Sarah Hurst reviews ‘Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia’ by Dan Kaszeta

22 October 2020

By Sarah Hurst

Sarah Hurst reviews: Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia by Dan Kaszeta, Hurst Publishers, London, 2020, 404pp, ISBN 9781787383067.

The poisoning of Aleksei Navalny with Novichok makes Dan Kaszeta’s book particularly topical, although it was published before that event. Toxic describes how both the West and the Soviet Union built on knowledge gained from the development of nerve agents by the Nazis, and also hired former Nazi scientists, to create their own deadly weapons. But it is Vladimir Putin’s regime that stands alongside those of Kim Jong-Un, Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein in the hall of notoriety for actually using nerve agents on civilians. Of course, Novichok was first used in Salisbury in March 2018, seriously harming Sergei and Yulia Skripal as well as police officer Nick Bailey and local resident Charlie Rowley, and killing Rowley’s girlfriend Dawn Sturgess.

Kaszeta brilliantly explains chemical processes, making them accessible to readers with little or no science expertise. He assures us that he has left out important details so that we can’t use his book as a manual to manufacture nerve agents, and the risks involved should certainly serve as a deterrent to all but the most reckless terrorists. Even the Nazis found the challenges frustrating and Hitler, who had no ethical issues with murdering 6 million Jews in gas chambers, balked at using chemical weapons on the battlefield – although possibly due to fear of reprisals.

The Nazis experimented with manufacturing the nerve agents Tabun, Soman and Sarin. Differences include whether the agent evaporates quickly and is non-persistent, or stays in liquid or solid form for a long time and is persistent. The complexity of the process for manufacturing Tabun is illustrated by the description of one of its stages – the reaction between dimethylamine and Phosphoryl chloride that produced “Produkt 39” and a waste product that had to be purified out of it. “An entire factory building was set up to make this product,” Kaszeta writes. “It had six lead-lined reaction vessels, each with a volume of 5 cubic metres which could be temperature controlled. Produkt 39 is flammable and highly corrosive. Even the smallest amount of moisture would create hydrochloric acid as an unwanted by-product. Produkt 39 is itself a mild nerve agent in its own right, but useless as a battlefield weapon because of its flammability.” 

The UK is by no means blameless in its actions in this sphere: the Porton Down laboratory used military recruits, often from poor backgrounds, as “volunteers” to test Sarin absorption into skin in 1953. 20-year-old Ronald Maddison was one of them, who had 20 drops of Sarin placed on a band of clothing tied around his arm. He became very ill and died within 45 minutes of exposure. The government covered up his cause of death and parts of his body were kept by Porton Down for study. His family received £100,000 in compensation only after an inquest in 2004 found a verdict of unlawful killing.

Having made all kinds of horrific discoveries, after the creation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 1997, countries then had to destroy their stockpiled weapons. The United States had begun doing this earlier, loading chemical weapons onto mothballed ships that were then sunk in the late 1960s. That caused public outrage and Congress passed a law in 1972 banning the dumping of chemical weapons at sea. Later the weapons had to be destroyed at the sites where they were made.  

The Novichok attack that is most relevant to Rights in Russia readers is covered in a relatively short section of Toxic on assassinations. There is also a chapter called “The Newcomers” about the Soviet Union’s research on nerve agents from the 1970s to the 1990s. The West learned a great deal about this programme from the chemist Vil Mirzayanov, who moved to the US in 1995 and wrote a book called State Secrets after his treason trial in Russia collapsed because authorities didn’t want to admit the existence of Novichoks. Interestingly, in 1987 the Soviets gave foreign visitors a tour of the Shikhany chemical weapons facility and demonstrated the poisoning of a rabbit with Sarin, but the Novichoks weren’t mentioned.

Anyone who reads this whole book and learns about the capabilities and limitations of nerve agents, as well as the difficulty of manufacturing them, should be immune to the crass propaganda that the Syrian and Russian governments have spread in recent years to cast doubt on the regimes’ use of chemical weapons in Syria and Salisbury, as well as the Tomsk attack on Navalny. 

Kaszeta alludes to this propaganda, which has been embraced by the Western left – including figures such as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters – but perhaps he could have devoted more space to it with examples, because it is so significant and obnoxious. There are also points in the book where no year is mentioned, for example when Kaszeta writes: “Several years later, Sarin reared its ugly head again. The Syrian Air Force dropped at least one chemical bomb shortly after 6:30 am local time near the town of Khan Shaykhun.” 

Other than that there is little to complain about in Toxic, which will likely be the one book that you read about the history of nerve agents, and should also be the first one if you plan to explore this disturbing subject more deeply. Kaszeta has given us a fascinating overview that fully covers the science while vividly depicting the brutal consequences of nerve agent use on human beings. 

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