Move the mouse pointer over a red word in the main text, to view the glossary entry for this word.

The Role of the German Chemical Industry in the First World War

With the start of the First World War on August 1, 1914, the German chemicals industry faced immediate and radical changes. First, companies could no longer import the raw materials they urgently needed; second, they increasingly shifted their activities to weapons production. Once the positional war on the Western Front began in September 1914, it became clear that Germany was not ready for a long war and possessed no raw materials reserves. Germany was cut off from all imports and shortages ensued, most significantly in saltpeter (potassium nitrate), most of which had been shipped in from Chile. As saltpeter was indispensable both to the production of explosives and munitions as well as fertilizers, a solution to the shortage had to be found.


Late September 1914 saw a meeting between Carl Bosch, the second ranking executive of BASF, and representatives of the War Ministry. Aiming for a solution to the saltpeter shortage, the military hoped it would be possible to develop a process for industrial creation of nitric acid (which in turn is used in making saltpeter) from synthetic ammonia. Bosch gave the high command assurances that it was possible to oxidize ammonia into nitric acid on an industrial scale. This became known as the “saltpeter promise,” and it signaled a commitment by the chemical industry to the arms industry.


The BASF plant in Oppau had taken up the production of synthetic ammonia for fertilizers in 1913. It was now expected also to produce the nitric acid needed for saltpeter. Given the increasingly dire shortage of homefront labor, the military agreed to release workers who had already been drafted into military service and make them available instead as labor for the conversion of the Oppau plant and subsequent production there. Oppau began to process nitrates into nitric acid in 1915. As BASF still could not cover the extremely high military demand, it built a second plant for that purpose at Leuna in 1916. Bosch reassigned the Oppau plant manager, Carl Krauch, to oversee construction at the Leuna plant, which took up production in April 1917. By the end of that year the two plants had produced a total of 90,000 tons of nitrates, which were used almost exclusively in the production of munitions. These plants were sized for the war; peace would leave them with productive overcapacities.


In the fall of 1914, the War Ministry adopted a proposal by Major Max Bauer to appoint a commission that would consider whether the poisonous by-products of dyestuff production should be used as weapons in the war. The commission was headed by Carl Duisberg of Bayer and Walter Nernst, a chemistry professor at the University of Berlin. A fateful proposal to use chlorine gas on the front was later presented to the high command by Fritz Haber, now the head of the chemicals department at the Prussian War Ministry’s agency for raw materials acquisition. Haber had also served as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for physical chemistry and electrochemistry at Berlin-Dahlem starting in 1912. These moves were premeditated violations of the Hague Conventions, which banned the use of poison gas.


The German army’s first use of chlorine gas on the front followed on April 22, 1915, at the Belgian town of Ypres. The offensive caused the deaths by poison gas of an estimated 800 to 1,400 people; an additional 2,000 to 3,000 were wounded by exposure to the gas. Estimates differ on the total number of casualties stemming from the use of poison gas during the war as a whole. While it is considered relatively certain that more than one half-million soldiers were wounded and 15,000 to 20,000 were killed by gas among the troops of Germany, Britain, France, and the United States in 1914 to 1918, data on the losses suffered among Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian forces are far less reliable. Russian troops alone are believed to have suffered more than a half-million casualties; due to the poor protective equipment available on the Russian side, it is likely that about 10 percent of these casualties were fatalities, representing an additional 50,000 to 60,000 killed. No statistics are known today with regard to civilian casualties from the use of poison gas, or the later consequences of gas-related injuries to soldiers who survived the war.


Under Duisberg’s management, Bayer developed a series of new poison gas weapons for the front. First came phosgene, which was more lethal than chlorine gas and was contained in color-coded shells known as “green cross” grenades. Then came mustard gas. BASF joined Bayer as a major supplier of phosgene and of intermediary products required in the production of mustard gas. The so-called “blue cross” grenades contained a gas that caused vomiting and pulmonary irritation, forcing soldiers to remove their gas masks and breathe in the deadly mustard gas or chlorine gas which would be fired off simultaneously. The chemical industry labored constantly to “optimize” the use of poison gases. Prior to the development of poison gas grenades, chlorine gas was simply released from a tank and blown in the direction of the enemy using fans.


The German imperial government’s war effort depended on the chemicals industry, and this served to reinforce the industry’s political influence. In 1916 Carl Duisberg met with Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the generals of the high command, to discuss arms production and the shortage of homefront labor. Duisberg encouraged them to make up for the labor shortage with forced laborers from Belgium; the Ministry of the Interior took up the proposal. German homefront industry also ended up drawing on forced laborers from Poland. About 60,000 Belgian men and women were deported to Germany as laborers in 1916, leading to international protests. The combination of the international pressure and the refusal of the Belgians to engage as forced laborers actually made their return to Belgium possible.


In summary, we observe a complex collaboration between industry, the military, and the scientific community in the development of various poison gases for use in the hostilities. The German chemicals industry had an additional impact on the war, helping to lengthen it by developing methods for replacing the natural raw materials used for munitions with synthetic products, and constantly working on the development of new poison gases. This alliance with government and the military resulted in high profits for the companies.

(DOP; transl. NL; based on: Karl Heinz Roth: Die Geschichte der I.G. Farbenindustrie AG von der Gründung bis zum Ende der Weimarer Republik)


[pdf] Karl Heinz Roth_The History of IG Farbenindustrie AG from Its Founding to the End of the Weimar Republic



Abelshauser, Werner, ed.: Die BASF. Eine Unternehmensgeschichte. Munich: Beck, 2002.

Borkin, Joseph: The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Feldman, Gerald: Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914–1918. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1966.

Haber, Ludwig F.: The Poisonous Cloud. Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

Köhler, Otto: …und heute die ganze Welt. Die Geschichte der IG Farben BAYER, BASF und HOECHST. Cologne: PapyRossa, 1990.

Lepick, Oliver: La Grande Guerre chimique: 1914–1918. Paris: Presses Univ. de France, 1998.

Lindner, Stephan H.: Inside IG Farben: Hoechst during the Third Reich. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Plumpe, Gottfried: Die I.G. Farbenindustrie AG. Wirtschaft, Technik und Politik 1904–1945. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1990.

Radandt, Hans, ed.: Fall 6. Ausgewählte Dokumente und Urteil des IG-Farben-Prozesses. Berlin: VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1970.

Szöllösi-Janze, Margit: Fritz Haber 1868–1934. Eine Biographie. Munich: Beck, 1998.

Thiel, Jens: „Menschenbassin Belgien“: Anwerbung, Deportation und Zwangsarbeit im Ersten Weltkrieg. Essen: Klartext, 2007.