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Haber-Bosch Controversy

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Were the scientists Haber and Bosch merely defending their country or did they take an evil tangent and become war criminals?

Fritz Haber Carl Bosch
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Humankind is largely fed by food grown with synthetic chemical fertilizer. Because synthetic fertilizer requires a plentiful supply of nitrogen, inventing a process to fix it in ammonia was daunting. Attempts were made for over 100 years. Then in 1909 Fritz Haber, a German chemist, solved the problem in principal. In 1910, Carl Bosch, pioneering new engineering methods, commercialized the process. Known as the Haber-Bosch Process, it is now responsible for growing about half of the world’s food. It was one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Without it, 30-40% of the world’s population would not be alive.

The Controversy:

There is no debate about the good Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch did for humanity by inventing the method used to make synthetic fertilizer. It was what they did afterward, during World War I, that is controversial.

Fritz Haber became the director of the Institute for Physical Chemistry that made poisonous chlorine gas. He actively participated in its development and was an advocate for its use, even though poisonous gas was banned by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. His wife, also a scientist, committed suicide ten days after the first use of chemical warfare. Some believe she did so as a protest. Fritz Haber was the proud recipient of the Iron Cross as an award for his work. Gas warfare killed over 1.3 million people in World War I.

Carl Bosch, working for BASF, a giant German company, converted the ammonia production he helped engineer into munitions production for World War I. Ammonia is the key to fixing nitrogen, the chemical necessary to make either fertilizer or explosives. Bosch took an active part in designing a new plant deep inside Germany that provided Germany with the munitions they needed to stretch out the war.

Both Haber and Bosch were richly rewarded, within Germany with honors and money, and outside of Germany – both won the Nobel Prize. But both were directly responsible for the deaths of millions of people in World War I.

Pro and Con Arguments

Vote War Criminals 

There is no question that Haber and Bosch were geniuses. But to be remembered as a good human being it takes more than brilliance. It also requires using one’s intelligence to determine how to exercise one’s brilliance. A key component in doing so is having a conscience. To have a conscience requires considering how one’s actions affect other human beings. Neither Haber nor Bosch respected the lives of other human beings. Each turned away from the good science can produce and headed down the path of evil, using science to kill people with chlorine gas or bombs.

The legacy a society applies to a person is an underutilized moral tool. Choosing how society remembers a person is important in that it instructs others on the importance of behavior. In the case of Haber and Bosch, it instructs society on the potential destructive power of science, if science is performed without ethics. Haber and Bosch chose to use science to kill people, activities that should not be ignored as if they never happened. No one knows what those people killed or their progeny might have produced for humanity; perhaps discoveries as great as those of Haber and Bosch.

Society holds science up as a tool that is good for humanity. But without ethics science has just as much power to harm humanity. Bill Foege, who made the key insight that led to the eradication of smallpox, said, “What is it that is better than science? Better than science is science with heart, science with ethics, science with equity, science with justice.” Haber and Bosch ignored all of these, so society’s memory of them should be as killers, as war criminals.

Vote Patriots

I argue that we should conclude Haber and Bosch are patriots, rather than claim the authority to draw an arbitrary moral line separating the "good" scientists from the "bad." Many great scientists did things we would rather they hadn't done. Werner Heisenberg, one of the greatest physicists of all time, led the German effort to build a nuclear bomb during World War II. Many American physicists worked on the Manhattan Project, which led to weapons that killed thousands of Japanese civilians. We might like to imagine that science is somehow above, or separate from, politics and the events of the world, but it is not. Scientists are often patriots who wish to serve their country, an impulse we generally view with sympathy today. Haber himself was known to say that "A scientist belongs to his country in times of war and to all mankind in times of peace." He also justified gas warfare by claiming that it would break the stalemate in the trenches, and save more lives than it destroyed. We may view these statements today as naive at best, and quite possibly mercenary or disingenuous, but it is also hard for us to see the world as a German living at the time would have. Rather than banish these scientists for their less savory actions, we should let them serve as a powerful reminder that science is value-neutral, and it is we humans who use it for good or ill.