Wernher von Braun: History’s most controversial figure?
Pivotal to the history of spaceflight, von Braun’s Nazi past makes him incredibly difficult to talk about.
On Thursday, September 20, 1945, Wernher von Braun arrived at Fort Strong. The small military site on the northern tip of Boston Harbour’s Long Island was the processing point for Project Paperclip, the government programme under which hundreds of German scientists were brought into America. Von Braun filled out his paperwork that day as the inventor of the Nazi V-2 rocket, a member of the Nazi party, and a member of the SS who could be linked to the deaths of thousands of concentration camp prisoners. Two and a half decades later on Wednesday, July 16, 1969, von Braun stood in the firing room at Kennedy Spaceflight Centre and watched another of his rockets, the Saturn V, take the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon.
That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?
The von Brauns
Wernher von Braun’s lineage can be traced back to the Junkers, a social class of nobles that dominated the Prussian military officer corps, the landowning elite, and offices of civil service in the 19th and early 20th centuries. High social standing was inherited or acquired through marriage, a legacy that typically gave Junkers a narrow and self-interested world view. Von Braun’s father Magnus was a civil servant, a career that ensured the family had a certain quality of life. Raised in this privileged environment with a sense of his Junker heritage shaped von Braun at an early age into a proud and sometimes arrogant young man.
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Wernher von Braun’s love affair with space, which was at odds with his upbringing, began when his mother Emmy gave him a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. Looking up at the Moon and the stars, he was seized with a desire to travel into space; launching rockets and landing spacecraft, men, and possibly himself on the Moon became his life’s goal. He devoured books about space travel and worked out mission plans of his own.
This obsession with spaceflight took a toll on his academics, as von Braun only applied himself to the subjects that would help him launch rockets. He excelled beyond his professors in maths and physics, eventually teaching classes and tutoring his peers. His grades in other courses, meanwhile, were largely satisfactory. Nevertheless, he was skipped ahead halfway through the twelfth grade to graduate high school a year early.
Rocketry, opportunity, and the Second World War
It was around this time that von Braun got his first hands-on experience with rockets as a member of the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VfR), an amateur rocket society. The VfR’s activities caught the German Army’s attention, and when a group of officers went to watch a launch in the spring of 1932, it was von Braun who stood out. Army Ordnance officer Walter Dornberger saw promise in the young engineer and offered him the opportunity to develop his rockets and explore their possible military applications on the Army’s dime. Von Braun accepted Dornberger’s offer and began his doctoral work in physics and engineering at the University of Berlin later that year.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power. Still deeply engaged in his doctoral work, von Braun was only partially aware of the nationwide changes brought about by this new leadership. He was only 21 and by his own admission (albeit later in life) apolitical and somewhat disinterested in the world around him. He was patriotic, but rockets were his main concern.
Von Braun finished his dissertation in 1934. Titled “Design, Theoretical and Experimental Contributions to the Problem of the Liquid Fuel Rocket”, its contents were deemed so important to the future of Germany’s military that it was hidden under a new title, “Regarding Combustion Experiments”, and transferred to the Army Ordnance’s custody. Von Braun was just 22. Not long after, he began working for the Army on a variety of rocket programmes, among them the ballistic missile the Nazi Propaganda Ministry would eventually call Vergeltungswaffe-Zwei, Vengeance Weapon 2 or V-2.
The Army increased funding for the V-2 programme throughout the 1930s. By the time the War broke out in 1939, von Braun was running a sizable operation at a dedicated rocket facility at Peenemunde. Sitting on the northern German island of Usedom, Peenemunde afforded von Braun’s team the space to build, test, and launch their rockets harmlessly into the Baltic Sea.
Whatever celebrity von Braun achieve in America, it couldn’t erase his Nazi past.
But the V-2s that were launched towards London beginning in 1944 weren’t built at Peenemunde. These rockets were built in underground factories near the central German town of Nordhausen – most famously at Mittelwerk, where construction was done by prisoners from the nearby Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. Over 60,000 prisoners lived, worked, and died in the damp underground tunnels at Mittelwerk. Some succumbed to disease and malnutrition. Some were worked to death. Others were hanged publicly in group executions. The death rate rose so high that crematoriums became a necessity.
Von Braun visited Mittelwerk at least once; he was given a tour of the facility by SS guards in late 1943 when prisoners were still excavating tunnels. But just how this and any subsequent trips affected the young rocketeer is open to speculation. There are no records of von Braun planning or overseeing operations at Mittelwerk, even from a distance. It’s possible that his boyhood disinterest in politics helped him either ignore or repress what he knew about Mittelwerk, or perhaps he was able to justify the deplorable conditions in his rockets’ factory as a necessity of war. Years later, in America, von Braun called the V-2 his contribution to Germany’s wartime arsenal. It was what any citizen was expected to do.
During his tenure developing the V-2, von Braun joined the Nazi party and became a member of the SS. He also held on to his dream of landing men on the Moon. One night in early March of 1944, he drank too much at a party and spoke too freely in what he thought was just casual conversation. He told fellow party goers that he foresaw the war ending badly for Germany and added that all he’d ever wanted to do with his rockets was launch them into space. It was an admission akin to treason, which was a crime punishable by death. Von Braun was arrested weeks later, and while he was never incarcerated, it was his first indication that he wouldn’t be safe in his home country when the war ended.
Von Braun was attracted by the opportunities America promised and suspected that the US military would support his continued research in rocketry. He had already decided that he wanted to surrender to and build rockets for America when he heard that Hitler was dead on May 1, 1945. Hiding with his fellow rocket engineers in Bavaria at the time, von Braun elected an emissary from the group, his younger brother Magnus, to go, find and surrender to American soldiers. Magnus did. By nightfall on May 2, Wernher von Braun was in the hands of American soldiers and within months the US government made him the offer he’d hoped for: military funding to develop an Americanised version of the V-2.
Finding fame in America
After working in relative obscurity in New Mexico for four years, von Braun and other former Peenemunders brought overseas under Project Paperclip were moved to the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. On March 22, 1952, von Braun introduced the American public to his vision of space exploration in the pages of Collier’s Magazine. In a series of articles published over two years, he described how men would live and work in huge doughnut-shaped orbital space stations before setting off on missions to the Moon. He imagined spacecraft launching and gliding back to Earth daily. And he described, in detail, the rockets he would build to launch such missions. Americans met the man behind this compelling future on March 9, 1955 when von Braun appeared in the first episode of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland TV series. Viewers saw von Braun’s vision come to life with stunning animation.
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Von Braun brought the same vision to NASA when the agency absorbed his rocket group in 1960. Throughout the decade, he was pictured shaking hands with presidents, smiling with astronauts, and posing in front of the massive rockets that would launch them into space. And while NASA’s path to the Moon ultimately deviated from von Braun’s vision, he nevertheless achieved his boyhood dream in 1969.
Whatever celebrity von Braun achieve in America, it couldn’t erase his Nazi past. But in the same way he covered or ignored his association with Mittelwerk, American leaders and administrators suppressed or deliberately misrepresented his past and emphasised his contributions to the nation’s space programme and space exploration generally. He wasn’t ostracised as an ex-Nazi; he was celebrated as the creator of the Saturn V.
Times of war
The circumstances surrounding von Braun’s two greatest rocket triumphs were very different. The V-2 was built by prison labour and launched as an offensive weapon while the Saturn V was built by American aviation companies and launched with manned spacecraft to the Moon. But there’s nevertheless a strong parallel: both rockets were built and launched in times of war. In both cases, von Braun followed the money and developed the technology he could to defeat an enemy, Allied soldiers in Europe and the Soviet Union in space. In neither case did he undertake his work for strong ideological reasons. He had no apparent moral quandary or crisis of conscience aligning himself with the Nazi party in the 1930s, nor did he labour over the decision to turn his back on his homeland and immigrate to America in 1945. The constant thread running through von Braun’s life during both wars is his fixation on spaceflight.
The legacy von Braun has left behind will always be split between those who classify him as a villain and those who classify him as a visionary. Both might be true. He certainly exploited horrifying means to pursue his goals, but was unquestionably one of the most influential rocket engineers and spaceflight visionaries of the 20th century.
Amy Shira Teitel has an academic background in the history of science and now works as a freelance science writer specialising in spaceflight history. She maintains her own blog, Vintage Space, and contributes regularly to Discovery News, Scientific American, Motherboard, DVICE.
Follow her on Twitter: @astVintageSpace