3 – Fertilizer
It was not only the battlefield where the effects of the chemists could be felt. With the theory of total war taking hold in all the major combatants, every advantage that could be found anywhere in the economy had positive effects on the battlefield and could be used against the enemy. Many of the chemicals that were used to take human life were also more than capable of killing smaller organisms and thus were perfect for use as insecticides, greatly improving the productivity of agriculture in a time in which many of those who previously had tilled the land were at war.
The crossover between chemical warfare and chemical fertilization is considerable. Fritz Haber, one of the top German chemists tasked with their gas production programs, later gave his name to the Haber Process, a fundamental in the production of fertilizers. Indeed, his son, Ludwig Haber, wrote the major history of World War One chemical weapons in the mid-1980s. Fritz Haber’s dedication to the war effort was total. He is quoted as saying “During peacetime a scientist belongs to the World, but during wartime, he belongs to his country.” and he was awarded a host of medals for his service, going as far as being given the rank of Captain although he was far too old to fight. While creating chemical weapons was one aspect of his work, his skill at creating industrial fertilizer was what made his name.
Haber and his partner, Carl Bosch, were responsible for the discovery of the Haber process, which synthesizes nitrogen and hydrogen, both abundant in air, into ammonia. This could then be used as a fertilizer and was directly responsible for feeding millions of people throughout the war and billions after it. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for his work on the process and it is now estimated that almost half the world is fed by food grown using the Haber process.
Ammonia had previously been known, but industry was dependant on naturally occurring examples of it: with Haber and Bosch’s discovery, it could be created in a lab – using one of the most common elements available as well. When the war ended, the production of industrial fertilizer would go into overdrive and Haber would be feted as the man who fed the world. Few outsides of the field of chemistry are aware of his dual role in World War One and his dichotomous career as the man who saved millions from starvation, but also caused the death of countless soldiers through his gases. This duality would be brought to a head in the next war.
One of the fertilizers that Haber was responsible for developing was Zyklon A, a cyanide-based insecticide that was used to keep grain stores free of weevils and other microscopic life. The gas had been used as a chemical weapon too, in World War One, and later proved perfect for disinfecting clothes with lice in peacetime. It would form the basis of Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill millions of Jews in the gas chambers of Eastern Europe. Haber, who was Jewish, had several members of his family die in the Nazi camps.