The Myth of Clara Immerwahr

The Myth of Clara Immerwahr


Two articles by Bretislav Friedrich, Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society, and Dieter Hoffmann, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and Eckart Henning, Archive of the Max Planck Society, all three Berlin, Germany, claim that Clara Haber, nee Immerwahr, the wife of Fritz Haber, was not the outspoken pacifist who took her life because of her criticism for her husband’s involvement in chemical warfare.

Clara Haber became the first woman to earn a doctorate (with magna cum laude) from the University of Breslau, Prussia, in 1900. Starting in 1895, women were only allowed to attend lectures as guests and they needed the support of the professor and faculty and permission from the Ministry, requiring a good-conduct certificate, character references, etc. Only in 1908, women would become legally admissible as university students.

In 1901 Clara married Fritz Haber. This “marked the end of the chapter ‘chemical science’” for her: There was no employment available for female scientists, and Fritz’s elbow mentality and his obsession with his work and career left little room for Clara’s professional development and reduced her more and more to a mother and housewife. Clara committed suicide in the night that Fritz Haber celebrated the “success” of the first chlorine cloud attack.

So far, Clara has been seen as an outspoken pacifist and a star scientist who was destroyed by her husband. However, newly accessible letters of Edith Hahn to her husband Otto and of Lise Meitner to Edith Hahn indicate that Clara Haber’s suicide appears to have had much more complex causes. Clara was perceived as a person out of place, known to have complained about being neglected by her husband. In addition, the deaths of her closest friends, Richard Abegg and Otto Sackur, as well as the death and destruction of the war itself may have had an influence.

Bretislav Friedrich, Dieter Hoffmann, and Eckart Henning emphasize that honoring Clara, for instance through numerous awards named after her, should not be questioned in any way. Instead they recommend not to project 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 dressed up with exaggerations or wishful thinking. Clara’s graduation was unusual, difficult, and admirable.

 Also of Interest:

  • How Chemicals Became Weapons, 27 March 2015.
    Looking at the dawn of chemical warfare 100 years ago and the controversial role of Fritz Haber


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