On the morning of July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 left Earth’s atmosphere on their way to the moon.
The day was tense. The moon landing was (and remains) possibly the greatest feat of engineering in human history, but success was by no means a guarantee. In the Command Room at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA’s best and brightest were a ball of nerves, mainlining coffee and chewing their fingernails.
All except for Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket, the engine that propelled the Apollo 11 mission. At 57 years old, the German scientist remained a physically dominating man—6’1″ and built like a brick house. He was also an unabashed charmer. On the morning of the liftoff, as the rest of NASA’s brain trust worried and tittered, von Braun sat at the center of the room, smiled, and calmed the troops.
But while those who worked with von Braun in person universally attest to his charisma, his warmth, and his unparalleled genius, he remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of science. He’s considered by many to be the father of modern rocketry—but just 25 years before his moment in the sun at the head of America’s greatest triumph, Wernher von Braun was fighting for the enemy.
Wernher von Braun’s life had the same trajectory as one of his rockets: it was a flat-out, high-speed burn.
As a young boy living in Germany, he read books by masters of science fiction like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, who depicted fantastic scenes of rockets, astronauts, and travel to other worlds. By 13, von Braun was reading Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space) a mathematical treatise on the possibility of man-made objects capable of reaching orbit. By the time he was in university, he was already quite possibly one of the world’s leading experts in the science of building rockets.
But while von Braun dreamed of the applications his work might have for the future of space exploration, officials in the increasingly powerful National Socialist German Workers Party saw things differently. Before the end of his time in school, von Braun’s research had been classified by the German army, and he’d been tasked with leading a new, 100-man rocket development team.
Years later, von Braun would maintain that he was little more than a small cog in Germany’s war machine. After all, in the totalitarian state that was quickly forming, there was little room for dissent. Anyone who wished to secure a successful future, particularly an ambitious research scientist, had to make their devotion to the tenets of National Socialism public.
As von Braun himself would later tell US Army officials:
“In 1939, I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time I was already Technical Director at the Army Rocket Center at Peenemünde (Baltic Sea). The technical work carried out there had, in the meantime, attracted more and more attention in higher levels. Thus, my refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activity.”
The statement was false. Official party records (as well as the testimony of those who worked alongside him) demonstrate that Wernher von Braun voluntarily applied for party membership in 1937—before the war began.
Is it important?
Von Braun would claim that his party membership was, at worst, the mistake of a hot-headed young man caught up in the patriotic fervor of the nationalist movement. He was never political—simply a scientist with a dream, who perhaps saw loyalty to the German cause as the only route to achieving his goals.
It’s a powerful and believable argument. One sympathizes, perhaps, with the pressure any typical German would have felt in the face of the nation’s horrific political tidal wave. And yet, von Braun’s involvement in German atrocities must be accounted for.
The first V-2 rocket hit London in September 1944.
It was months after D-Day. Allied forces were making ground throughout Europe. The German Reich was beginning to crumble. V-2 rockets were never going to turn the tide of a war which was now quickly being lost. Named by German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, the “V” stood for vengeance. V-2s were loud, shock-inspiring weapons. Their purpose was to wreak havoc in Europe as Germany fell apart. They were weapons of terror and revenge.
Wernher von Braun was the architect of those horrible weapons. Now 32 years old, he’d quickly become the most influential member of the German rocket program—quite possibly the most important scientist in Germany. His social status had increased in kind. He was now Sturmbannführer (Major) Wernher von Braun of the Schutzstaffel. In title and function, he was a ranking member of the Nazi elite.
Still, though, as high powered V-2s rained on civilian targets in Britain and France, it would appear von Braun was morally conflicted. As he told a colleague at the time, “The rocket worked perfectly…except for landing on the wrong planet.”
Those seeking to reinforce the enduring theme of von Braun’s legacy often cite this line. The idea that he was a dreamer, an innovator, a noble scientist with a mind for exploration. That this drive got him caught up in his era’s proclivity for war.
However, when it comes to the V-2, we also encounter the most damning allegations against von Braun. The claim that the genius engineer of mankind’s greatest machines was also complicit in the Holocaust.
What Did He Know?
V-2s were manufactured at Mittelwerk, an underground German production facility designed to avoid detection from Allied bombers. In 1944, it was quite possibly the most sophisticated arms manufacturing plant in the world. It was also staffed almost entirely by forced slave labor: jews, homosexuals, and other “enemies of the state” interned at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.
It’s been said that Wernher von Braun could not have known how deeply embedded the SS’s genocidal infrastructure had become in the German war machine. And yet there is no doubt that on at least one occasion, the wealthy and successful von Braun toured facilities at Mittelwerk, and witnessed first-hand the conditions of work there.
To quote one post-war report on Mittelwerk:
“Everything was ruthlessly executed with utter disregard for humanitarian considerations. We were told that 250 of the slave workers perished every day, due to overwork and malnutrition. We saw many of the wretched inmates, who were in an appalling state, although receiving every medical attention now.”
Wernher von Braun likely did not willingly exploit slave labor—though he was undeniably complicit. In later years, he would describe the conditions he saw at Mitterlwerk as “repulsive,” while denying any knowledge of death or physical punishment among the workers. Yet how can we know?
Historians debate his involvement to this day. What has never been in question is von Braun’s lack of commitment to true Nazism. Whether he knew more than he was willing to admit, there’s no evidence to suggest von Braun worked to advance a racist agenda or held any true loyalty to the party. Indeed, as Germany’s defeat became inevitable, von Braun was quick to turn his considerable intellect to a new problem: how to continue his life’s work under a new flag.
Less than a year after the first military uses of V-2 rockets, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Men like Wernher von Braun had a stark choice as American, British, and Soviet forces raced to eradicate the remnants of the German army. Not whether they were going to surrender (that was a given), but who they were going to surrender to.
What came next is one of military history’s greatest covert programs. The United States government would go to extraordinary lengths, to get their hands on Von Braun and his team. It was called Operation Paperclip. The details are astonishing…
Continued in Part 2
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