As a history and film nerd, I am always interested in the historical realities that are stranger than and often inspire fiction. After rewatching Avengers: Endgame, I was inspired to try and find a real-life analog to the villainous Thanos. It was unsurprisingly challenging to uncover a historical figure that matched the description of a giant purple space megalomaniac. However, his motivations were distressingly universal. Thanos wants to create a balanced world free of hunger and strife by any means necessary. Similarly, many people have embarked on noble missions without morality, and the results have been catastrophic. The closest I could find to Thanos’s morbid balancing act was the winner of the 1918 Nobel prize.
Born 1868 in Breslau, Germany, Fritz Haber was obsessed with saving the world through science from a very young age. He worked tirelessly to create a cheap and simple artificial fertilizer, eventually succeeding with the Haber-Bosch process. This process of synthesizing ammonia quickly caught on and is still in use today, creating over 500 million tons of artificial fertilizer a year. It is estimated that plants raised with this process now feed nearly half of the world’s population. If this were Haber’s only creation, he would go down in history as one of the most outstanding scientists of all time. Unfortunately for his legacy and the world, World War I had just begun.
Not content to feed the world, Haber thought science was the key to peace, a peace that could only come from his nation being victorious. He stated, “During peacetime, a scientist belongs to the World, but during wartime, he belongs to his country.” Many scientists have felt the same way over the centuries, and no one balked when Haber began using his artificial fertilizer to help increase Germany’s weapons production. Sadly, like many fictional supervillains, Haber’s flaw was not his desires but how far he was willing to go to achieve them.
In 1915, Allied soldiers began suffocating to death in their trenches when a ghastly green mist slowly wafted through their ranks. Haber’s war-ending super weapon had arrived: poison gas. Believing that death was death no matter what form it took, Haber had used his scientific expertise to create a new weapon that would bring peace. Just as Thanos found a way to remove his enemies with a single snap, Haber found a way to kill all in his path by floating poison in the wind. However, fictional horror cannot compare to the reality of those young soldiers coughing their lungs out on the battlefield.
In the end, all of the horror and death Haber had ushered in proved fruitless. Gas masks and other defenses were created, and the Allies retaliated with their own gas attacks. The war ended with the shattering of Haber’s beloved nation and the deaths of an estimated 30,000 young men at the hands of his creation, with around 600,000 more suffering after-effects for the rest of their lives. Haber himself did not escape loss. Just as Thanos sacrificed his daughter, Haber lost his wife to suicide a week after he oversaw the world’s first major gas attack. The idealist Fritz Haber who had set out to help save the world now found himself forever known as the father of toxic gas and chemical warfare.
However, Haber’s legacy was still in the balance. As horrified as the scientific community was at his creation, he was still awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his groundbreaking work synthesizing ammonia. Seven years later, the Geneva Protocols were signed by the League of Nations, banning chemical weapons from ever being used again. Perhaps, with the “War to End All Wars” behind him, Haber thought he could sit out the rest of his life in peace and obscurity at the head of one of Europe’s biggest chemical companies of the time. Thanos had a similar plan for a peaceful retirement, but neither got what they wanted. After decades of service and sacrifice to his country, Haber finally encountered a challenge that he could not approach with science. In 1934 he was chased from Germany for his Jewish ancestry and died a few months later of a heart attack. Dying a broken man, he was at least spared the horror of witnessing how the Nazis would use his poison gas research during the Holocaust.
Reality is often stranger than fiction and more horrifying. As fascinating as movies and books can be, we can never forget the real-life horrors that occasionally inspire and overtake them. While I do not think Fritz Haber was the inspiration for a fictional giant alien, I find it fascinating and saddening that Thanos’s maniacal goals are not nearly as alien as we would like to think. Haber’s chemical weapons were used by almost every faction in the first World War. His research led to Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan using gas attacks against Ethiopia and China and ultimately fueled the horrors of the Holocaust.
On the other hand, many historians credit his Haber-Bosch process with providing the food necessary for the Earth’s population to explode from around 1.6 billion before his creation to nearly eight billion today. Sometimes known as “the man who killed millions but saved billions,” Fritz Haber comes the closest of anyone to achieving Thanos’s fictional goal of killing half of the population so the other half can thrive. His legacy is forever trapped in the purgatory between being the 20th century’s greatest scientific hero and villain. His life is a tragic warning that the road to hell truly can be paved with the best intentions.