Two Jewish scientists whose inventions helped their countries opposing armies

In World War I, the a Jewish German named Fritz Haber thought up the use of Chlorine as a poison gas. This weapon was first used at Ypres, where British troops were dug in as were French and Algerians. 150 tons of chlorine formed a greenish cloud, creeping toward the French and Algerians. Perhaps 5000 were killed and 10,000 injured, but that is a guess. Haber’s Jewish wife, Clara, also a chemist, killed herself – she had not become a chemist to kill and maim. Fritz did not change his mind, the day after her suicide he went to the eastern front to plan a gas attack against the Russians.

Fritz had also figured out how to pull nitrogen out of the air and make nitrate, which was essential to German munitions.

On the British side, another Jew, Chaim Weizmann, developed a process that produced acetone from bacterial fermentation, His acetone production method was of great importance in the manufacture of  cordite  explosive propellants for the British war industry.

Haber eventually repented of his invention, after the Nazis came to power in Germany and his status changed from national treasure to despised Jew. He went to England and got a job as a professor there, but was shunned as a war criminal. Soon after, he died.

The story raises interesting issues. Why was Haber (and many other Jews) so patriotic for a country that would soon turn on them? What is the morality of a weapon that turns into hydrochloric acid in the lungs of the enemy, leading to a cruel death? Where is the chivalry of facing an oncoming chemical fog and getting poisoned? It might seem obvious that the weapon is very immoral, but it has had surprising defenders – such as an English Prime Minister, Winston Churchill! Finally why did so many millions of people fight for the German cause in World War I? Were they deceived?

Sources:

Einstein’s War – How Relativity Triumphed Amid The Vicious Nationalism of World War I by Mathew Stanley

Further Reading (really ironic and interesting, on Haber):

Fritz Haber, the Monster Who Made the Modern World Possible

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