Toronto Star, April 25, 2015
Horror and healing: Germany's chemical legacy
Two German cities excised the name of former Friedrich Bayer & Co. chief executive’s role in helping to mobilize mass quantities of deadly gas for the German war effort.
Mitch Potter, Foreign Affairs Writer -- They were brilliant. They synthesized technology that changed the world, revolutionizing agriculture and filling bellies as never before.
They were repugnant. They made poisons, each one more horrific than the last, meant for the enemy’s lungs, eyes and skin. On an industrial scale. And actually began using them, 100 years ago.
Germany’s contradictory chemical legacy — First World War innovations that simultaneously worked in service to, and for the destruction of, mankind — is falling under new scrutiny now, as critics round on the lesser-known pioneers of gas warfare and the private companies they led.
Science has long wrestled with the ethics of German chemist Fritz Haber, whose genius embodied both attributes. He is regarded as the indisputable “father of chemical warfare” for his relentless role in the first-ever deployment of deadly chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium, on April 22, 1915.
Paradoxically, about half of human food production relies upon fertilizer produced through the Haber process of synthesized ammonia, for which Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Haber did not work alone in the runup to gas warfare, and campaigners in Germany now are marking the centennial with a call for fuller scrutiny of leading industrialists who helped smash the chemical taboo.
They’re getting some traction. Two German cities, Dortmund and Ludenscheid, recently excised the name Carl Duisberg from streets dedicated to his honour, citing the former Friedrich Bayer & Co. chief executive’s role in helping to mobilize mass quantities of chlorine, phosgene and skin-burning mustard gas for the German war effort.
“We in Germany have for many years concentrated our attention on the extreme crimes of Hitler and the Third Reich, which has overshadowed what happened in the First World War,” said Philipp Mimkes, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers.
“But now, with the 100th anniversary of gas warfare, this earlier history is coming alive for us. None of this is a secret. But it has been in the shadows, with very little attention to the leaders of Bayer and BASF and the rest of the German chemical industry and the role they played — as actors, not as victims — in leading and benefiting from that time.”
Historians also link Duisberg, a chemist by training, to the First World War enslavement of an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Belgians, who were forcibly removed to Germany to work in armaments factories. Politically active between the wars, he also drove the conglomeration of Bayer, BASF, Hoechst and some smaller firms into the chemical supergiant IG Farben, which would go on after his death in 1935 to become the Nazi regime’s most important contractor.
IG Farben’s scientists won several Nobel Prizes for key discoveries, including the game-changing antibacterial drug Prontosil. Laboratories under the group’s control also produced Sarin nerve gas and the infamous Holocaust-era poison Zyklon B. The company’s directors later faced U.S. military tribunals at Nuremberg in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Broken apart after the war, IG Farben’s constituent parts eventually reincorporated. BASF ranks today as the world’s largest chemical company. The modern-day Bayer AG, having reacquired the global trademark seized after the wars, acknowledges some of the wartime activities in brief mentions on its websites.
A spokesperson for Bayer Inc., the company’s Canadian branch, declined to comment on Duisberg’s role in gas attacks of 1915, saying the subsidiary had never encountered such questions before. “From time to time, we get queries about World War II, but this is new to us.”
Pieter Trogh, a researcher with Belgium’s Flanders Field Museum specializing in the gas attacks at Ypres, told the Star the centennial offers an important opportunity to ponder the role of science and private corporations in the context of war.
“We are all contradictory beings, with opposing sides to our characters, and the story of German chemistry in World War I illustrates this perfectly,” said Trogh.
“Men like Fritz Haber and Carl Duisberg were patriotic in a way we can barely understand today; they believed they were doing the right thing for their country. But when you see what followed, all the way up to gas attacks in the Iran-Iraq war and now Syria, it makes you think anew about the role of science and industry in conflict.
“Obviously, you can’t blame the actual present-day management of companies like Bayer for what happened 100 years ago. But these questions are important. We need to learn the lessons of the past.”