Skip to main content

Lengthy Letter to his Wife as he Celebrates the New Year During WWI

Signed by Otto Hahn

Item: 20400
Add to Wishlist

HAHN, OTTO. (1879-1968). German physicist and Nobel Prize winning chemist (for his work on nuclear fission); co-discoverer (with Lise Meitner) of protactinium. ALS. (“Otto”). 5 1/3pp. 8vo. (On the Western Front), January 1, 1918. A lengthy ALS to his wife EDITH HAHN (1887-1968). In German with translation.

Otto Hahn in his laboratory

Otto Hahn in his laboratory


“My Darling, Unlike last year, I did not write two letters to you yesterday. But at least we were able to talk briefly. Actually, I was about to give up, because I had tried to ring Julius’ apartment twice before, but nobody picked up. Then I thought you couldn’t possibly all be at the hospital that long, and that’s when I thought of Sonnenfeld, remembering what you had said in your telegram. Thanks to my terrific [memory] – in this case you have to have the last word – I recalled Sonnenfeld’s phone number which I have not jotted down anywhere. And so it did work out in the end. I would have loved to talk with you a little longer, but we were playing Skat in the next room, and that is important. Also, the colonel wanted to talk to you and wish you a Happy New Year, but you were already gone again and Julius was on the line. How is Julius feeling? Really proud? I have not written to Grete yet. Yesterday’s best wishes were meant for her as well. Or do you think I should write her expressly? Well, I hope I will hear more details from you soon, including about the Sonnenfelds and the quality of the roasted goose, etc.

Our celebration last night was very cozy. I had a crazy amount of work during the day. In the afternoon, I could not leave my desk from 2 to 7:45. Actually, since Dec. 27 I had not gotten out of the house except for one trip to the train station and my haircut today. So we had the usual meal last night, nothing fancy, with the exception of  a kind of chocolate dessert with real whipped cream (we do have a cow in the stable!). For drinks with dinner and after, we had planned for the three of us (colonel, medical director, and myself) two bottles of burgundy mixed with one bottle of champagne. There was supposed to follow a punch at midnight, made of

2 bottles of red wine

½ bottle of rum

1 bottle of tea

cinnamon and sugar

But we never got around to the punch because we prolonged our “Turks’ Blood,” so that in the end, between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. we had consumed

3 bottles of champagne

2 bottles of burgundy

½ bottle of red wine,

totaling about 2 bottles of alcohol each. Quite a lot, but spread over seven hours, it was tolerable. At the same time, with only short interruptions around midnight, we played wonderful Skat (for the first time in weeks). At 12, we lit the tree and interrupted the Skat. Rehfeldt and other soldiers who had not gotten leave to go to town also got wine and cigars. Today … returned, and gradually there is less work. On the 3rd, Hehr [?] is returning. Late tomorrow, the colonel is going to Namur for a 10-day course, and things will get calmer. I did not give away the rest of my cookies; I still had 1 box of berry cookies which we had after midnight (very hard!). I (and others) also enjoy the English mustard which arrived yesterday. Ohh for it!

Your sweet letter of the 30th already arrived yesterday. From Mother, too, there was a long one. For some reason Heiner thought I’d come on the 28th. He called early and wanted to come in from Schlossborn. But when he called, I was already in Münster. They are staying in Schlossborn over New Year’s. Judging from your mother’s letters, they don’t appear to be starving in Plötnick, notwithstanding the milk soup every night. Even the hunt dinner seems to be well put together. I am happy that you want to throw the book at the butter and I hope enough of it will stick! When you think of it, you can send along the House on the Market. These days, I haven’t had much time for my own reading. I am still reading about the very exciting theater director, even though I find many characters in it very idealized.

Do you recall that I wrote a card to Bergrat Knochenhauer in Kattnitz before Christmas? I had had goose at his place exactly one year ago, and in my note I asked him about his son who was on the front. Today, by way of an answer, I got an obituary. His son, 21, died of his injuries on Dec. 28. Isn’t that sad?

Yesterday, or the day before, I sent you 100 marks. That includes your gift from Santa. Also, do not forget to buy yourself, not from this money, the taffeta before it gets more expensive. Well, this is it. The bell is ringing, I have to run and eat.

A fond kiss and greetings

From your Otto”

Instead of following his father’s wishes that he become an architect, Hahn studied chemistry, and, during his year at Sir William Ramsay’s London laboratory at University College (1904-1905), became interested in radioactivity. In 1912, Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry named him head of the department of radioactivity, and it was there that he met the young Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner, with whom he would conduct his most significant work.

Otto Hahn in uniform

Otto Hahn

At the outbreak of World War I, Hahn was recalled to the army to command a platoon and participated in the famous Christmas Truce of December 1914. But in January 1915, German chemist and future Nobel Prize Winner Fritz Haber enlisted Hahn and other colleagues into Pioneer Regiment 36, dedicated to developing chemical weapons to give the Germans the advantage in the trenches. “Otto Hahn… first objected that what he was doing was contrary to international law. But his objections were overruled and Haber seems to have determined to win the war singlehanded… Otto Hahn became a participating ‘observer’ and the future Nobel Laureates in Physics, James Franck and Gustav Hertz also joined him,” (The amoral scientist – Notes on the life of Fritz Haber, Ramaseshan).

The German military first began using chlorine gas alone or mixed with phosgene in January 1915, and the Allied forces soon followed suit. Over the next several years, Hahn was sent to the front numerous times to implement new methods of gas attacks against the enemy. By the summer of 1918, he was too weak to work due to phosgene poisoning. During WWI, one quarter of all battlefield deaths were caused by chemical weapons.

In our letter, written from the Western Front, Hahn describes his and his colleagues New Year’s Eve celebrations while enjoying the popular German card game Skat, and mentions friends and family members including Hahn’s brothers Heiner Johan Heinrich Hahn (1876-1964),  Julius Hahn (1877-1948) and the latter’s wife Margarete (“Grete”) Hahn (?-?). Bergrat Knochenhauer was a German miner. Rehfeldt was Hahn’s batman from 1914 and throughout the war and the men remained personal friends throughout their lives.

Hahn resumed his work with Meitner after the war and their investigations into the application of radioactive methods to chemistry during the next few years were followed, in the early 1930s, by Enrico Fermi’s announcement that he had obtained radioactive materials through the neutron bombardment of uranium 235. It was only after much additional research that Hahn and his collaborators discovered “that one of the products from uranium was a radioactive form of the much lighter element barium, indicating that the uranium atom had split into two lighter atoms. Hahn sent an account of the work to… Meitner who, in cooperation with her nephew Otto Frisch, formulated a plausible explanation of the process, to which they gave the name nuclear fission,” (Encyclopedia Britannica). The work of Hahn and his colleagues made very real the potential of using a chain reaction for weapons development. With the advent of the Second World War, it was believed that Germany would try to develop such a devastating weapon, but Hahn did not participate in this effort. Nonetheless, in 1945, he and several other German physicists and chemists were held for questioning by Allied troops, and sent to England where Hahn was detained until January 1946, and where he learned in November 1945 that he had been awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for chemistry. It was also in England that “to his profound dismay, he heard of the application of his discovery when nuclear weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” (DSB). Thereafter he was a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons. In 1955 he collaborated with other Nobel laureates to draft the “Mainau Declaration,” cautioning against the abuses of atomic energy, and in 1957 he publicly protested Germany’s acquisition of nuclear arms.

Written on a folded sheet plus another sheet (recto and verso) of a slightly different size; in very fine condition.

Lengthy Letter to his Wife as he Celebrates the New Year During WWI

Signed by Otto Hahn

$850 • item #20400

    Just this once...
    Please share your name and email address to receive:

      We will not share your contact info