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German Nobel Prizes and the Development of Chemical Weapons

Reading various articles about the development of chemical weapons by the German army, we can see that many German scientists, including 8 of them who have already been awarded or are about to receive a Nobel Prize, have participated in this work.

But to what extent have they really been involved?

Working on the biographies of these scientists, we can see that they all belonged at some point in their lives to the “Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem (KWI)”, the laboratory at the heart of the development of German chemical weapons, but that, except for Fritz Haber, its director, the participation of other scientists remains more limited.

The beginning of German toxic gases

When the war broke out in August 1914, Walther Nernst was a professor of physical chemistry in Berlin and one of the most famous chemists in the world for his work on thermodynamics.  At the age of 50 Nernst was carrying messages within the German army then in Belgium. After the Battle of the Marne, he returned to Berlin to work on the chemistry of toxic products capable of breaking through trench lines.

He then had the idea of using toxic gases against the enemy, a weapon well suited to static trench warfare. He then presented his work in mid-December 1914 at the Wahn test bench near Berlin to Fritz Haber, then 46-year-old reserve officer corporal, director of the (KWI) and Carl Duisberg, director of the Bayer dye factory, one of the largest dye manufacturers in the world, and a major component of the powerful German chemical cartel.

Nernst showed them a shell capable of releasing a mixture of benzyl bromide and xylyl, tear gas. Fritz Haber saw little interest in it, however, he thought that to be effective, the gas had to be lethal and heavier than air in order to effectively descend into the trenches. At that time, phosgene was known as the most lethal gas but it was not synthesized in sufficient quantities in Germany, unlike chlorine, which was a little less toxic but manufactured at a rate of 40 tons per day.

Fritz Haber was well known in Germany as the chemist who had developed the method for converting nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) in the presence of hydrogen at high temperature and high pressure and a metal catalyst. The Haber-Bosch process (Bosch designed the factories) allowed the Germans to manufacture fertilizers and explosives despite the blockade.

Haber left it to the military to determine whether the toxic gas was legal. The Hague Convention prohibited the use of shells containing toxic substances, but strictly speaking, discharges from bottles were not illegal. Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn authorized Haber and Duisberg to prepare for a chlorine attack.

The “Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry”

A team of scientists was set up and composed of: Fritz Haber, 46 (1868-1934), Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918, Walther Nernst, 50 (1864-1941), Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1920, Lieutenant James Franck, 32 (1882-1964), Nobel Prize for Physics in 1925, Lieutenant Gustav Hertz, 27 (1887-1975), Nobel Prize in Physics in 1925 and Otto Hahn, 35 (1879-1968), Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944.

Other great names such as Hans Geiger (1882-1945), the inventor of the counter of the same name, and Erwin Madelung (1881-1972), joined them.

That’s not to say the scientific level of this team!

Before the attack of 22 April 1915 in Ypres, field tests were carried out. During an exercise on March 25, Duisberg was accidentally pushed into the area where a cloud of chlorine and phosgene was present and developed pneumonia. Haber also found himself in a cloud during a test and had the chance to get out of it after a few days of rest in bed.

We will not go back over this chlorine attack that we have already described.

After the attack on Ypres

After the attack, Fritz Haber remained in charge of the development of chemical warfare for the remainder of the war. The gas war was managed through informal and collegial interactions between Fritz Haber, the general staff and the chemistry cartel. The chemical work was carried out at KWI, supported by substantial subsidies from the army.

Over time, three other Nobel Prize winners joined them. Richard Willstätter (1872-1942), Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1915) and Heinrich Wieland (1877-1957), Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1927 and Emil Fischer (1852-1919), Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1902. He was the one who suggested that they use arsenicals. As for Willstätter, a fierce opponent of the war, he was nevertheless ready to work on protection systems.

Otto Hahn, Gustav Hertz and James Franck were not present during the first attack; they were in champagne to assess the possibilities of a gas release. At the end of April, their regiment travelled to Poland, where they were to use gas as part of the attack on the Russian lines between Gorlice and Tarnow. On June 12, 1915, they released a mixture of chlorine and phosgene to the Russians. Some of the German infantry panicked when the gas turned over, and they didn’t want to move forward. Otto Hahn and a few others crossed no-man’s-land protected by their masks and Otto Hahn found himself among the dying Russian soldiers. He felt “deeply guilty and upset”, trying unsuccessfully to revive the dying with his oxygen. In the next attempt, on July 7, the wind shifted and blew again on the Germans. Among the many victims of gas, there was Gustav Hertz, who spent months in hospital recovering and was then discharged from the army. As for Franck, he contacted dysentery in Poland: freed in 1916, he returned to the physics department in Berlin, where he joined Gustav Hertz: they continued their collaboration and together won the Nobel Prize.

According to Otto Hahn, Haber’s team’s success was due to the fact that generals, scientists and technicians lived under the same roof in a strong academic environment.

What they have become

Fritz Haber. Shortly after coming to power on 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler had the Jews removed from the German civil service. Although Hitler knew that Fritz Haber was a leading scientist who adhered to German values, he refused to maintain him as director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Physico-chemistry in Berlin. In 1934, he emigrated to England, where he obtained a position at Cambridge University. He died of a heart attack while travelling to a stopover hotel in Basel.

It should be noted that the Nobel Prize winners of the war years (1914-1918) were awarded in June 1920. The French, British and Americans boycotted the ceremony because of Fritz Haber’s activities during the hostilities.

Otto Hahn continued to be part of Haber’s group during the war where he developed the use of gas masks and oxygen resuscitation.

Walther Nernst invented an electric lamp with a metal filament in 1898. This lamp, which succeeded the lamps with a carbon filament, is a precursor to today’s incandescent lamps. Around 1906, he established the law now known as the third principle of thermodynamics. He left the unit to take over the direction of explosives and trench mortar development. A friend of the Kaiser, he did not get along with General Ludendorff, who saw him as “an incompetent civilian”. His 2 sons died, one in a plane crash in 1914 and the other in Verdun in 1917. He left the army and went back to university. In 1920, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “in recognition of his work in thermochemistry”.

Richard Willstätter invented chromatography on paper.  He is best known for his work on chlorophyll, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1915. During his time at KWI, he developed gas masks. In 1916 he became professor of organic chemistry and director of the laboratory at the University of Munich, but left this position in 1925 to protest against the anti-Semitic attitude of the Bavarian University and moved to Locarno in 1939, where he died three years later.

Emil Fischer discovered phenylhydrazine, but later studied the purines and sugars that would make him a highly renowned scientist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1902 “in recognition of his extraordinary services in the synthesis of carbohydrates and purines”.  Fisher contracted cancer following overexposure to the phenylhydrazine vapours he had discovered.

Otto Hahn, who was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission, is considered to be the “father of nuclear chemistry”. Otto Hahn, who felt morally responsible for the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thought about committing suicide. He said, “I thank God on my knees that we[the Germans] did not make the uranium bomb.  After the war, he became an activist against the use of nuclear weapons and warned his compatriots against any inhuman use of scientific discoveries.

James Frank. He was co-awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics with Gustav Hertz “for their discovery of the laws governing the collision of an electron on an atom”. A professor at Göttingen, covered by the German Law on the Restoration of the Civil Service of 7 April 1933, he published an open letter of resignation, refusing the exception granted to him as a veteran by stating: “We Germans of Jewish origin are treated as foreigners and enemies of the homeland”. He left his post in Germany on April 17, 1933 and continued his research in the United States, first in Baltimore and then in Chicago, after a year in Denmark.

Gustav Hertz. He was co-awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics with James Franck. He served in the military engineering in the units responsible for the use of combat gases, under the command of Fritz Haber. Gassed on the Russian front (now Poland) on July 7, 1915, he was demobilized in 1917. Professor at the University of Halle in 1925, then at the Charlottenburg University in Berlin in 1928, he resigned for political reasons in 1935 and became Director of Research for Siemens. Then director of a Soviet research centre in Agudseri, on the Black Sea coast, he developed the process for separating uranium isotopes by gaseous diffusion of their fluorinated compounds. He joined Karl-Marx University in Leipzig in 1954 and headed the Institute of Physics there until his retirement in 1961.

Heinrich Wieland. First exempted by the German Imperial Army, Heinrich Wieland was finally called up in March 1917 (he was 40 years old) to serve in the reserve. From 1917 to 1918, he headed the combat gas department at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, where he developed the production of combat gases such as mustard gas and nitrogen mustards as well as irritant gases that German chemists called Maskenbrecher, because the soldiers felt an irrepressible desire to tear off their gas masks. At the same time, the Technical University of Munich offered him a teaching chair for the first time. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to him in 1927 “for his research on the constitution of bile acid and related substances”. A specialist in toxicology, he also contributed to the determination of the chemical structure of morphine and strychnine.

Fritz Haber, the great responsible person

It is worth mentioning that German universities at the end of the 19th century were closely associated with the high-tech chemical industries, particularly those of medicines and dyes. Synthetic compounds are closely developed jointly by industry and academia. Scientific staff can go to work in industry and vice versa. It is therefore not at all surprising to see so many future Nobel Prize winners co-existing within a structure that is at once academic, private and military at a high scientific level. At that time, the number of scientists was therefore enormous: Germany had about six times as many chemists as France, with the same population.

The quality of Fritz Haber’s scientific work on ammonia synthesis earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This immediately provoked strong protests from French, English and American scholars against the Swedish Academy. Forced to explain itself, the Nobel Prize Award Committee certifies that it only wanted to reward the inventor of ammonia synthesis, thanks to which the foreseeable famine could be contained in the world. Indeed, at least two billion people are now fed with fertilizers obtained by the Haber-Bosch process.

The proceedings against Haber were quickly dropped, as the Allied armies had also practiced chemical warfare on a large scale and on the other hand, the victorious colonial powers do not want to discredit a weapon they could use in the colonies.

After the war, Fritz Haber continued to develop chemical poisons to “fight silo pests, rodents and insects”. Nevertheless, it still secretly produces chemical weapons to prevent Germany from being overtaken by other nations. From his laboratory came out the Zyklon B which will be used in extermination camps of the Second World War!

His heightened patriotism led him to undertake research that his own wife Clara Immerwahr considered “criminal and contrary to the most fundamental scientific ethics” – she committed suicide in 1915 -.



W. Van der kloot : April 1915 ; five future nobel prize-winners inaugurate weapons of mass destruction and the academic-industrial-military complex. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 58, 149-160 (2004).

Wikipedia files of the different people mentioned above.