Haber is a sung-through rock opera about Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish chemist at the turn of the 20th century who rose to the highest heights of academia to become one of Germany’s foremost experts in electrochemistry, but whose Faustian bargain with the Kaiser and military establishment ultimately earned him lasting notoriety.
The musical begins full of hope as we follow Haber’s career trajectory from unknown to scientific hero, and witness his quest for recognition from his German colleagues and compatriots. He eventually receives a Nobel prize and worldwide acclaim for his discovery of the process of nitrogen fixation — described poetically by contemporaries as the extraction of “bread from air” — which revolutionizes agriculture. Haber’s first half ends with Haber reaching the apex of his scientific career when he is invited to preside over the prestigious new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin.
Soon after, however, Haber’s humanitarian reputation is tainted when he is tapped by Kaiser Wilhelm II to spearhead Germany’s wartime chemical weapon program. In his exaggerated patriotic zest to prove himself a true German, Haber wins military accolades, but also attracts accusations of war crimes. His wife, Clara, Germany’s first female PhD and a pacifist, becomes so distraught by Haber’s military contributions that she commits suicide shortly after the first deployment of chemical weapons in 1915. Most tragically and ironically, after all he has accomplished scientifically and militarily as a German, and after having essentially sold his soul and tarnished his legacy for his country, Haber is sent into exile by the Nazis, who still see him as nothing but a Jew.
But this is not a story about just one man’s rise and fall: depictions of Germany’s parallel vertiginous rise and precipitous fall are also interwoven into the musical’s plot. Newly formed in the 1870s, Germany was a rapidly modernizing nation with an inferiority complex. When the impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm II came to the throne in the late 1880s, his aggressive foreign policy, emphasis on military and naval strength, and lead-footed diplomatic gaffes increased Germany’s diplomatic isolation and set the stage for WWI. In peacetime, Germany had been poised to emerge as the continent’s economic and technological leader. Instead, the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of an apocalyptic war brought it to its knees and sowed the seeds for the horrors of WWII.
Most importantly, Haber is the story of the end of an age of innocence, in which science and engineering were seen purely as implements for good, and humanity was assumed to be constantly progressing towards a more perfect version of itself. WWI exposed the harsh truth that science is a tool like any other, employable for purposes both virtuous and bestial. Though the events it depicts transpired a century ago, Haber’s examination of its protagonist’s life and work raises still-relevant questions about the role scientists should play as moral stewards of scientific progress.