MASTER MIND by Daniel Charles – A Life of Chilling Ironies

I was reading New Scientist at the breakfast table, and noticed that its featured book review was of a title that I had also found compelling, Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare by Daniel Charles.

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Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare by Daniel Charles
(Ecco, 336 pages, $24.95, August, 2005)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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“It’s possible to walk in Fritz Haber’s footsteps without knowing it, for the trail is rarely marked.” So Daniel Charles begins Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare, inviting readers to explore a nearly forgotten pathway that leads to — where, exactly?

And that is precisely the point. Even as Fritz Haber blazed that now faded trail guided by determination and purpose, even as he passed milestones that had once seemed beyond his reach, even as he left behind one identity in the quest to achieve another, he was approaching an unseen precipice.

The book’s lengthy subtitle only hints at the full drama. This is not a classic story in which a tragic flaw dooms the protagonist to destruction. Fritz Haber was neither hero nor villain, though people viewed him as both at different times. He was neither enigma nor paradox, though his life story contains elements of both.

Haber was a talented scientist and loyal German who rose to fame and fell to ignominy, the victim of a perverse chemistry in the crucible of history. Celebrated for most of his life, Haber died in exile. Even at the end, he remained unwilling to discard his tattered patriotism while struggling to come to terms with the Jewish identity that the Nazis thrust upon him.

He was extraordinarily human, gifted and flawed at the same time. “His goals were conventional… familiar, and defensible,” the author writes. He sought “to solve problems, prosper, and serve his country.” Yet his quest took him “down twisting paths toward destruction.”

Fritz Haber was born “into a large and tightly knit Jewish clan” on December 9, 1868, in the Prussian city of Breslau, the first child of cousins Siegfried and Paula Haber. The delivery was painful and difficult, and Paula died on New Year’s Eve, leaving Fritz motherless and Siegfried bereft.

To escape his sorrows, the 27-year-old Siegfried plunged into his work as a dye merchant. The already successful business blossomed, thanks in part to the new-formed German nation’s leadership in organic chemistry. Seven years later he entered into a happy remarriage, which produced three daughters, on whom he doted. But nothing could repair the strained relationship with his son. Siegfried “acted as patriarch and domestic despot,” while his adventurous teenaged son “became the court jester.”

At Breslau’s Gymnasium, an elite high school with a classical curriculum, Fritz was a solid but not exceptional student. The only hint of his future accomplishments was a masterful performance on his oral graduation examinations.

Fritz was eager to get a university education, but the always cautious Siegfried — though he could easily afford his son’s tuition — resisted. A young Jewish man from Breslau needed to know his place in German society. In his father’s eyes, the adventuresome Fritz was asking for a life of frustration and failure.

Fortunately, a close cousin prevailed on Siegfried. Germany was changing, he said. It was the most progressive country in Europe. If Fritz did well, he would find his place in the upper strata of society. That prediction came true, yet it carried with it many ironies.

Looking at late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany from a post-Holocaust vantage point, it is hard to imagine that German Jews considered themselves exceptionally favored. True, there was an anti-Semitic undercurrent in German culture, but it seemed no worse than in most European countries. Besides, for Jewish professionals from non-observant households, there was a way out: conversion.

Fritz Haber probably first thought seriously about converting after his mandatory military service. As a university student approaching his 20th birthday, he could reduce his obligation from three years to one, as long as he paid for his own expenses, including the cost of his horse and equipment. Siegfried gladly paid the bills.

Though Fritz disliked the military routine, its discipline transformed him. In it, he saw a route toward achieving his greatest ambitions. Becoming a Prussian officer would confer a prestige and status that could carry him to later leadership in the greater German society. He passed the necessary exams and was designated a candidate for election as a reserve officer.

But he could go no farther, and he was certain of the reason — though no one would speak it. Jews were simply not welcome. Except for a few medical doctors, no Prussian Jew had been elected to that elite group, and they were not about to make an exception for Haber.

He realized that the same obstacle would impede his progress in academic life. So in 1892, not long after earning the right to be called Dr. Haber, he was baptized a Protestant. The conversion was more than merely cosmetic. He saw it as his affirmation of his identity as a German. (The author speculates that the conversation may also have been a repudiation of Siegfried.) He married twice, both times to Jewish women who converted at his insistence so that they could have elaborate cathedral wedding ceremonies.

Regardless of Haber’s motives, being a Protestant probably eased his climb up the academic ladder, where he found fame in 1909 from the discovery of a chemical process that bears his name. The Haber-Bosch process is still important for making ammonia, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of both fertilizers and explosives.

His scientific breakthrough, and its subsequent commercialization by the BASF company, earned him the first post-World War I Nobel prize for chemistry in 1919. His choice was controversial, because he was a leading advocate of chemical warfare and had led the German efforts to introduce poison gas to the battlefield. He saw it as a way to shorten the war, but its use probably lengthened the fighting without changing the outcome.

Despite Fritz Haber’s conversion, German society never allowed him to completely forget his Jewish ancestry. Even so, his unabashed loyalty to the Fatherland, his remarkable technological insights, and his ambition, had made him a powerful figure in German science, industry, and politics in the second and third decades of the 20th century. Among other accomplishments, his work on insecticides led to a particularly effective fumigation treatment for insect pests on grain: a reaction that released a deadly odorless gas known as Xyklon-B.

In 1933, Fritz Haber’s 65th year, a new government arose in Germany. Led by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party quickly imposed an authoritarian system that denied Jews their rights as citizens. Religious conversion meant nothing to them. Haber was born a Jew and would always be one. Quickly, the new government stripped him of his influence, his academic credentials, and his wealth. He fled Germany and traveled throughout Europe looking for work and his lost identity.

On the night of January 29, 1934, one day short of the first anniversary of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Fritz Haber died in Basel, Switzerland, where his ashes now lie buried near the border of his Fatherland. He could never have imagined that Germany would again use a product of his genius to carry out its political objectives. This time it was Xyklon-B, the lethal agent of the gas chambers of Hitler’s “final solution.”

Master Mind closes with a brief chapter called “Lessons Learned.” Those final pages lay out the author’s conclusions, but they also allow readers to puzzle over Haber’s story and what his life and times can tell them about their own. What lingers when they put this book down are not the facts that Mr. Charles so carefully presents, but questions that only they can answer.

Physicist, children’s author, and book critic Fred Bortz is the author of Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel.

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