wernher von braun led nasa’s development of the saturn v rocket that carried apollo 11 to the moon. His Nazi history was not widely known until after his death.
by Michael J.
Six weeks before the historic December 8, 1968 Apollo mission to orbit the moon, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Wernher von Braun, received an unpleasant surprise. He was asked by a West German court to testify in the trial of three former SS men from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, who had provided slave labor for the production of the V-2 ballistic missile. von braun had been the technical director of that project and visited the associated mittelwerk factory a dozen times. Now, the head of the center that operated the gigantic Saturn V Moon rocket feared that the attendant publicity would damage his and NASA’s reputations. He tried to apologize but eventually spoke to the judge and court at the West German Consulate in New Orleans on February 7, 1969. An excerpt from his subsequent press interview appears near the beginning of Chasing the Moon, Part 3. He denied any personal liability and put as much distance as possible between his Peenemünde rocket development center and the mittelwerk complex.
As his longtime press person, Ed Buckbee, notes in Chasing the Moon, von Braun had received few such inquiries. he and his employer from 1945 to 1960, usa Army, he had effectively neutralized most of the uncomfortable questions surrounding his former service to Adolf Hitler. In autobiographical articles and press interviews, he held the line that he was an apolitical scientist who just wanted to go into space. he built missiles used against allied cities because it was his national duty in times of war. he admitted that he had been a member of the National Socialist party, but called it nominal and necessary to protect his career in a totalitarian society. if he mentioned the work of the concentration camps, he was only indirectly, as he assigned all the blame to the ss. in fact, very little information about the camp’s history was available to the public, in part because much of it was classified by the military. the military did the same with von braun’s ss officer rank and the nazi records of the more than 100 associates who had arrived in the united states. with the. All he was willing to talk about was his arrest by the Gestapo in March 1944. He allegedly made drunken comments at a party about Germany’s probable defeat and his preference for building a “spaceship.” ”. he made him look like a victim of the Nazis, rather than a perpetrator.
von braun died prematurely of cancer at age 65 in 1977 and thus missed the storm that broke seven years later. One of his closest associates, Arthur Rudolph, voluntarily returned to Germany in 1984 rather than contest a denaturalization hearing over his role as production manager at the underground plant. The Justice Department released records relating to Rudolph, Von Braun, and the Mittelbau-Dora group. Von Braun’s affiliation with the SS became widely known by then, although communist East Germany had tried in the 1960s, with little success in the West, to publicize it. Thanks to the work of investigative journalists in the 1980s and academics in the 1990s, everything about his and his associates’ Nazi history came to light. Belatedly, many became aware of the deaths of thousands of prisoners in the V-2 program and the possible involvement of von Braun, and some key associates, in those crimes.
what do we know about his Nazi background? Born in 1912, von Braun grew up in a very conservative nationalist aristocratic family, but became obsessed with space travel in his teens. Driven by the dream of one day leading an expedition to the moon, he took the unusual course for a Prussian baron (as he really was) to pursue a career in engineering. in late 1932, the German army offered to finance his doctoral thesis if he would secretly work on liquid-fueled rockets. soon after, hitler became chancellor. Von Braun was a right-wing nationalist by upbringing, but appears to have had little interest in Nazi ideology or anti-Semitism. as money began to flow toward rearmament and eventually the rocket program, he became more enthusiastic about the regime. In 1933-34, he was a member of an SS riding group in Berlin, but non-member students were pressured by National Socialist organizations to participate in paramilitary activities. In 1937, now technical director at the age of 25 of the new army rocket center at Peenemünde in the Baltics, he received a letter asking him to join the party. Since he required little commitment and it would hurt his career to say no, he went ahead.
in the spring of 1940, an ss man approached him with an invitation from reichsführer-ss heinrich himmler to rejoin the ss as an officer. He asked his military superior, Walter Dornberger, who warned him that he was politically unsuitable for the missile program if he turned it down. Lacking the convictions to say no, von Braun once again forged ahead, although he probably could have made excuses to evade it. By 1943 he had risen to the rank of Sturmbannführer (Major), thanks to Himmler’s appreciation of his rocket work.
In October 1942, the V-2 made its first successful flight. Hitler, motivated by the worsening war situation, soon approved production despite the technological immaturity of the missile. the problem was where to get the manpower when the insatiable demands of the Eastern Front made German manpower scarce. As in other parts of the war economy, the response was the brutal exploitation of foreign workers and concentration camp prisoners. thanks to the recommendation of arthur rudolph, an ss camp was founded in peenemünde. In parallel, the prisoners were taken to two other possible V-2 factory sites. But after a massive British air raid on Peenemünde in August 1943, Hitler and Himmler decided to concentrate manufacturing in an underground plant, leading to the founding of Mittelwerk and Dora Camp. von braun had been out of the decision-making chain about field workers, but the new situation brought him into direct contact with them and with decisions about how to deploy them. He admitted to the West German court in 1969 that he had seen terrible conditions underground, though he never admitted seeing dead bodies or receiving reports of sabotage leading to the execution of prisoners. In the summer of 1944, he tried to help a French physical prisoner, Charles Sadron, but also talked to the commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp about transferring qualified prisoners to Mittelbau-Dora for a laboratory he hoped Sadron (Sadron) would run. he refused). some men were apparently transferred, which could further implicate him in crimes against humanity.
meanwhile, the gestapo had actually arrested von braun. he was freed by the intervention of the gene. Dornberger and Arms Minister Albert Speer, who testified about his indispensability for the V-2 program. The dangerous ten-day arrest seems to have crystallized von Braun’s alienation from the Nazi regime and from Hitler, whom he had seen four or five times. In my opinion, von Braun had sleepwalked into a Faustian deal with the Nazis, who promised him all the money and power he wanted to build rockets, as long as they did it his way, for his purposes. He belatedly realized that he was trapped, but he was still imbued with Nazi ideas and was loyal to the army and his superiors. Late in the war, he was more often seen in an SS uniform, which gave him some protection against Nazi true believers as Germany headed for a catastrophic defeat. he was lucky to be saved from that situation by surrendering to the usa. army in the alps on may 2, 1945, along with others.
Thanks to US military interest in the V-2 technology, it came to the US. uu. in September and was rushed to Fort Bliss outside El Paso, Texas, to prepare for the arrival of his team. His trip was part of a larger program to import German engineers, scientists, and technicians better known as Project Paperclip. due to an escalating Cold War, which soon turned into a permanent immigration program, which required the dubious Nazi records of some, such as von Braun, to be covered up. In 1950, the Army moved his group to Huntsville as part of consolidating and developing its missile work. that’s where he launched his parallel career as a defender of space.
von braun was driven by the dream of space flight, but he was also a german nationalist who almost effortlessly became an american patriot. in both cases he had no problem building missiles for his country. he was certainly an opportunist, though not one, as the tom lehrer song parody would say, completely unprincipled. He was, in my opinion, the most important rocket engineer and space developer of the 20th century, but his legacy will be forever tarnished by his service to a murderous regime.
Michael J. Neufeld, Senior Curator at the National Air and Space Museum, is the author of The Rocket and the Reich (1995), Von Braun: Space Dreamer, War Engineer (2007), and Space Flight: A Concise History (2018), among other works.
posted on May 20, 2019.