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

By Jeffrey Allan Johnson | Go to book overview

ing the useless deaths of his two younger sons. Overwhelmed by the ongoing horror, he put aside nationalistic shibboleths, reevaluated his own role and that of science in the war effort, and prepared himself to reject the Kaiser and political system that he had served so ably, but which could not halt the insanity. In December 1917--in the shadow of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia--Fischer reflected that although unlike Haber and Nernst, he had held back from a major part in the development of poison gas, it really did not matter. High explosive--a fruit of his own organic chemistry--caused no less gruesome a death. "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 and bring the friends of peace into power. Otherwise the present ruling classes will really deserve to be swept away by socialism." 76 Before the War, Fischer would have found the last statement unthinkable; it sounded more like the radical Social Democrat Karl Liebknecht, who as a member of the Prussian House of Deputies in 1911 had criticized the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for standing "too much under the protectorate of an all too highly placed personage. . . . Gentlemen," he had warned, referring to the authorization of court uniforms for the members of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, "science and research in uniform have hardly ever done good."77


Epilogue: the Fate of the Kaiser's Chemists

Pleading illness, Emil Fischer scaled back his war work in 1918; after the Kaiser's departure Fischer sent a friendly letter to Leo Arons, the physicist whom the Kaiser had purged from Berlin University two decades earlier for Social-Democratic activism, and who was now calling upon German professors to cooperate with the new regime. 78 But the war's wounds went too deep, and the ensuing revolutionary violence as well as the potential economic consequences of socialism were too frightening; within a few months an acute illness diagnosed as intestinal cancer led Fischer to an apparent suicide, 79 a broken man in a Germany that was disarmed but not truly demilitarized, reluctantly republican but backing away from a brief flirtation with socialist revolution. He could not know how quickly the lesson he had learned would be forgotten.

The other two initial proponents of the Imperial Chemical Institute, Wilhelm Ostwald and Walther Nernst, also regretted their participation in the war's excesses and hoped for better from a more democratic system; neither regretted the Kaiser's fall. Nor did either scientist find much attraction in chemical research after the war. Until his death in 1932 Ostwald promoted a theory of color harmony that he had developed, while Walther

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