Saviour of humanity or war criminal? A new play about Dr Fritz Haber

BREAD FROM AIR – the strange case of Dr Fritz Haber

This is the title of my fifth play about the extraordinary Nobel Prize Laureate German scientist who, more than anybody else, is the most emblematic and controversial  figure of the Janus face of science  in the modern age. It was he who produced ‘bread from air’ by discovering the procedure of making ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. His genius thus saved billions of lives, for ammonia is the basic substance of fertilisers. During World War One he experimented with and introduced poisonous gases in the battlefield and in doing so, opened a new devastating chapter in warfare: the use of weapons of mass destruction. He was immensely successful and at one stage he was one of the most powerful men in Germany at the heart of the country’s war effort.

His personal life was equally controversial and strewn with personal tragedies. His first wife, Clara Immerwahr, a doctor of chemistry herself committed suicide on the night of a party celebrating the successful use of chlorine, a toxic gas, released in the trenches of Ypres. His second marriage to Charlotte Nathan, the manager of his Berlin club also ended in divorce. Being a Jew  he converted to Protestantism but this did not prevent his fall when the Nazis came to power in 1933.

The play follows Haber’s rise from being a little known chemist in a provincial university to the pinnacle of German academic life. It was the arrival of a young English scientist, Robert Le Rossignol from University College London which accelerated Haber’s career on the way to the Nobel Prize and is the starting point of the play.