Fritz Knew His Fertilizer




I’ve mentioned Mr. Dan Carlin’s podcast about World War One. In many ways it is an admirable pod cast. I am, for example, convinced for the first time that I understand what motivated the folly at Gallipoli. But Mr. Carlin is not technically oriented. He misses one of the great strategic events of the war. At least so far.

The Central Powers had no access to colonies and that should have put them at a peculiar disadvantage. Prior to World War One explosives were maid from manure. Manure provided nitrates. Nitrates were treated with acid to make nitric acid. Nitric acid made EVERYTHING. Smokeless gunpowder, nitroglycerine, TNT, cyclonite, pretty much everything but black powder. And black powder still needed the nitrates from manure. In one of those strategies that I understand but am appalled by, the Western powers hoped that their access to colonial manure would lead to the Central Powers running out of explosives. I remember in High School a few of us saw a map that showed one or two naval battles off South America. Our teachers didn’t know what that was about. There are regions where in caves and deserts bat guano and bird excrement hat accumulated for thousands of years. The Germans tried to get that for their explosives. The Allies would have nothing of it.

It was thought that the Central powers would run out of manure and lose. Britain and France had manure from all over the world. [Some think that strategy is elegant and refined.]

But there was a high school teacher…. [Actually a German gymnasium was somewhere between a good high school and a junior college.] Fritz Haber was a good teacher and had been working on getting nitrogen out of air. By World War One it was ready to go. The Bosch company helped.

The Haber process meant that the war went on and on. Never underestimate a Lutheran high school teacher.

On the other hand most of the world’s fertilizer and so food now comes from the Haber process. Without Fritz Haber many fewer people would have died, the European civilization may not have so thoroughly undermined itself, and the pre-war society may have survived with all its quaint practices.

Of course famine and starvation would have killed millions for years to come without cheap, sterile fertilizer.

A Grateful Germany heaped rewards on Herr Haber. A few years later all was lost as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party came to power and discovered that this proud, Prussian, Lutheran hero was of Jewish descent.

Never trust the gratitude or faith of even your own government.

Uncle David



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