Courageous questioning of established thinking: the life and work of Hermann Staudinger

By Markus Weber and Guido Deussing

The life and work of Hermann Staudinger

Hermann Staudinger (23. 3. 1881 – 8. 9. 1965) gave plastics chemisty its theoretical foundations. Although his outstanding career as a scientist – doctorate at 22, professorship at 26 – culminated in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Staudinger has remained largely unknown – as a public figure too – and only specialists are familiar with his life and work nowadays. A series that is starting here on aims to rectify this. It portrays Staudinger as a productive and unorthodox thinker, who refused to accept conventional arguments in both his scientific and political activities – until his ideas finally became mainstream convictions. Part 1: 1881-1919.

“Pioneer of polymer research”, “founder of plastics chemistry”, “father of macromolecules”: all chemistry textbooks abandon their normal matter-of-fact style when they start talking about Hermann Staudinger. Tribute is still being paid to him for his achievements even though he died 53 years ago now. Just about every chemist is still familiar with the name “Staudinger”, which plays a prominent role in the history of the field rather than being a mere footnote. Flashback to Stockholm on 10. December 1953, when Staudinger was presented the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden at the age of 72, after he had retired from his professorship. The absolute highlight of Staudinger’s life and work, which had been devoted to basic research, the theoretical foundations for his field, combined with untiring experimental work which took him from Worms, where he was born, to the chemical laboratory at Freiburg University, where he spent much of his life as director for twenty-five years. More than 500 different publications under his name are a reflection of the meticulous nature of Staudinger’s scientific work. Six universities (Mainz, Turin, Salamanca, Karlsruhe, Zurich and Strasbourg) awarded him honorary doctorates, while he was an honorary member of countless scientific associations as well.

Plenty left for biographers to investigate
Staudinger has remained largely unknown outside the academic community, however. A fate that he shares with other pioneers in the plastics chemistry field – even those who were originally famous for their inventions but were soon forgotten in spite of the success of their creations: who still associates nylon with Wallace Hume Carothers (1896-1937), PVC with Fritz Klatte (1880-1934) or Plexiglas / Perspex with Otto Röhm (1876-1939)? The winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was never really a celebrity, although he did not try to avoid the limelight, as we will see later on. To this day, no biographer has written a detailed, historically accurate description of his life either, to go alongside Staudinger’s “Arbeitserinnerungen”, which appeared in 1961 (see References) – neither has his life been put in its historical context nor has light been shed on his character and personality on the basis of this. This is particularly surprising, because Staudinger’s scientific and political activities happened during the most turbulent decades of recent history, influenced by sudden paradigm shifts and regime changes and – above all – shaken by two World Wars. German Empire, Weimar Republic, Nazi dictatorship, Post-War Germany: upheavals in government and society affect the scientific community too – including chemists, who are said to have little interest in politics. Positions had to be adopted – particularly by holders of prominent functions: accepting or rejecting the status quo, opportunistic and flexible or confrontation. Unlike others in his field, Staudinger did not retreat into an ivory tower in his role as a basic research scientist; instead of this, he expressed his opinions on issues that had nothing to do with his scientific field when he considered this necessary and it did not seem to him to be acceptable to remain silent.


How everything began
Chemistry was still far from Staudinger’s mind when he started to think about a career in 1899 on finishing school where the emphasis was on classical languages and literature. He was particularly interested in botany, but he decided to get conventional vocational training first before entering the academic world – so that he had more than one iron in the fire: since – as the saying goes – a trade in hand finds gold in every land, Staudinger completed an apprenticeship with a carpenter in his home town of Worms. A profession he was never to pursue afterwards, because it turned out that he was destined to become a scientist and researcher. Very soon after he had registered to study botany at the University of Halle/Saale, he took the advice given to him by his father, the grammar school teacher and philosopher Franz Staudinger (1849-1921) and started to study chemistry, “in order to be able to understand botanical problems better” (Staudinger 1961, 1). After the family moved to Darmstadt, he registered to study at the Technical University there, leaving not only Halle but also botany behind him: the young Staudinger switched completely to chemistry. After two terms in Darmstadt, he took his initial exams and then returned to Halle to study for a doctorate, which he obtained when he was only 22 years old (title of the dissertation: “Accumulation of malonic ester on unsaturated compounds”; doctoral advisor: Daniel Vorländer, 1867-1941). Once he had completed his doctorate, Staudinger spent another term in Halle as a private scientific assistant, before he moved to Strasbourg University in the autumn of 1903, where he became a teaching assistant of Johannes Thiele (1865-1918) and finally qualified to teach at a university in the spring of 1907 as well – with a thesis about highly reactive, dimerising ketenes. Staudinger became a professor the same year: Karlsruhe Technical University appointed him to be an Associate Professor for organic chemistry. In this position, he decided to concentrate specifically on polymer research, focussing in particular on isoprene and butadiene, in order to make progress in the development of synthetic rubber, which – however – ended up taking another 20 years and was completed by a different chemist.

To Switzerland for the next step in his career
Staudinger stayed in Baden-Württemberg for five years and then accepted an appointment in Switzerland: the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich offered him a chair in the summer of 1912. As successor to Richard Willstätter (1872-1942), who moved to the new Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Chemie in Berlin, Staudinger was given a full professorship at the age of 31 and continued his research into cellulose and rubber in this position. Staudinger spent fourteen years in Zurich from 1912 to 1926, turning down offers from Graz and Hamburg University. “For a good reason”, as the journalist Siegfried Heimlich points out, because “he was able to observe the unspeakable acts of his German fatherland in the First World War from a neutral location in Switzerland without being involved actively himself” (Heimlich 1998, 82). The years Staudinger spent in Switzerland were not a period in which he kept his head down or looked the other way as though it was none of his business, however. Staudinger did not maintain silence in a backwater as political and military battles were fought elsewhere. On the contrary: physical distance encouraged independent thinking; Staudinger developed into a man who positioned himself in the frontline against the political and scientific mainstream. Unimpressed by the nationalistic euphoria in his German fatherland, he predicted the military defeat and advocated negotiations to find a peaceful solution as early as 1917. And not long after the war, he shook up the academic community in his capacity as a scientist, breaking with the past in 1920 by formulating his macromolecule concept in organic chemistry.


Prophecies of doom during the war
But let’s take things one at a time: in 1917, the third year of the two-front war, which what were known as the central powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria – were fighting against an alliance of more than 30 different countries, particularly Russia, France, England and the United States, Staudinger published an essay with the title “Technik und Krieg” in the magazine “Friedens-Warte” that appeared in Zurich (this essay was reprinted in Staudinger 1947, 20-40). In it, he stated that “superhuman” technical forces would determine the outcome of the war. The more coal and iron a country had at its disposal to fuel its armaments production, the greater the prospects of victory: “Technology did not play this role in earlier wars [...]. It is, however, already apparent from some of the wars that were fought in the last century that the winner was always technically superior, i.e. that the country with more coal and iron triumphed in the end. For example, the production of coal and iron in Germany was far larger than in France at the time of the Franco-Prussian War” (1870-1871, editor’s note) (ibid., 29). Germany’s chances had been good this time as well (cf. ibid., 48), until America’s decision to enter the war in April 1917 changed the balance of power so much in favour of the alliance that “Germany’s chances of winning had become minimal” (ibid., 34): “Separate peace with Russia, which many people in Germany are hoping for, is likely to have little impact in this respect, because the technical superiority of the alliance would only be reduced to a minor extent as a result. It would therefore be very important for the central powers not to try and win the war by military means” (ibid.), in other words: efforts needed to be made to arrange a truce and find a peaceful solution as quickly as possible.

No response to the call for peace
Staudinger did not make just this one attempt. At the end of 1917, he wrote to the leadership of the German Army directly and demanded a stop to the fighting, because “the opponents of Germany are much superior now” as a result of America’s decision to enter the war. New military victories would be bad for Germany in two different respects: “On the one hand, they will intensify the resistance put up by the Americans, while they will, on the other hand, distract the German people from what they should really be doing, i.e. trying to find a peaceful solution on the only possible basis, via negotiation.” (Sachsse 1984, 975). The 20-page letter to the High Command of the German Armed Forces, which has just been quoted here, is entitled “Zur Beurteilung Amerikas”; the manuscript has survived as part of Staudinger’s estate and is kept at the German Museum in Munich.

Sachsse 1984, 976, comments as follows: “In view of the German mentality at the time, Staudinger’s action was outrageous. Public opinion rejected negotiations of any kind. German university professors had insisted on several occasions that it was necessary to persevere come what may.” As expected, the German Emperor and Chancellor did not therefore respond to the offer of peace made by the US President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in January 1918 – the famous “14 points”. The outcome of the war was supposed to be decided via a victory or defeat on the battlefield, so the leaders continued to ignore the fact that the country’s ability to fight was diminishing, blinded as they were by isolated military successes. In retrospect, Staudinger concluded that July 1918 was the “turning point”. In his paper “Der erste Weltkrieg unter technischen Gesichtspunkten” (1919), he wrote: “The most recent efforts did not have any major impact even on France, but [...] the Americans started to provide particularly intensive support, so that the superiority of the alliance was now clear to see.” (Staudinger 1947, 53). He accused the political community of failing to heed his warning, the German defeat was “unavoidable” because of the “American opposition”: “Germany’s fate was decided in the spring of 1917 rather than in the autumn of 1918.” (ibid., 53). Because – in retrospect – the technical balance of power and the growing superiority of the alliance made “the course and end of the war inevitable”, so that “even the most talentest of military commanders was unable to avoid the consequences” (ibid., 46).

Staudinger did not just call for a truce; his appeal for peace was more radical than this. In view of the destructive capacity of modern weapons technology, war was completely out of the question for him as a political instrument, because there were only losers now, with both murder and suicide being involved: “In future, a war could [...] lead to unimaginable destruction; since this is the case, it appears to be vital for humankind as a whole to find really permanent peace – a problem [...] it is particularly important to solve today if entire peoples and cultures are not be in danger of annihilation. Peace that only amounts to a kind of truce would be the worst thing that could happen to Europe.” (ibid., 48; cf. 38). Staudinger was making an indirect case for demilitarisation here, while the allies were negotiating the Treaty of Versailles and nationalistic groups in Germany were already flirting with another armed conflict in order to avenge the defeat in 1918.


Dispute with Fritz Haber about chemical warfare
Staudinger attributed the “destructive capacity of modern warfare” to “the tremendous impact of the latest technology in military conflicts” (ibid., 38). In this context, he criticised not only explosives (ibid., 40: “terrible effect”) in an essay written for the international Red Cross magazine that appeared in Geneva, but also and in particular chemical weapons, which was therefore an attack on Fritz Haber (1868-1934), who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. Haber headed the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie in Berlin, that is now named after him. During the First World War, he was involved in the first mass use of poison gas at Ypern in Belgium and his institute received financial backing from the German army. He defended the chemical weapons, which – in his opinion – were “no more cruel than exploding pieces of metal”, particularly since they did not cause any mutilation (lecture about “Chemistry in the war”; quoted by Klee 2005, 214). Staudinger’s article for the Red Cross enraged Haber, who wrote his colleague a strongly-worded letter, accusing him of dramatising the suffering caused by chemical warfare, thus encouraging defamation by their country’s opponents and harming the German Empire (see Sachsse 1984, 976). Haber felt that the concept of maintaining peace via technical means was wrong, representing a form of idealism that was completely out of touch with reality; what was crucial instead was attitude, a willingness to maintain peace. Staudinger’s response was polite but without any concessions: he readily admitted that “attitude” is essential for agreement on peaceful coexistence between different peoples – he himself had already drawn attention elsewhere to “intellectual forces” (Staudinger 1947, 38) – but an “aspect” that was no less “necessary” was “the material basis” (Sachsse 1984, 976). From this angle, it was Haber himself rather than Staudinger who was an idealist, if not a political romantic. Staudinger’s analysis of the destructive capacity of modern weapons technology, on the other hand, which was based on mathematical calculations, revealed to a greater extent the mind of a matter-of-fact scientist. Staudinger also rejected the accusation that he was taking sides with Germany’s war enemies, since all countries were the object of his criticism. It was, instead, Haber who was demonstrating bias – by making such outdated statements as “For humankind in peace, for the fatherland in war” (quoted by Klee 205, 214).

Not an uncompromising pacifist
This argument that war is senseless in the age of technology reflects not the spontaneous passion of an apostle but the well-considered conclusion of a pragmatist – Staudinger was not an uncompromising pacifist. “Our ancestors had no choice but to drive out their neighbours and obtain more land and thus more space to expand into”, he wrote in 1917 in the essay “Technik und Krieg” (Staudinger 1947, 35; cf. 101) that has already been mentioned. There was even talk of the “right” of earlier generations “to wage a bloody war about the place in the sun” (ibid., 35). “In the technical age, on the other hand, these old ideas about the necessity of wars – which have brought such profound misery to Europe – must be abandoned” (ibid., 101). Staudinger rejected the fatalistic attitude “that there have always been wars and that wars are unlikely to stop in future either in view of the nature of humankind” (Staudinger 1947, 101), because anyone who followed this argument was accepting the possibility of “peoples being destroyed” (ibid., 101) in tomorrow’s world. “Hoping for a war-free future” was encouraged for him specifically by the contemporary “prophecies” claiming “that we [...] are facing a time of particularly bitter fighting” (ibid., 38). This was no paradox – Staudinger was hoping that the destructive capacity of high-tech armies would have a deterrent effect. This was based on the confidence that humankind would be sensible enough to avoid the abyss of self-destruction. The Second World War eliminated much of the basis for such optimism, but at the same time confirmed that Staudinger’s warnings were as important and relevant as ever. As early as 1919, he suspected that his calls for a framework for stable, lasting peace would probably bear little fruit. “It is tragic [...] to see that Germany, for which a policy of reconciliation between different peoples would have been so important in view of its location and natural resources, relied most firmly on military aggression, whereas America – the only country that could have allowed itself to adopt such a policy thanks to its riches – has been trying for decades now to promote peaceful coexistence – to no avail, unfortunately.” (ibid., 54)

Good technology, bad technology
If Staudinger is right in saying that war is escalating because of modern technology, then is such technology not evil in itself, so that war should in turn be declared on it too? No, because then it would not be possible to enjoy the benefits of peaceful use of the technology. Staudinger countered technophobic arguments of this kind by outlining a vision of “controlled” technology, that offered excellent “potential for life and development” now and in future (ibid., 101): “Thanks to technology, more people can live on a limited amount of land nowadays and they can enjoy an easier life than a smaller number of people on the same amount of land in the ‘good old days’” (ibid.; cf. 103). It was not technology as such that was evil, but the abuse of it; although technology added incredible destructive potential to wars, they could not be vindicated for this very reason: “There is no justification for wars any more [...]” (ibid., 101).

According to Sachsse 1984, 976, Staudinger was disappointed by the response to his political publications: “Even though they were extremely relevant, they were not well-known and attracted little attention”. In contrast to the trailblazing publications in the polymer chemistry field, which caused a stir and led to fierce controversy from 1920 onwards – more about this in the next part of this short series about Staudinger.