The Kaiser's Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany

By Jeffrey Allan Johnson | Go to book overview

9 Military Strength and Science Come Together: The Kaiser's Chemists at War

With deepest thanks to our Imperial Lord we may praise the fate which allowed the Kaiser Wilhelm Society to arise at just the right time. . . . Create, organize, discipline: in this triad of German spirit and German labor, military strength and science come together.

-- Adolf von Harnack, Annual Report of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, April 1916

In short, modern warfare is in every respect so horrifying, that sensible people can only regret that it draws its means from the progress of the sciences. I hope that the present war will teach the peoples of Europe a lasting lesson.

-- Emil Fischer, December 1917

"The outbreak of war overtook us like a natural disaster," Willstätter wrote later. 1 In the first few days of August, the timetables of the Schlieffen Plan pulled most of the bright young chemists from their quiet laboratories and sent them out to chase the dream of victory on the fields of Belgium, France, and Russia. Emil Fischer took what was in those days an unusually realistic view of the war, fearing that Germany's opponents were strong enough to prolong the war into the next summer; after the Schlieffen Plan died at the Marne, he extended his prediction to at least one to one and a half years. His expectations corresponded to the most pessimistic assumptions of the group around Walther Rathenau and Karl Helfferich, with whom Fischer was to agree in other areas as well. 2 Nevertheless Fischer had come to accept the war as an inevitable response to the military threat from abroad, especially from the East. If Germany must fight, he reasoned, it was better to do so before the foe grew even stronger. His reasoning, evidently influenced by exaggerated reports in the German press that summer, approached the idea of "preventive war" circulating among leading circles of the German government and military during the early part of 1914, rather than the "defensive war" line with which the war

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