Font Size: A A A

Home > Reviews > Toxic


Author Dan Kaszeta

ISBN No 9781787387195

Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 408

Publisher Hurst

Publisher URL

Year of publication 20/12/2021


Our Review


£ 14.99, paperback

In Toxic, Dan Kaszeta has given us a rarity of a book - a piece of work that not only tells us authoritatively about his subject, but causes us to think differently about the world that we think we know.

At the very start he explains to us that 'synthetic, man-made nerve agents are a family of chemicals that interfere with the chemistry of the human nervous system in a particular way'. We are, then, in the realms of chemistry; and science more generally ('nerve agents follow the laws of physics', he points out on page 278; when a vapour, they go which way the wind blows, and when liquid they obey gravity).

The book quickly becomes quite military - Kaszeta making plain that a nerve agent in a glass jar 'is basically a glass jar', providing you leave it alone. Inside an artillery shell, it's a weapon. After the 1914-18 war the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, re-armed with chemical weapons the same as they re-armed under Adolf Hitler generally.

Significantly, the German military 'went to great lengths to keep their new nerve agent programme out of the hands of the SS' (page 37). This has wider importance as in post-war Germany it suited many to claim that the Wehrmacht were the (relatively or entirely) good guys compared to the Nazis. Kaszeta describes the Germans' wartime effort on nerve agents as 'large and expensive'; until the Nazi head of war industries Albert Speer reduced production then halted it late in 1944 (page 41), when the war was going from bad to worse for Germany, and Speer had more pressing needs for industry. As an aside, Kaszeta is sceptical about Speer's post-war claims that he thought about trying to assassinate Hitler in his Berlin bunker with nerve agent Tabun (page 289).

Nerve agents by the thousands of tons got moved to western Germany in the last days of the Third Reich, to keep them out of Soviet Russian hands; Kaszeta notes that in April 1945 after American fight-bombers struck and a train carrying Tabun bombs leaked, some German civilians became 'the first combat deaths from nerve agents in history' (page 52), by accident.

That story alone helps to explain the pressing and intriguing question; having gone to such trouble to make nerve agents as a weapon of war, why did the Nazis never use them? The main reason, Kaszeta sets out, was that 'Adolf Hitler sought advice and acted upon it' (page 54): "Fear of retaliation by non-existent Allied nerve agents deterred Germany from using its new weapons. Self-deterrence is a real phenomenon." As an aside, that shows the importance of political or any decision-makers having good intelligence to base decisions upon. It also shows that nerve agents are about more than science; the human sciences of politics and economics come into play.

As a man with a military background - he was an officer in the United States Army Chemical Corps, with the task of protecting against such hazards - Kaszeta writes with understanding about why it was impractical for the Germans to, for example, seek to fire nerve agent shells into the D-Day beachhead in summer 1944, or to have nerve agent-tipped V1 and V2s firing at southern England.

Kaszeta has in fact written two books in one; first, and mainly, about the history of nerve agents, 'from Nazi Germany to Putin's Russia' as the book's sub-title says. Almost as an aside he details how Britain (and the US) took ownership of the Nazi stockpile of aerial Tabun bombs, giving us the shocking line that after 1945 'Wales held the largest nerve agent stockpile in Europe' (page 86). After some tragi-comic blundering about how best to keep the stocks safe (outdoors in the Welsh wet was not ideal), the 'rotting stockpile' was taken to Cairnryan in southern Scotland then dumped into the sea.

Another strand of Kaszeta's inquiry is industry - how big chemical firms were seeking to develop pesticides to eradicate insect pests - where is where tests on nerve agents tended to begin. The second, shorter end of the book is the present day - after the use of nerve agents in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Kaszeta covers the Tokyo subway sarin attack by a religious sect of 1995 - which proved that 'nerve agent terrorism' is not merely paranoia; and brought insight into the neurology, psychology and emotions of living through such an attack.

And to bring the story up to date, the filmed use of chemicals as weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war; and nerve agents used to assassinate, as in the Novichok attempt on the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. Kaszeta dismisses the online conspiracy theories that divert attention from the Russian secret services, and regards it as 'plausible, but unproven' that the assassination attempt was clumsy on purpose, to provoke a British official crackdown on Russians living in exile in the UK. The book, like so many and so much else somewhat delayed due to covid, closes in early 2020: the Salisbury assassins remain at large, the 'broader diplomatic issues are unresolved' (page 253) and who knows if any more Novichok is around.

In conclusion, Kaszeta reminds us that nerve agents are one more 'inheritance' from the Nazis; and yet is realistic about what such agents can and cannot do. They are difficult to make, and to retain safely; and they're unreliable to use. As actual killers in field conditions, their record is 'mixed' (page 258), because in major incidents such as the Tokyo subway, there were many survivors. Terrorists and states alike have more cost-effective ways to kill people. Kaszeta closes appropriately on a mixed note; while Syria and Salisbury shows 'nerve agents are not merely of historic interest', international arms control in this area has largely succeeded - so far.

The author has pulled off a first-rate job, and not without humour, by simply getting the story on paper, given that so much secrecy is around, as becomes obvious in the appendices where the facts are sparse about what various countries, large and small, have done with nerve agents. Having done so well to make the invisible, visible, let us hope Kaszeta does the same for other chemical weapons.

(The paperback is on sale from April 2022; the hardback, £25, came out in 2020.)