pierre laszlo

Coping with Fritz Haber's somber literary shadow
Chemists are legitimately distressed by the chemophobia of the public. One of its manifestations (hardly the only one) is the stereotyped presentation of a chemist as an amoral character, having sold his soul to the Devil. The implicit sin is more than Faustian, for the betrayal is not only personal, but that of humanity. Fritz Haber is often this scapegoat.

Is this stereotyping deserved? And might we, collectively and individually, do something about it? We approach the issue here by way of an attentive reading of a selectioni of the literary pieces featuring Haber, whether under his own name or in transparent disguise, and of recent biographies of Haber.

Roald Hoffmann and Pierre Laszlo

(*) Professor Roald Hoffmann
Department of Chemistry
Baker Laboratory
Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853-1301, USA
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it Professor Pierre Laszlo
Emeritus, Institut de chimie, Université de Liège au Sart-Tilman, B-4000 Liège, Belgium and Département de chimie, Ecole polytechnique, F-91128 Palaiseau, France; mailing address: POB 665, Pinehurst NC 28370, USA. 

The Fictional Haber

The British poet and occasional playwright Tony Harrison has written a genuinely funny musical play, Square Rounds, in which Fritz Haber has a most prominent role.ii First performed at the Olivier Theatre in London in 1992, the play evokes very much a puppet show in the manner of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. It features a nearly all-female cast of "Munitionettes," i.e. of workers producing TNT during World War I. The women also impersonate the main characters, who include Fritz Haber and his wife Clara Immerwahr, Sir Hiram Maxim (the inventor of the machine gun and of an anti-poison gas inhaler), his brother Hudson Maxim (of Maximite TNT charge fame), Justus von Liebig (one of the icons of our profession, entering the play as the pioneering agricultural chemist) and Sir William Crookes (who foresaw the need for nitrogen fixation).

Tony Harrison has done his homework well, his documentation is unimpeachable. Fritz Haber's way to gas warfare is perceptively evoked, making Haber say:

"Out of the industry which gives the world its dyes
I can chemically concoct a new shock from the skies. (...)
I'm off to devise a little surprise
something that's certain to stun
all those who thought that war's only fought
with things like that vulgar gun. (...)
My gas will break the deadlock, make the war much shorter
and therefore save millions from the slaughter."

Harrison has his characters speak in rhymed verse, a nice touch: Haber indeed versified as a hobby -- Stoltzenberg's biography has some choice examples. Harrison has Haber declare:

"After the mental struggle of nitrogen fixation
I turn to verse as an effortless relaxation."

One of the few male characters in the play is the remarkable folksy sweeper Mawes, whom the "Hun Haber" draws into a hilarious verse competition. The fertilizer theme is the source of much scatological farce. Tony Harrison's inventive verse and talent for repartee, a match for William S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, leavens and at times threatens to run away from the underlying anti-technological theme. The play has much literal magic, inventive fun with ribbons and costumes color-coded for the chemical elements, a song about N and O, and even a Trinitrotoluene canon! And pathos, as in a dramatic Fritz Haber-Clara Haber confrontation .

The reader should not imagine, however, that this verse play is a paean to Haber. In fact, Harrison's wit is marshaled to paint a picture of Haber as devastatingly immoral.
i We omit, for instance, one novel based on Haber's life: H. H. Wille, Der Januskopf, Berlin: Buch Club 65 (1970)
ii T. Harrison, Square Rounds, London, Faber and Faber, 1992.