 1939). Coates was a student
of Haber’s, but he was also an Englishman. and the sentiments quoted above
were expressed on the eve of yet another
war. How different they are from the
charges of Haber’s critics (often nonchemists), typical exponents of “the modern interpretation of history” and “flagbearers of enlightenment” who reinterpret
lives lived in the past “from the perspective of the present,” or even “in the spirit
of a modern approach to life.” Here the
talk Is all of “scandal.” with Haber’s life
portrayed and interpreted in a temporal
context devoid of all trace of understanding. even understanding with respect to
Haber’s unique aberrations, which are
said to “cast a deep shadow over his life
and work” (Stoltzenberg).
What purpose d o such comments serve,
and what d o they add to the discussion
concerning Fritz Haber, a discussion in
which we are still engaged 60 years after
his death? Fritz Haber was not simply a
highly respected chemist; he was also a
divided and torn human being whose
legacy to mankind includes both an ingenious procedure for synthesizing ammonia and the “Haber product,” W = c x t ,
intended for use as a standard in assessing
the lethal power of chemical weapons.
The study of Haber’s life and character
anticipates in an exemplary way the
broader debate over guilt and entanglement as it applies to scientists generally,
including the progenitors of the atomic
and hydrogen bombs: Otto Hahn, Robert
J. Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller.
Haber serves as an especially attractive
case-study for ideologues, because
through him they purport to be able to
construct the continuous and calamitous
sequence: Haber = criminal = chemical
industry = industry in general =capitalism = evil = antisocial.
Several biographies, including Stoltzenberg’s, make explicit reference to one particular saying attributed to Haber: “im
Frieden fur die Menschen, im Krieg fur
das Vaterland” (“in peacetime for
mankind, in war for the Fatherland”),
words that are no more but at the same
time no less valid or repulsive than the
British “Right or wrong: my country.”
Limitations that may also have been implicit in the sentiments so expressed once a topic of national debate that has
since turned global-no longer lend themselves to accurate reconstruction. but fairness demands that the remark at least be
viewed against the background of the
times. Haber was a converted Jew; at various stages in his life he was subjected to
all the misgivings Jewishiiess evoked in
Germany even during the reign of the
Kaisers. Like many others he attempted
to confront prejudice with extraordinary
personal deeds coupled with an ardent
display of “Germanness,” perhaps even
with a rash and precipitous form of patriotism. This problematic situation was a
matter of some discussion subsequent to
291 8 in connection with responsibility for
the Great War. Haber believed there had
been solid grounds for introducing poison
gas into the fighting. especially on the
German side. He never denied or repudiated this stance, and he accepted full responsibility for it. Stoltzenberg thoroughly explores this important facet of Haber’s
understanding of the very personal meaning of Germanness.
Stoltzenberg’s biography also conveys~--as far as possible 60 years after the
protagonist’s death--a sense of Haber’s
fate as that of an understanding, sensitive,
and at the same time tragic individual:
tragic in terms of his association with
weapons that have since been outlawed
and problems peculiar to the intersection
of science with politics; tragic also in the
personal sphere, with two unhappy marriages, the first of which ended in his
wife’s suicide, and the experience of being
hounded out of office just six months
short of retirement. Today we can only
speculate about the extent to which all of
this led to a guilt complex evolving gradually and through psychosomatic processes
into a state of autostress, which perhaps
culminated in his precarious state of
health and early death.
But why is there so much posthumous
hate, or at best such posthumous lack of
understanding? Ideologues and others
not given to reflection find it child’s play
to label Fritz Haber posthumously as a
criminal, because by present-day standards he did assume a tremendous burden
of personal guilt; besides, he is no longer
able to defend himself. The fact that he
was also a scientist---indeed. an outstanding scientist: a Nobel laureate- -makes
Haber a particularly valuable commodity
for ideologues; they can attack Fritz
Haber the personally vulnerable individual, and then transform him into a symbol
for science, industry, and capitalism generally. For champions of a simplistic point
of view the conclusion is perfectly
straightforward: anyone not opposed to
Haber and gas warfare and the synthesis
of ammonia must automatically be an enemy of socialism and peace-ergo, a vile
human being.
Another phenomenon that must also be
taken into account is the way Haber’s opponents present their retrospective interpretation of a life lived at another time,
with the subject of a biography used essentially as a vehicle for criticizing the history and conditions of another era. As
Stoltzenberg’s biography makes clear, it is
simply dishonest to ignore influences of
the times and the circumstances that prevailed, including in this case a restrictive
national perspective and the situation inevitably facing a baptized Jew. In short,
one cannot overlook the cumulative effect
of a host of political currents. cultural influences, questions related to an individual’s personal origins, historical consciousness, and the like. Moreover, Fritz Haber
cannot be regarded as representative simply because contrasts may be apparent between certain aspects of his behavior then
and what we might regard as permissible
today with our (superior!) wisdom and
understanding. This would be tantamount to denying the temporal qualities
associated with every human life, and critiquing every utterance from the past according to the standards of today. Doing
so requires that we abandon all sympathy
for the world of our parents and grandparents, and a lack of sympathy is equivalent to a lack of understanding. Stoltzenberg does demonstrate sympathy in his
writing, and with it a measure of anxiety,
and he transmits his feelings to the reader.
It is also important to reiterate that
Haber’s own contemporaries and colleagues viewed him with considerably
more understanding, and despite the difficult circumstances of the time the obituaries they prepared articulate far more noblesse than the words of many of today’s
“know-it-alls.”
What remains is the recognition that we
can only attempt to understand Fritz
Haber. We cannot relieve him of his
tragedy, nor of his entanglements with
guilt. He anticipated in encapsulated form
that which should characterize every scientist: the upright integrity of a researcher
who knows himself to be one with the
spirit and morals of his age and of his
contemporaries of all nationalities. A tendency to cast this premise in doubt, as
some now do, is one of those inexplicable,
irrational manifestations of the German
soul. That Haber was also the victim of
disdain and a political movement’s will to
exterminate physically those whom it dismissed o n ethnic grounds should actually
be regarded as an honor.
Haber also leaves us with a question,
one that needs to be addressed by every
scientist: precisely when does progress become transformed into a weapon, thus
triggering an obligation on the part of the
individual scientist to engage in emphatic
and articulate opposition? Progress cannot be prevented, but one can most assuredly insist that it not be misused.
Haber’s ultimate tragedy lies in the fact
that he failed to recognize this distinction.
Boy Cornils
Hoechst AG, Frankfurt/Main (Germany)
FT-NIR Atlas. By M . Buback and
H. P. Vogele. VCH Verlagsgesellschaft, Weinheim/VCH Publishers, New York, 1993. 1067 pp., hardcover DM 880.00, $570.00.--ISBN
3-527-28567-911-56081-744-5
With the increasing use of modern
Fourier transform (FT) infrared spectrometers, the N I R spectral region (4000-
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