Chemist Fritz Haber Was Both a Hero and a Villain
As a patriotic German and an ambitious chemist, the young Fritz Haber was eager to make his country a better place. The turn of the 20th century saw growing populations and farmland that couldn't sustain the crops required to feed them. The soil needed nitrogen, and the only ways to get it were costly and inefficient. With engineer Carl Bosch, Haber discovered a way to capture nitrogen and hydrogen from the air and turn it into ammonia, which could then be used for mass quantities of nitrogen-rich fertilizer. This invention, known as the Haber-Bosch process, saved millions from starving and won both men a Nobel Prize decades later. But before receiving that accolade, Haber joined the German war effort and began using his process to create lethal chlorine gas for use at the front lines of battle. Over the course of the war, this and other poison gases that Haber created brought millions of soldiers to gruesome ends. It also eventually led to the creation of Zyklon B, the compound used in Nazi concentration camps to murder prisoners in gas chambers. It's not clear whether Fritz Haber saved more lives than he ended, but as his godson, historian Fritz Stern once wrote, "He left a rich legacy -- the darker sides of which our darker age can better ponder."
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Key Facts In This Video
Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1919 for the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed for the mass production of nitrogen fertilizer. (1:40)
Haber created and encouraged the use of poison gas at the front lines, believing it would bring a swift end to the war. (2:15)
Haber's work would eventually be the basis for Zyklon B, which was used in WWII concentration camps. (4:33)