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Two Jewish Chemists: a Sinner and a Saint?

May 24, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 21

FRITZ HABER: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew, by Dietrich Stoltzenberg, Chemical Heritage Press, 2004, 326 pages, $40 (ISBN 0-941901-24-6)
FRITZ HABER: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew, by Dietrich Stoltzenberg, Chemical Heritage Press, 2004, 326 pages, $40 (ISBN 0-941901-24-6)

Until a decade ago, no adequate book-length biography existed of Fritz Haber (1868–1934), the ingenious German chemist best known for the industrial Haber-Bosch nitrogen-fixing process to make ammonia. Morris Goran's "The Story of Fritz Haber," published in 1967, was considered by Haber's friends and relatives as "often not very true." And the 1970 German memoir by Haber's second wife, Charlotte Nathan, titled "Mein Leben mit Fritz Haber," lacks historical context and neglects his scientific achievements.

But in 1994, Dietrich Stoltzenberg published the comprehensive and critically acclaimed German work "Fritz Haber: Chemiker, Nobelpreisträger, Deutscher, Jude" (Wiley-VCH). Now, its long-awaited English translation has been published.

Lutz Haber, Haber and Nathan's son, a chemical historian, wrote the preface for both the German and English versions. He writes that Stoltzenberg's book "describes not only the scientific and academic sides of my father, but it also comments upon the personal and ethical problems of a chemist in war and peace in order to give a fully developed and fair picture of the man."

Prudent abridgement of the 669-page German version--especially of chemical equations, reaction schemes, tables, and references--has resulted in a book about half as long that retains the essential features of the original work and is more accessible to the general reader. The biography follows a topical rather than strictly chronological arrangement of Haber's life. It includes some history of Haber's forebears, including his father, who was a prosperous chemical merchant. It provides details of his childhood and youth as well as his years of study leading to his first teaching position at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

PRIMO LEVI: A Life, by Ian Thomson, Holt/Metropolitan, 2003, 583 pages, $32.50 (ISBN 0-8050-7343-4)
PRIMO LEVI: A Life, by Ian Thomson, Holt/Metropolitan, 2003, 583 pages, $32.50 (ISBN 0-8050-7343-4)

The book describes Haber's research on thermodynamics, electrochemistry, and gaseous reactions, and his directorship of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry & Electrochemistry, now renamed as a Max Planck Institute. Stoltzenberg also provides the background for the nitrogen-fixation process, which won Haber a controversial Nobel Prize in 1918. The prize came at the end of World War I, after Haber had been a leading developer of German gas warfare, an accomplishment that made him one of the world's most detested people at the time.

The biography includes much about Haber's personal life. He had friendships with Albert Einstein, Carl Bosch, Richard Willstätter, and other chemists and nonchemists. He suffered through a dysfunctional family. His first wife, Clara Immerwahr, also a Ph.D. chemist, committed suicide, reportedly to protest his involvement in chemical warfare.

Like many German Jews, Haber converted to Protestantism and went to excessive lengths to prove his patriotism. For example, he unsuccessfully attempted to extract gold from seawater to help pay for Germany's war reparations.

THE DOUBLE BOND: Primo Levi, A Biography, by Carole Angier, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003 (paperback), 898 pages, $20 (ISBN 0-374-52898-5)
THE DOUBLE BOND: Primo Levi, A Biography, by Carole Angier, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003 (paperback), 898 pages, $20 (ISBN 0-374-52898-5)

Haber also became involved in Chaim Weizmann's Palestine Project that eventually led to the formation of Israel. But with the rise of Nazism under Hitler, Haber went into exile, first in England and then in Switzerland. He died shortly thereafter, on Jan. 29, 1934.

Stoltzenberg is ideal as Haber's biographer, because from his earliest years he was familiar with Haber's life and achievements. Stoltzenberg's father was manufacturer and chemist Hugo Stoltzenberg, and his mother, Margarethe, was a chemist and the sister of 1931 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Friedrich Bergius. Bergius was a colleague and former student of Haber's and shared the Nobel Prize with Bosch.

A Ph.D. industrial chemist, Stoltzenberg worked for Phoenix Gummiwerke and Unilever. Since his retirement in 1984, he has consulted for several firms and published articles on various topics on the history of 20th-century chemistry.

For the Haber biography, he devoted eight years of research in archives, institutes, and libraries in Germany, England, Israel, and the U.S. Stoltzenberg made extensive use of the Johannes Jaenicke Collection in the Max Planck Gesellschaft archives in Berlin-Dahlem. Jaenicke was Haber's assistant, and in the early 1950s, Haber's family and some former colleagues asked him to write a biography. Although Jaenicke collected documents and conducted interviews, he was unable to finish the project.

Since Stoltzenberg's German version was published, Margit Szöllösi-Janze produced the lengthy (928 pages) "Fritz Haber 1868– 1934: Eine Biographie," but it has not yet been translated to English. Thus Stoltzenberg's book remains the only authoritative biography of Haber for English-reading chemists. I consider it sine qua non for chemists, science historians, science policymakers, and anyone interested in German history.

Ironically, Zyklon B, one of the gases developed in Haber's institute around 1920 as a fumigant, was later used to kill concentration camp prisoners, including members of Haber's own family. It also links him to Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (1919–87), an Italian chemist who in some circles has been regarded as a saint much as Haber has been considered a sinner.

Like many chemists, I first encountered Levi as the author of his best-selling autobiographical book "The Periodic Table," a 1984 English translation of the 1975 Italian version, "Il Sistema Periodica." While he had a career as an industrial chemist, Levi was an Italian literary legend and celebrity, and one of the important 20th-century European writers of short stories, memoirs, and poetry.

Two mammoth biographies of Levi have recently appeared: Carole Angier's "The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography" and Ian Thomson's "Primo Levi: A Life." Both Angier and Thomson discuss every conceivable aspect of Levi's life and career in incredible detail, and both reach similar conclusions.

Levi was born in 1919 in Turin. He chose science for his career, graduating summa cum laude in 1941 from the University of Turin. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's 1938 racial laws made it difficult for Levi to find a job, so he settled in as a chemist at a mine.

In 1943, he joined a band of partisans resisting the Nazis, who had occupied northern Italy. But he was captured and sent to the Fossoli concentration camp. In early 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz, in Poland, where he remained until the Soviet army liberated the camp in January 1945. He survived there by working as a laborer in an I. G. Farbenindustrie synthetic rubber factory. He returned to Turin and became assistant head of research for Duco Avigliana, a DuPont subsidiary. In 1948, he became a chemist at SIVA, a Turin paint and varnish company, where he worked until 1977.

But Levi preferred writing to chemistry. His first book, "If This Is a Man," was published in 1947. It's a testament of his experiences at Auschwitz. He followed that with "The Truce" in 1963, which recounted his return journey from Auschwitz to Turin.

Both authors reject the romantic explanation for Levi's purported suicide in 1987--that it was the result of recurring thoughts about Auschwitz. Thomson concludes: "His suicide was provoked by his clinical depression, which was compounded by a complex web of factors."

Angier, a writing instructor, is the Royal Literary Fund Associate Fellow at the University of Warwick, in England. She is best known for her award-winning biography of author Jean Rhys. Angier's biography of Levi was first published to acclaim in the U.K. in 2002, and it was released in paperback in November 2003. Thomson is a freelance journalist and authority on Italian literature. His biography of Levi, released in 2002 in the U.K. and late last year in the U.S., has been praised in Britain as "the best sort of history" and "a model of its kind." It won the 2003 Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award.

Thomson's book should be considered the more authoritative of the two biographies. He interviewed Levi, being one of the last people to do so. Thomson previously wrote a number of articles and reviews on Levi, as well as publishing interviews conducted with Levi's acquaintances, correspondents, editors, and other Italian writers. He also had extensive access to Levi's papers and family members. Thomson's list of acknowledgments takes up six full pages and includes hundreds of names. It's the longest list of acknowledgments I have ever seen in a book.

Both authors include so much detail that perhaps only Levi's most ardent aficionados will want to read the books in their entirety. Because Thomson's approach is faster paced and more direct, he is able to include as many facts in his 583-page tome as Angier does in her 898-page volume. Although I prefer Thomson's shorter book, Levi scholars may want to read both.


George B. Kauffman is a chemistry professor at California State University, Fresno, and the recipient of ACS's George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, and the Dexter Award from the Division of the History of Chemistry.


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