Clara Immerwahr: A Life in the Shadow of Fritz Haber
We examine the life of Clara Haber, nee Immerwahr (1870–1915), including her tragic suicide and its possible relation to the involvement of her husband, Fritz Haber, in chemical warfare. Clara earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Breslau, in 1900, as the first woman ever, and married the physical chemist Fritz Haber within a year of her graduation. With no employment available for female scientists, Clara freelanced as an instructor in the continued education of women, mainly housewives, while struggling not to become a housewife herself. Her duties as the designated head of a posh household hardly brought fulfillment to her life. The outbreak of WWI further exacerbated the situation, as Fritz Haber applied himself in extraordinary ways to aid the German war effort, which included his initiative to develop chemical weapons. The night that he celebrated the “success” of the first chlorine cloud attack and his promotion to the rank of captain, Clara committed suicide. However, we found little evidence to support express claims that Clara was an outspoken pacifist who took her life because of her disapproval of her husband’s engagement in chemical warfare. We examine the origin of this “myth of Clara Immerwahr” that took root in the 1990s from the perspective offered by the available scholarly sources, including those that have only recently come to light.
What Fritz [Haber] has gained during these last eight years, I have lost, and what’s left of me, fills me with the deepest dissatisfaction (Haber 1909).
This sobering summary of an eight-year marriage with Fritz Haber may serve as a key document about Clara’s life and fate, not least in regard to her suicide six years later. Over the last twenty five years, Clara’s suicide has been widely regarded not only as a personal tragedy and a result of a marital drama but, especially after the publication of her biography by Gerit von Leitner (Leitner 1993), as a consequence of Fritz Haber’s involvement in chemical warfare in general and the first chlorine cloud attack at Ypres on 22 April 1915 in particular. More than that, it has been seen as a signal of a “feminine, life-preserving science” that opposes a patriarchal science, keen on securing power and on the exploitation of natural resources. Herein, we show that, based on the available biographical materials about Clara Haber, nee Immerwahr, this interpretation of her suicide is lopsided, lacking proper consideration of the complexity of Clara’s personality and the circumstances of her life and time.
2 Clara Immerwahr’s Background
Clara Immerwahr1 was born on 21 June 1870 at the estate of Polkendorf near Breslau, where her father, a PhD chemist, withdrew after the failure of his chemical start-up company. Apart from becoming a highly successful agronomist in Polkendorf and its surroundings, he co-owned a flourishing specialty store in Breslau dealing in luxury fabrics and carpets. The family maintained an apartment in Breslau where the Immerwahrs would stay during their frequent visits to the city. And Clara would live there during her studies in Breslau.
Breslau, characterized by Goethe as a “noisy, dirty and stinking” town (Goethe 1949, 378), transformed itself during the second half of the nineteenth century into a prosperous metropolis teeming with business and industrial enterprise. This was accompanied by an enormous increase in population, which doubled during the 30 years since 1875, reaching 471,000 in 1905 (Rahden 2008, 32). At the same time, Breslau developed into a major center of science and culture with a large educated middle class. There was the Schlesische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, founded in 1811 (whose forerunner was the Leopoldina, founded in 1702), a number of colleges, as well as an opera house, several orchestras, and a city theater—all of them of national significance (Davies and Moorhouse 2002).
The era of economic and cultural prosperity that the city enjoyed coincided with the childhood and youth of Clara Immerwahr, whose family belonged to Breslau’s well-to-do Jewish middle class. After Berlin and Frankfurt, the Jewish community of Breslau was the third largest, at over twenty thousand Jewish residents (Rahden 2008, 32), and its synagogue, consecrated in 1872, even the second largest in Germany (Scheuermann 1994). Breslau’s Jewish community was academically oriented and represented the city’s “intellectual aristocracy,” to which also the Immerwahrs belonged (Noack 1959). However, they were assimilated Jews, who participated in communal cultural life but would only rarely, if at all, go to the Synagogue. Jewish religion, customs and practices played essentially no role in the family life. The political attitudes of the Immerwahr family were liberal, which however entailed the cultivation and demonstration of a certain degree of Prussian-German national awareness and patriotism, especially after the German unification of 1871 (Clark 2007). Prussian was also the simple lifestyle of the family, which was frugal—not because of need but out of principle. So despite the family’s wealth, Clara and her three siblings were brought up in modesty.
Apart from the virtues of simplicity, frugality and modesty, a great value was attached to education—not just for the son and heir, but also for the three daughters. This was typical for the German Jewish middle class, as 40% of female students at the higher schools in Breslau were Jewish. As opposed to Switzerland or the Anglo-Saxon countries, German high schools (Gymnasium) were out of limits for women until the beginning of the twentieth century. The Grand-Duchy of Baden was the first state in Germany to institute, in 1900, admission of female students to universities. Before then, it was only possible for women to attend university by a special permission or as guest auditors (Johnson 1998).
Clara’s path to education was shaped by these constraints. She started her studies at a Höhere Töchterschule (sometime translated as “women’s college”) in Breslau, which was supplemented during the summer months spent at the Polkendorf estate by instruction provided by a private tutor. Clara graduated from the Töchterschule in 1892 at age 22. The school was supposed to provide a basic education for young women that was compatible with their social status and to prepare them for their “natural purpose,” that is, as companions of their husbands, as housewives, and as mothers. Nevertheless, Clara was up for more and after graduating from the Töchterschule she entered a teachers’ seminary, which was the only type of institution that offered a higher professional education to women (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 124). However, the graduates of the teachers’ seminary only qualified to teach at girls’ schools and remained ineligible to enter university and study, for example, science, which is what Clara wanted to do. So in order to qualify for the university, Clara had to take intensive private lessons and pass an exam equivalent to the Abitur. This exam was administered by a special committee set up at a Realgymnasium in Breslau and Clara passed it successfully at Easter 1896, when she was 26 years old.
Subsequently, Clara began her studies at the University of Breslau, however only as a guest auditor, since in Prussia women would only become legally admissible as university students as late as 1908. Prior to this, starting in 1895, women were only allowed to attend lectures as guests, and even that was contingent upon the support of the professor and faculty and permission from the Ministry; the last required a certificate of good conduct, character references, and so on. It is difficult today to imagine what it meant to women to break into the male domain of higher learning and what kind of discrimination and humiliation was connected with it. Talk of “intellectual Amazons” was not uncommon.
Nature herself prescribed a role for women as mothers and housewives (Planck 1897, 256).
Thus according to the spirit of the time, Clara Immerwahr, with her wish to become a chemist, violated a law of nature. After her successful Abitur exam, Clara applied to the university curator’s office for permission to attend lectures in experimental physics as a guest. And she had to proceed in a similarly awkward manner with all the other lecture courses that she wished to take.
From early on, Clara developed a keen interest in the then new field of physical chemistry.2 Richard Abegg, one of this new field’s pioneers and a friend of Fritz Haber’s, played a key role in fostering Clara’s interest in physical chemistry while paying little heed to Clara’s guest auditor status. It was also Abegg who supervised Clara’s PhD thesis—a part of the graduation requirement in chemistry—and who wrote a joint paper with Clara in 1899. The joint paper, published in 1900 (see next section and references therein), must have been perceived by the young female chemist as proof of her success and as an accolade. The following year, Clara submitted her dissertation and applied to be admitted to the Rigorosum final, which entailed exams in chemistry, physics, mineralogy, and philosophy. She passed the exams during the Fall and defended her thesis at the university’s main auditorium on December 22, 1900.
Otto Sackur (Fig. 2) was Clara’s ten year junior Kommilitone, who studied chemistry at the University of Breslau, where, like Clara, he found an enlightened mentor in Richard Abegg. Sackur served on Clara’s PhD committee as a referee.
As a Privatdozent at the University of Breslau, he was left after Abegg’s death without an academic patron or a laboratory. It was during this period that Sackur launched his research at the intersection of thermodynamics and quantum theory. A reward in the form of a more senior appointment came at the end of 1913 when, thanks in part to mediation by Clara Haber, Sackur received a call to Haber’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin. In 1914 he was promoted to the rank of a department head. After the outbreak of WWI he was enlisted in military research at Haber’s institute, but continued on the side his experiments on the behavior of gases at low temperatures. In December of 1914, he was killed in a laboratory accident at his work bench, while trying to tame cacodyl chloride for use as an irritant and propellant (Badino and Friedrich 2013). He was just 34 years old.
While Abegg represented Clara’s connection to science who, in addition, acted as her “cheerleader” and confidant in private matters, Otto Sackur was Clara’s friend and Kommilitone. After Sackur’s laboratory accident, Clara was among the first to attend to the injured. She proved capable of acting rationally in a situation drastic to the extreme and to coordinate attempts to help the injured. However, Sackur died on the spot, before her eyes; Clara was crushed by Sackur's death. At the site of accident‚ Fritz Haber was just gasping for air in the arms of a coworker. He was shattered to the point that he stopped for good explosives research at his institute (James et al. 2011, 27).
3 The Scientific Work of Clara Immerwahr
Clara’s scientific record consists of three research papers (Immerwahr and Abegg 1900; Immerwahr 1900a, 1901a), a supplement (Immerwahr 1900b) and an erratum (Immerwahr 1901b) to one of the research papers. Her first research paper is co-authored by her PhD adviser, Richard Abegg, the other two are solo. The second solo paper is an excerpt from Clara’s PhD thesis. Clara’s work concerned solution chemistry, one of the main preoccupations of physical chemistry at the time, and revolved about the connections among the conductivity, solubility, degree of dissociation, electrochemical potential and what was called electro-affinity.
The paper with Abegg, which expanded on the ideas of the 1899 Abegg-Bodländer paper that introduced the notion of electro-affinity as an organizing principle in chemistry (Abegg and Bodländer 1899), pretty much determined the topic and methodology of Clara’s thesis paper. The thesis paper dealt in a more systematic way with the interplay between solubility of choice heavy metal salts and the electro-affinities of the constituent groups and atoms. Apart from providing tables of experimentally determined values of quantities such as equilibrium concentrations and relative electrode potentials, the paper aimed at assessing the issue of whether electro-affinities were additive quantities. The latter might be the reason for the relatively high number of citations (24) this paper has so far received.3 However, one should keep in mind that quite a few of the publications citing Clara’s paper are recent biographical articles about Clara rather than scientific papers.
Clara’s second paper aimed to expand the solubility data base to include copper salts, using the ideas and methods developed by Walther Nernst, Wilhelm Ostwald and Friedrich Wilhelm Küster. The last was Clara’s professor at the University of Breslau, who also deserves credit for arousing her interest in physical chemistry. He moved to the Bergakademie in Clausthal in 1899 and it was in Küster’s Clausthal laboratory that Clara undertook the measurements reported in her second paper. As she noted, her data could be regarded as a corroboration of the Nernst-Ostwald-Küster theory.
Clara’s PhD adviser Richard Abegg became well known for his work on valence that led to the octet rule. Clara’s work on electro-affinity was somewhat related to this line of Abegg’s research, but her contribution was not deemed significant enough to warrant Clara’s inclusion in Svante Arrhenius’s list of half a dozen or so of Abegg’s former affiliates who had contributed to Abegg’s research the most (Arrhenius 1910). To be sure, Sackur was not on that list either. However, Sackur made a name for himself in a research area that lay outside of Abegg’s range of interests and published his key work only after Abegg’s death (Badino and Friedrich 2013). It should also be noted that Clara’s work, unlike Abegg’s or Sackur’s, did not seek to enrich the conceptual framework of physical chemistry in any way or to launch a new research direction.
Apart from her work as a researcher, Clara also gave public lectures, both in Breslau and later in Karlsruhe, on the broad topic of science in the household. Inspired by Lassar Cohn’s popular book Chemistry in daily life,4 Clara’s lectures attracted audiences of up to one hundred women (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 194).
4 Clara’s Husband: Fritz Haber
It has been my approach to life that it was only then worth living if one developed all one’s abilities to the utmost and lived through everything that a human life can offer. And so I finally settled upon the idea of marriage […] under the impulse that if I did not marry a decisive page in the book of my life and a string of my soul would lie idle. But the boost that I got from it was very short (Haber 1909).
As Margit Szöllösi-Janze, the biographer of both Fritz and Clara Haber, pointed out, their wedding, which took place already on August 3, 1901, marked the end of “the chapter ‘chemical science’ in Clara’s book of life” which “must have been clear to the chemist” even without “any effects on the string of her soul” (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 129).
Upon looking at the last decade of Clara’s life, one has to agree. Although at the beginning she may have harbored the hope that she would be able to resume her scientific work at some point, she must have increasingly let go of such hopes as time went on. During the first years of her marriage, Clara appeared at lectures as well as in the laboratories of the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, where her husband would soon become the founding director of its institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry.
To my dear wife Clara Haber, Ph.D., in gratitude for her silent co-operation (Haber 1908).
However, Clara was apparently not involved in doing any calculations for the book, as implied by the fact that this task fell to others (Haber 1908, x).
Nevertheless, that Clara’s involvement in Haber’s research entailed more than a silent co-operation transpires in her correspondence with Abegg, in which she reports about Haber’s progress in writing the textbook, discusses academic appointments, and solicits advice about her own public talks. However, the dream of an equitable and reciprocal scientific marriage—such as that of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris—did not come true.
… once we become millionaires and will be able to afford servants. Because I cannot even think about giving up my [scientific work] (Haber 1901).
the heyday that Haber had lived through in Karlsruhe was for his wife Clara her intellectual twilight (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 353).
[Fritz is a type of person] on the side of whom every other person who does not force his way even more recklessly at the other’s expense than him, will perish. And that is the case with me (Haber 1909).
There were still six years left until Clara’s voluntary exit from life on May 2, 1915. During this time Fritz Haber would enjoy further scientific and social ascent: in 1909, he laid the scientific foundations for the catalytic synthesis of ammonia from its elements (“bread from air”) and in 1911 he became the founding director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin.
the wearing down and the difficulties between the spouses were not of a petty kind but rather fundamental (Noack 1959, 301).
The strains and conflicts between Clara and Fritz further aggravated after the outbreak of WWI. In keeping with the maxim “In peace for mankind, in war for the fatherland,”9 Fritz Haber applied himself in extraordinary ways to aid the German war effort (Stern 2011; Dunikowska and Turko 2011; Friedrich and James, this volume).
In part encouraged by the French use of tear gas (Haber 1924)—including its lethal variants—Haber took the initiative to employ chemistry in resolving the greatest strategic challenge of the war, namely the stalemate of trench warfare. Brought to glistening prominence by Germany’s need to produce “gunpowder from air,” Haber, backed by the profiteering chemical industry, was able to persuade his country’s military leadership to stage a battlefield test of a chemical weapon—of “poison instead of air.” This would earn him the epithet “father of chemical warfare.”
The lethality of the April 22, 1915 chlorine cloud attack at Ypres lured the German military into adopting chemical warfare. Haber was promoted, by an imperial decree, to the rank of captain.
Haber celebrated the “success” at Ypres and his promotion at a gathering in his directorial mansion in Dahlem. The gathering took place in the evening of May 1, 1915. Afterwards, during the night from May 1 to May 2, Clara Haber committed suicide. She shot herself, with Haber’s army pistol, in the garden of their mansion. Apparently, Haber, sedated by his daily allowance of sleeping pills, didn’t hear the shots (there were two). Clara was found dying by their thirteen-year-old son Hermann.
5 Clara Haber’s Suicide
chemical warfare was an avenue or excuse for the morbid worry she seemed to favor (Goran 1967, 71).
However, Goran doesn’t give any references here either, which led Margit Szöllösi-Janze to the characterization of his book as one where “the line between a historically correct study and fiction is blurred” (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 395).
Possible motives for Clara Haber’s suicide. Left: Sources suggesting that the motive had to do with disagreements about Haber’s involvement in the German war effort. Right: Sources suggesting that Clara’s suicide had to do with disagreements about personal matters and/or her depression
Disagreements about Fritz Haber’s involvement in German war effort
Disagreements about personal matters; depression
Hans Krassa (1957); Archiv MPGa
Haber (1909); letter to Abeggc
Franck (1958); Archiv MPGb
Haber (1915); letter to Tamarud
Goran (1967); source not given
Hahn (1915); letter to Otto Hahne
Mendelssohn (1973); source not given
Meitner (1915); letter to Edith Hahne
Von Leitner (1993); sources: either not given or Goran, Lütge, Lummitzsch tapped selectively
Lummitzsch (1955); Memoirsf
Noack (1959); Archiv MPGg
Goran (1967); source not given
Lütge (1958); Archiv MPGh
Haber (1970); Memoirsi
Ebbinghaus (1993); review of von Leitner’s bookj
No, this is not to be presumed. Frau Geheimrat [Clara] … was not in a state of mind to contemplate the abhorrence of chemical warfare … Yes, sometimes was Frau Haber gloomy, especially after being harshly rebuffed for mothering her husband too much (Lütge 1958, 260).
There are various more or less pathetic accounts of her [Clara’s] suicide, for instance that she had beseeched him [Fritz Haber] to abandon chemical warfare. These accounts are a nonsense (Noack 1959).
a good, talented person with distinct views, which often contradicted those of her husband … she wanted to reform the world. That her husband was involved in chemical warfare had surely an effect in her suicide (Jaenicke 1958, 1449).
expended an immense effort to reconcile his and [Clara’s] political and human views.
… there was a macabre sequel to his [Fritz Haber’s] decision to develop poison gas. His wife, Dr. Clara Immerwahr, who was also a chemist, had pleaded with him [Fritz Haber] again and again not to work on gas warfare. His answer was that his first duty was to his country and that no argument, not even the entreaties of his wife, could shake his resolve. On the evening of Haber’s departure for the front, Clara committed suicide (Mendelssohn 1973, 83).
An additional testimonial about a possible role of chemical warfare in Clara’s suicide was delivered by her cousin Hans Krassa, according to which Clara visited Krassa’s wife shortly before the suicide to confide to her about the “gruesome effects” of chemical warfare that she had witnessed, in particular the “testing on animals” (Krassa 1957, 1470). Krassa, however, added that other factors may had been at play as well. As far as Clara’s disposition was concerned, Krassa stated that “the word gloom goes too far” and that “one certainly cannot speak of a hereditary depression.”
a nervous lady, who was already then in sharp opposition to Geheimrat Haber’s ventures to the Front along with the gas troops (Lummitzsch 1955).
This quote further attests to Clara’s habit of “mothering” her husband.
[Haber] liked to represent, whereas [Clara] exaggerated the simplicity of her manner and she dressed poorly – [perhaps] as a protest? (When I visited [the Habers] for the first time, the door was answered by a person whom I held for a cleaning woman. And I thought that it would have been fitting if in such a fine household [as Habers’] the cleaning woman had dressed a little more nicely – but it was Frau Geheimrat [Clara] herself) (Franck 1958).
Out of the rest of the testimonials on the right of Table 1 we would like to bring to the fore additional tidbits provided by Adelheid Noack and by Hermann Lütge. In her conversation with Jaenicke, Noack also mentioned that Clara was “horrified by anything sensual,” in keeping with the fact that she had quit the marital bedroom in 1902, never to return to it (Noack 1959). This fact as well as Noack’s testimonial was corroborated by Haber’s second wife, Charlotte Nathan, who had access to such intimate information more than anybody else (Haber 1970, 83 and 89). A real bombshell was dropped by Hermann Lütge, who testified that during the fateful night of May 1–2, 1915, Clara caught her husband in flagranti with Charlotte Nathan (Lütge 1958, 260). Charlotte worked as a manager of the then incipient club “Deutsche Gesellschaft 1914,” where she and Haber got to know each other and was invited to the grand celebration of the “success” at Ypres in Habers’ mansion (although Charlotte later contradicted it). The sociologist Angelika Ebbinghaus (Ebbinghaus 1993) as well as the historian Margit Szöllösi-Janze (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 398) indicated that they tend to the view that Clara’s discovery of her husband’s affair may have been the actual trigger for her suicide.
Of course was the woman [Clara] ill, she’d been always strange – everybody was mocking her (Hahn 1915).
as of late [Clara] had always made an impression of being agitated (Meitner 1915).
he [Fritz Haber] [was] guilty. I have the feeling that she was [strongly] attached to him and that he treated her badly – or at least quite indifferently, and that she suffered more than we can imagine. Recently, she complained [to me] that he would never write to her [from the front], this came out inadvertently and was so sad that I lied to her that you write to me only seldom [as well] and [pointed out to her] that her husband has had even less time [than you did]. Poor, poor woman. I’ve had always the feeling that he was fed up with her, which I could understand to a certain extent (Hahn 1915).
she [Clara] has recently made remarks to the effect that she was unhappy in her marriage. And that he [Fritz Haber] is not exactly an affectionate person. Anyway, it’s a very sad story (Meitner 1915).
I am a pacifist of sorts and am always against war. A war doesn’t decide anything, just breeds the next war (Tamaru 1914).
… my husband is working 18-hour days, almost always in Berlin, I’m taking care of 57 poor children14 and Hermann [the son] has been ill since November … Apart from that we are all adversely affected by the outrage and the dull pressure [of the war] that disable any impulse to do anything else than to help the country in the few remaining hours [of the day] (Haber 1915).
To your political contentions, which were very interesting for us [to read], I will not respond; I am too ignorant in the matters of foreign affairs to be able to properly answer [your points]. You are certainly right in many respects, but have somewhat one-sided views on some points (Haber 1915).
to report on the success of the first gas attack at Ypres right after receiving a telegram from the front about it (Kremmer 1934).
the boss [Clara] was proud of the services provided by her husband (Lütge 1958).
As you know, Haber was supposed to leave in the morning, but stayed until the evening, when he was [finally] forced to depart. I’m told that he inquired at the [military] headquarters whether, out of consideration for the unfortunate event, he could postpone his departure, but his request was denied (Meitner 1915).
Although Lise Meitner qualified her statement by adding “Whether it’s true, I of course don’t know,” the passage nevertheless suggests that Haber was not as unfeeling a chemical warrior who left his son in the lurch without a reason as had been previously conjectured.
6 The “Myth of Clara Immerwahr”
The scarcity and ambiguity of the historical record notwithstanding, during the 1990s a narrative took root according to which Clara Haber was supposedly a pacifist and decisive opponent of chemical warfare, in contrast to her husband Fritz Haber, who was chemical warfare’s main proponent and Clara’s oppressor to boot. It appears that this narrative was catapulted into the public sphere in Germany and beyond by Gerit von Leitner’s book Der Fall Clara Immerwahr. Leben für eine humane Wissenschaft, published in 1993 (second edition 1994) as well as various dramatizations derived from it. In it, Clara is presented as an outspoken pacifist (not unlike the Czech-Austrian 1905 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner) and a star scientist (not unlike Marie Curie) who was destroyed—as both a person and a scientist—by her oppressive and opportunistic husband. The sources in von Leitner’s book are either not given or tapped selectively, so as to provide a spotless image of Clara while portraying Fritz Haber as a kind of Dr. Evil. Von Leitner’s account ignores other sources that suggest that the reasons for Clara’s suicide may have had to do with her private life. These testimonials or opinions are listed on the right in Table 1.
The emphasis on Clara’s 1909 letter to Richard Abegg (Haber 1909) is a case in point. Written on funeral stationary and opening with a tirade about her inability to locate a fountain pen (described—in pencil—on two pages out of twelve), Clara denounces her husband and details her unfulfilling life with him. The letter may have been triggered by jealousy, after Abegg, during his visit to Karlsruhe, congratulated Fritz Haber on his discovery of the catalytic synthesis of ammonia without mentioning Clara (Ebbinghaus 1993). Clara, however, had not been involved in research—her own or Haber’s—since about 1901, as she had acknowledged in the same letter. The letter is special in that it is the only one written by Clara to Abegg (or anybody else for that matter) where she had lost her nerve and complained about Haber and their marriage.
one of the best examples of a new, woman-inspired form of writing history, … a fascinating historical portrait … that reveals what was covered up and concealed for decades (Ullrich 1993).
Ullrich’s review became emblematic for the reception of the book by other critics and its tenor can be found in many additional, roughly thirty reviews that we could identify, published in leading supra-regional newspapers such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Die Welt, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Tageszeitung, in regional periodicals such as Sächsische Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Westfalen Blatt, Main Echo, Emsdettener Tageblatt, as well as in journals like Emma, 1999, Zeitschrift für Sozialgeschichte, or on ARD radio stations. And the New York Review of Books chipped in as well (Perutz 1996). Time and again, the reviews had made a connection to contemporary events in the 1990s, including misuse of scientific research by the military and the Gulf War 1990–1991. Another issue discussed in the reviews, one that touches upon the core of von Leitner’s book, is that of equality in scientific/academic marriages such as that of the Habers and the fostering of academic careers of female scientists. All that lent relevance to von Leitner’s book vis-à-vis the political trends and debates of the 1990s and made it into a vehicle for furthering the opinions, ideals and Wunschbilder of the peace movement, feminism and antimilitarism. Clara’s attempt to have a self-determined life as a woman, mother and scientist as well as her tragic suicide are interpreted as a “[beacon of a] feminine, life-preserving science” and juxtaposed with the male, patriarchal power-oriented science concerned with the exploitation of resources.
a personal fate whose meaning comes about through a true-to-life contrariness [is sacrificed to] political correctness (Vogel 1993).
could have provided the basis for a novel. Such a novel could have rendered the historical truth without necessarily being literally true. A biography, however, must fulfill other criteria, namely whether reality at least resembled that what has been presented.
Although von Leitner chose the scholarly genre of biography rather than novel—she ditched the standards of scholarship in the process of writing her account, such as documenting her statements by critically evaluated references. In her account she often puts statements/opinions in the heroine’s mouth or describes situations involving the characters of her book for which no record or evidence exist. For instance, she states that “Clara admired the courageous Bertha von Suttner” and even describes a scene in which Clara discusses women’s rights with her husband and takes the side of von Suttner. A partial list of statements and quotations appearing in von Leitner’s and other accounts of Clara Haber’s relation to chemical warfare that are of unknown origin have been listed elsewhere (Friedrich and Hoffmann 2016).
a signal for a new definition of natural sciences that had not been heard.
As regards the viability and validity of the sources, the record about the last months of Clara Immerwahr’s life during the First World War consists chiefly of gaps rather than proven knowledge (Szöllösi-Janze 1998, 395).
Despite all these defects and their explicit critique in the press as well as in Szöllösi-Janze’s authoritative Haber biography, the image of Clara Haber, nee Immerwahr as an outspoken pacifist and opponent of chemical warfare prevails in the public awareness until this day.
Herein, we plead for a more differentiated view based on the available historical record, according to which Clara Haber’s suicide appears to have likely been the result of a “catastrophic failure” (to borrow an engineering term as a metaphor) brought about by a most unfortunate confluence of a host of circumstances that included, apart from her unfulfilling life, Haber’s philandering, the tragic deaths of her close friends, Richard Abegg and Otto Sackur, as well as the death and destruction of the war itself, amplified by the perversions of chemical warfare.
However, we should refrain from projecting our contemporary ideas about women’s rights activists or peace activists on Clara Haber in an ahistorical way. What she achieved in her time does not need to be embellished with exaggerations or even wishful thinking fashioned by present-day aspirations. Her achievements speak for themselves and should not be degraded or even compromised by mixing them up with fabrications and Wunschbilder.
Herein, we draw on the biography of Clara Immerwahr as detailed in Szöllösi-Janze (1998, 124–131).
Let us note that physical chemistry came about with a purpose, namely to save chemistry from taxonomy—from becoming a collection of little disconnected facts bred mainly by organic chemists. Its founders shared the view that chemistry should seek the general rather than cherish the particular and that the way to achieve it was to adopt the methods of mathematics and physics, Friedrich (2016). The success of physical chemistry in providing a common ground for chemistry was celebrated by Ostwald in his proclamation that “[p]hysical chemistry is not just a branch on but the blossom of the tree of knowledge” Ostwald (1887).
As of 7 September 2016.
The book was translated into many European languages. Its author would become professor of chemistry at the University of Königsberg.
In fact Haber asked Abegg to take Clara along to the Freiburg conference.
This appears similar to the crisis of the marriage between Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric.
Fritz Haber was awarded the patent rights for the ammonia synthesis in 1910, Szöllösi-Janze (1998).
Usually quoted in this abbreviated form. For a full quote in German, cf. Haber (1920). Haber was referring to the attitude of Archimedes.
The individual items of the Jaenicke Collection have never been published.
Clara was the godmother of Hermann Lütge’s son (private communication, Michael Lütge, 2016).
It is conceivable that James Franck was in fact the source of Mendelsohn’s account.
The KWI’s for Chemistry and for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry were located next to each other—and the on-campus Haber mansion.
Clara ran a makeshift kindergarten that made use of the premises of Haber’s KWI. The fathers of the “57 poor children” were on the front and their mothers had to work in order to make ends meet.
Kokula is the maiden name of Gerit von Leitner.
Our special thanks are due to Margit Szöllösi-Janze (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München), whose authoritative biography Fritz Haber: 1868–1934 (C.H. Beck, München 1998) that covers both Fritz and Clara Haber proved to be an invaluable source of scholarship on the subject. In addition, Margit Szöllösi-Janze kindly provided comments specific to this article. We also thank Eckart Henning (former director of the Archive of the Max Planck Society, Berlin) for introducing us to the 1915 letters by Edith Hahn and Lise Meitner that mention Clara’s suicide and that he has only recently published. We are also grateful to Hideki Tamaru Oyama (Rikkyo University) for making available to us the letter by her grandfather Setsuro Tamaru to Clara from December 24, 1914. Last but not least, we thank Gerhard Ertl (Fritz Haber Institute), Hajo Freund (Fritz Haber Institute), and Matthew Meselson (Harvard University) for a critical reading of the manuscript.
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