When I was very young, I learned the story of the Balfour Declaration, and it went something like so: it was 1917 and England was at war; and a young Jewish scientist named named Chaim Weitzmann had recently developed a process that was of tremendous strategic importance. To reward him, he was brought before Lord Balfour who promised him anything he wished for. “Nothing for me,” replied Weizmann, “but for my people…” And in that moment the destiny of the Jewish People was forever changed, and set on a path which led to the creation of the State of Israel.
I don’t remember where I first heard the story; I only had two years of Talmud Torah before my parents put me in public school. But I’m guessing the story is still being told in our Hebrew schools today in very much the same way. It may be a bit of a melodramatization, but I’m not here to quibble with the details: in fact, the story is substantially true in its major outlines. But it raises two interesting questions: first, where would we be if Weizmann had not been in the right place at the right time…and secondly, what good would it have done if Britain had not won the war?
Oddly enough, it turns out things might not have been so different after all. Because it seems that Germany had its own Dr. Chaim Weizmann…the “anti-Weizmann”, if you like, and his name was Fritz Haber. The son of Jewish parents, he had converted to Christianity more as a symbol of allegiance to his adopted Fatherland than through any religious conviction. In 1911, he discovered a process whereby ammonia could be synthesized by direct combination of hydrogen and nitrogen…a process which today bears his name, and which has long since been adopted for the edification of high school students as the iconic prototype of how to calculate chemical equilibria in mixed reactions. By the second year of the war, Germany had been cut off by British blockade from access to Chilean saltpeter, until then the world’s primary source of industrial ammonia. The Haber process is credited with keeping Germany in the war for three more years. And if that wasn’t enough, Haber was an enthusiastic participant in the chemical warfare industry...a circumstance which led his beautiful wife, Klara Immerwahr, also a converted Jewess, to take her own life in 1915.
Post-war Germany was indeed grateful to Haber. As director of the Kaiser Wilhelm institute in the Weimar Republic, Haber’s scientific influence was unbounded. Indeed, even Hitler did not fire him after coming to power in 1933. But as director of the Institute, Haber became responsible for discharging all his Jewish colleagues and co-workers. And when it came to this, he found his loyalty to the Fatherland was stretched to the breaking point. After doing his best to secure alternate employement for his fellow Jewish scientists, Haber left Germany for good, finding temporary refuge in England. Here he accepted Weizmann’s offer of directorship of the Sieff Institue in Rehovot, and he departed for Palestine in 1934. But he was already in ill health and died enroute in Switzerland of a heart attack. (For more on Haber’s remarkable life, you can read an excellent biographical essay by Bretislav Friedrich which you can link to from the Wikipedia page on Haber.)
Weizmann and Haber…two very different men, destined by fate to play complimentary and contradictory roles in world and Jewish history. And what of their scientific legacies? Weizmann, of course, drifted away from science as the Zionist enterprise occupied more and more of his time and energies. Nevertheless, his process for the synthesis of acetone remained industrially viable until as recently as the 1980’s: using bacteria from the clostrida family, Weizmann’s process yielded a mixture of acetone, butanol and ethanol from ordinary starch. Eventually, this method was replaced by purely chemical processes whereby acetone is produced as a petroleum by-product. As for Haber Process, it is going strong to this day. It has had an enormous impact on the worlds food supply; it is said that one-third of the world’s agricultural production depends on ammonia created by the Haber Process. To put it another way, every other nitrogen atom in your body has at some time passed through the high-pressure steel cylinders of a Haber Process factory.