Sandro Fehr

Die „Stickstofffrage“ in der deutschen Kriegswirtschaft
des Ersten Weltkriegs und die Rolle der neutralen Schweiz

Band 8 der Schriftenreihe: Berner Forschungen zur Neuesten Allgemeinen und Schweizer Geschichte


The author wishes to underline the importance for Germany of access to nitrogen, both in peacetime and in war. The work pointedly illuminates the attention given to nitrogen's international significance for increased agricultural production, and thus for demographic growth, in the period before the First World War, given that access to Chile saltpeter would cease. With a considerable overseas import of nitrogen Compounds for agriculture and industry, and the import of nitrogenous agricultural products, Germany was susceptible to blockade in wartime. In addition, Chile saltpeter was essential for the production of saltpeter acid, needed for all effective explosives. "Die Stickstofffrage" was, for Germany, a question of meeting a critical wartime need for food production and for supplying nitrogen to an increasing production of ammunition. At the outbreak of war, the authorities were quite unpre-pared for a lengthy conflict. As a consequence of the Entente's blockade, the supply of Chile saltpeter ceased in the course of autumn 1914. Other nitrogen Compounds from neutral countries were im-ported in gradually diminishing quantities during the war but could, together with the spoils of war, contribute a little. An unexpected level of ammunition consumption and the transition to a war of attrition after the Battle of the Marne further strengthened the recognition by the Army High Com-mand and the civil authorities of the necessity of speeding up the domestic production of nitrogen.

Several production processes were known before the war. Production using the Norwegian arc process was negligible during the war due to the excessive need for electrical energy. Nitrogen was a by-product of the production of gas and coke, but dependant on the demand for coke. Despite be-ing hal ved between 1913 and the two last years of the war, the production of nitrogen from this source was considerable. Production using the cyanamide process increased markedly in 1916, but stag-nated thereafter. In due course, the main focus was on the Haber-Bosch-process, not least in light of its Utility for the production of ammunition and of military priorities. Production by this method exceeded production by the cyanamide process for the first time in 1916. The Haber-Bosch-process was the most used of the production methods in the two last years of the war, and contributed 50 percent of the total production of nitrogen in 1918. The total domestic production of nitrogen increased by 54 percent between 1913 and 1918, with a marked reduction in 1915 being followed by a leap in production in 1916 as the effect of extensions of production made itself feit. These came as a result of agreements between the authorities and a number of chemical firms. Without these self-sufficiency initiatives, Germany would have faced a nitrogen crisis in the autumn of 1915 and most likely a military crisis as well, a development which is documented with new empirical research. The Hindenburg Program in the autumn of 1916 and its effort to extract the maximum of domestic resources resulted in additional demands for the production of nitrogen, to which the new works at Merseburg contributed. The basic requirement for nitrogen for ammunition was met during the war, but agriculture suffered a much reduced supply at 30-50 percent of the pre-war level, a Situation which however met with little understanding within the third Army High Command.

Switzerland did not function as a transit land for the import of nitrogen to Germany. The nitrogen Compounds produced in Switzerland could be exported to a limited extent, without problems in regard to its neutrality. A certain degree of export of nitric acid to Germany reached a maximum in the critical transition phase up to autumn 1915. Germany received Swiss ammoniac and particu-larly cyanamide. The aggregate amount of Swiss deliveries of nitrogen Compounds was very modest. Otherwise Switzerland helped Germany with large amounts of calcium carbide, which was an indispensable material in the production of cyanamide. Swiss cyanamide works produced mostly for Germany during the war. Swiss resources in the form of electricity, labour and raw materials from the Swiss Lonza works in Waldshut/Germany contributed to the supply of nitrogen Compounds to Germany. The national authorities in Germany supported the development of carbide to cyanamide production in Waldshut financially and by giving priority to deliveries of building materials.

The author uses the pre-war requirement as a measure of the level to which the wartime requirement in the private sector (nitrogen to agriculture and other non-military industrial needs) was met. But what was the real need in this sector? The chemical industry's re-adjustment was marked by its productive capacity being to an increasing extent devoted to military production. We know that the need for sulphur in the private sector (including agriculture) was drastically reduced in the course of the first year of the war. The same probably happened as regards the need for nitrogen (VSWG 2/2009, p.173 et seq.). Nor did the private sector manage to make use of its rationed quantity of sulphur. We also know that the consumption of sulphur for fertilisers was generally lower than that which industry was allotted by rationing (Der Anschnitt, 4/2009, p. 255 et seq.).

Of the relevant literature, I especially miss reference to L. F. Haber's book on the chemical industry. Otherwise I would remark that the breadth of literature on war history seems rather limited.

The principle impression is that we are in the Company of an informed writer with clear problem formulations and chapters which cast light upon them. The reader will appreciate an up-to-date and systematically conducted special study. The material is well organised and generally presented in an instructive manner, despite the necessarily quantitative character of the work.

Rolf Harald Stensland
Bodø, Norway

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