- Wernher von Braun designed V-2 rockets for Nazi Germany, Redstone missiles for the US military and the Saturn V for NASA.
- He was a brilliant engineer and an evangelical Christian who directed a concentration camp.
- He escaped prosecution for crimes against humanity by defecting to the USA.
- The Apollo moon landings depended on his expertise.
Five years ago, they had dissolved the British Interplanetary Society (BIPS) and dedicated themselves to war work, but they still met occasionally to keep their dream alive. They had no illusions that it was anything but a dream, but they had hoped for something from Cleaver. If neither the British nor the Americans were looking upward and outward, who else was there?
A terrific explosion splashed beer across the table and showered them with plaster dust. It sounded like one of the gas main explosions the government had reported recently, albeit with no explanation as to why gas mains had started blowing themselves up.
Then they heard it. The thunder of a rocket arriving at so far beyond the speed of sound that its own noise was only now catching up with it.
They knew what that noise meant without discussing it. In some versions, it was a young radar engineer called Arthur C Clarke who was first to leap to his feet and cheer. The ballistic missile that had just blown a crater in London must have visited space on its way from Germany.
The genius who dodged the nooseThe story may well be an urban myth, but the celebration of technical achievement in spite of the use it was put to occurs again and again the life of the missile’s designer, Wernher von Braun. Reg Turnill, the BBC’s aviation and space correspondent for two decades, called von Braun a friend but likened him to Faust for the bargains he struck to follow his obsession.
Up to now, I’ve used the Greater Minds series to highlight people I have no hesitation in admiring. Von Braun’s mind was as great as any that fired a neurone when it came to designing rockets, but he was also a war criminal and a builder of weapons of mass destruction. Turnill’s 2011 interview on von Braun, long after von Braun’s death in 1977, sums up the ambivalence of his legacy. When Turnill speaks of von Braun’s technical achievements, the admiration in his voice is unmistakeable. He says it would have taken the USA another ten years to land men on the moon without von Braun.
Turnill also says, ‘he ought to have been hanged with the rest of them at the Nuremburg trials but of course all the world, all the allies wanted von Braun’.
The price of a soulSo who was the man behind the myth? His engineering feats have been covered by many writers better qualified to appreciate them than me, so I approach him as a writer fascinated by the moral ambiguity of the man. In the spirit of full disclosure, he is a peripheral character in my own alternate history of Nazi German spaceflight, Under the Hooked Cross.
If von Braun was Faust, an artillery officer called Walter Dornberger was his Mephistopheles. They met in 1932, when von Braun was a 20 year old student in the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel). They were a club of engineers who dreamed of spaceflight, very similar to the BIPS.
Dornberger had more worldly interests. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from developing any technology with a military application, and the new Nazi government was not yet ready to challenge it directly. However, no one had thought to mention rocketry in the treaty. Further, one of Germany’s key strategic weaknesses was its lack of crude oil, so a propulsion system fuelled by liquid oxygen and ethanol from fermented potato peelings had obvious attractions.
The society showed Dornberger the rockets they had knocked together, and so impressed him that he wanted to bring the society’s rocket development into the military. The society was less impressed with him. Most of the members wanted nothing to do with either building weapons or the Nazi regime. The sole exception was one of the youngest members: von Braun. He and Dornberger formed an association that would serve and then outlast the Nazi regime.
Landing on the wrong planetIn 1937, Dornberger and von Braun completed the construction of a research facility in Peenemünde. By 1944, von Braun’s A-4 rockets were reaching an altitude of over 100km, making them the first artificial objects to reach space. A one-ton warhead converted the A-4 into the V-2 missile that may or may not have cheered up Clarke and Cleaver.
No other country was even close to developing a ballistic missile, but the V-2 was not a particularly effective weapon. The unit cost was similar to a twin engine bomber that could deliver a larger payload with considerably more accuracy. Freeman Dyson, who was working on optimising allied bombing at the time, said the extent of resources wasted on the V-2 ‘was almost as good as if Hitler had adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament’.
Perhaps von Braun would have designed a better weapon if he’d seen the V-2 as an end unto itself rather than the prototype of a spacecraft. When the first V-2 hit London, he said ‘the rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet’.
The darkest side of von Braun’s bargain was not in the weaponisation of his ideas but in their construction. After the Peenemünde facility was heavily damaged by bombing, manufacture was relocated to a disused mine in the Kohnstein Mountain called the Mittelwerk. The manual labour of expanding the mine and moving components down the production line, as well as some of the more technical assembly work, was carried out by slave labour drafted in from Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The workers were flogged into carrying out backbreaking work, much of it in sub-zero temperatures with no warm clothes. Technical workers received fewer beatings, but were hanged at any suggestion of incompetence or sabotage.
The 9,000 people killed by V-2s was relatively small by the standards of Second World War bombing. To put it into context, a Royal Air Force attack on Hamburg killed around 30,000 people on the single night of 27/28th July, 1943.
However, somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 died building V-2s at the Mittelwerk. It’s a rare weapon that’s more dangerous to the people who build it than the people it’s fired at.Von Braun’s involvement in the atrocities is unclear, and both he and his colleagues had good reasons for downplaying it when questioned after the war. As technical director of the Mittelwerk, a substantial amount of the responsibility for what happened there belongs on his shoulders. He was not under duress as he was a Nazi party member and by then, an SS Sturmbannführer, equivalent to the army rank of major.
Von Braun’s obsession with leaving the planet may have been romantic, but taken as a whole, the story of his life is the story of a pragmatist who did whatever was necessary to fuel that obsession. If the way up involved using slave labour to build weapons, there is no indication that von Braun balked at the idea.
Von Braun’s defenders have argued that if he objected to the brutality of the Mittelwerk, he would have been executed. It is probably true, but it could equally be said of any of his SS comrades who were condemned as war criminals. It amounts to the defence of following orders, which was explicitly rejected by the Nuremburg courts. As Turnill pointed out, it was not the limits of his involvement but the value of his expertise that saved him from the gallows.We cannot know von Braun’s attitude to the situation at the time. Perhaps he embraced the use of slave labour to get his rockets built. Perhaps it sickened him but every alternative he saw led to his execution as a traitor without improving the situation of the Mittelwerk slaves. Perhaps he saw the slaves as acceptable casualties in his climb toward the stars.
Defection by Paperclip
Because with the Third Reich collapsing around him, von Braun was characteristically one step ahead of the forces of history snapping at his heels. Correctly surmising that the American government would be interested in a weapon they had no equivalent of, he concealed a documentats and components in a cave and dispatched his brother to arrange his surrender to the American army.
Von Braun, Dornberger and his concealed gift fell under the auspices of Operation Paperclip, a covert program to bring German scientists and engineers to the USA. However, von Braun had not waited for the Americans to recognise his genius. With the system that had supported him collapsing about his ears, he had decided where he wanted to be and made plans to get there. At 33, he was as ready to strike a bargain as he had been at 20.
There are two sides to every bargain, and the American authorities were happy to overlook the atrocities in the Mittelwerk. If von Braun’s FBI file mentioned them at all, it was in the substantial sections that were redacted before it was declassified. The FBI’s focus was evidently on whether he could be trusted to keep secrets from the Soviets rather than his Nazi past. The names of the people who vouched for him are redacted but whoever they were, they downplayed his Nazi associations. The phrases ‘believes in the American way of life’ and ‘honorary commission’, the latter referring to his SS rank, appear repeatedly and are attributed to several different interviewees. The repetition suggests an investigating agent hearing what he wanted to hear rather than the actual words of the interviewees.
Von Braun found his spaceward dreams curtailed for the next five years, as the American military ploughed its resources into aircraft to dominate the atmosphere but allocated little funding to anything beyond it. He spent much of his time demonstrating captured V-2s and training American engineers.
Man of science, man of God
It was around this time that von Braun became involved in Evangelical Christianity. The celebrity Baptist minister Billy Graham named him as a friend and quoted him as saying, ‘science and religion are not antagonists. On the contrary, they’re sisters’ in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. It’s difficult to know what to make of such a statement from a man who had so recently been complicit in mass murder.Later, in 1966, he would write, ‘for spiritual comfort, I find assurance in the concept of the fatherhood of God, For ethical guidance, I rely on the corollary concept of the brotherhood of man’. An uncomfortably sanctimonious statement for a man who had used, and used up, as many of his brothers as von Braun had.
It’s tempting to speculate that von Braun turned to the church to seek some sort of atonement for his war crimes. Alternatively, perhaps his religious rebirth was as pragmatic as his use of slave labour in the Mittelwerk. When the FBI was the personal fiefdom of the staunchly Christian J Edgar Hoover and the USA was in thrall to Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, a show of religious fervour cannot have hurt the standing of a foreign weapons engineer of dubious provenance.
Von Braun’s history is that of a political chameleon, for whom fitting in with the culture surrounding him was as instinctive as calculating a thrust to weight ratio. Just as he was always willing to work on the project closest to his obsession of spaceflight, so he consistently did whatever was politically expedient. In 1930s Germany, he served his obsession by joining the Nazi party and donning an SS uniform. In 1950s and 60s USA, he proclaimed Christianity and the American way. Perhaps he saw his personal identity as being at the service of a sense of destiny, for himself and for mankind.
Or perhaps he just liked to fit in.
From Alabama to orbit
In 1950, Soviet advances in rocketry spurred the US government into trying to catch up. Von Braun and his team were moved to the Redstone rocket range at Huntsville, Alabama, a place that was to become synonymous with American spaceflight.There was no slave labour at Redstone, but von Braun had once again struck a Faustian pact. He spent six years developing the V-2 into the Redstone missile, named after the arsenal. The Redstone was designed to augment American artillery on the battlefield by delivering a nuclear warhead. The battlefield the American military had in mind was in Germany, which would have been the site of a titanic clash between NATO and the Soviet military if the Cold War had turned hot.
For all of von Braun’s enthusiasm for Christianity, he was developing weapons of mass destruction to be aimed at his own country.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, showing how far their rockets were ahead of their American counterparts. After decades of building rockets designed to come straight back to the planet they were launched from, von Braun suddenly found his work directed where he had wanted to point it all along: upward and outward.
The nearest thing the Americans had to a launch vehicle was von Braun’s Redstones. Some hasty modification led to the Juno I, which launched the first American satellite in 1958.
More important from von Braun’s perspective was that the swift response to Sputnik announced that the space race was on and he was in the driving seat. After decades of building weapons, the American government was demanding that he do what he’d wanted to do since he was a 20 year old student lighting rockets for the Verein für Raumschiffahrt.
NASA was inaugurated before the end of the year. The Redstone range was expanded into the Marshall Spaceflight Center with von Braun as its director. He was in much the same position he had enjoyed two decades earlier at Peenemünde, but this time with the brief he wanted. It was a mere three years before Alan Sheppard rode a Redstone to become the first American in space.
The 1960s were years of extraordinary progress, and must have been the best of von Braun’s life. It took him only six years to go from Sheppard’s sub-orbital flight to launching his crowning glory, the Saturn V.Whatever we may think of von Braun, the Saturn V is as awesome a machine as has ever been built. Watching the launch of Apollo 8, which carried the first humans out of earth orbit and hurled them into orbit around the moon, I find it hard to imagine the power needed to lift nearly 3000 tons at seven times the speed of sound. I find it impossible to imagine the engineering needed to contain and direct that power.
As the gantries swing back and its slow ascent contrasts with the plasma blasting from the exhausts and the storm of ice falling from the liquid oxygen tanks, it’s worth taking a moment to consider that the Saturn V put Apollo 11 on the moon only 20 months after its first launch in November 1967. Compare that to a modern jet fighter like the F-35 Lightning II, which first flew in 2006 and is still nowhere near being rated as operational as I write this nine years later. As technically advanced as it is, the Lightning II does not push the boundaries of experience in the way that a flight to the moon did. If any doubt about von Braun’s brilliance as an engineer remains, take one look at Saturn V:
Visionary to the last
Reg Turnill interviewed von Braun for the last time in 1975, when von Braun had terminal cancer. Looming mortality had not diluted von Braun’s visionary zeal. He talked enthusiastically about the space shuttle and the International Space Station, both of which were under development at the time. While von Braun is obviously most comfortable discussing nuts and bolts, his call for the space station to be a focus for international co-operation and for medical research that cannot be done on earth sounds as alien to the Sturmbannführer he had once been as his accent.Turnill said that when von Braun first arrived in the USA, his English had been so bad he could not be interviewed. By 1975, he sounded like a native Alabaman, at least from this side of the Atlantic. Once again, he shows a facility for adapting to his circumstances in order to co-opt them to his own ends.
I wish I knew what he was feeling when he said, ‘Some things you should not and cannot put dollar values on: life’. Had thirty years been long enough to put the Mittelwerk out of his mind? Was asserting the sanctity of life his way of atoning for the darker periods of his past? Or was he simply telling his audience what they wanted to hear?
Nearly 40 years after his death, judging von Braun is no more than a parlour game but his story contains a lesson, even if the lesson is characteristically ambiguous. Does he teach us the peril of valuing a dream to highly, even if the dream is glorious? Or does he teach us that the way to success lies through ruthless pragmatism?
Whatever lesson we take from von Braun, we can all look up at the right time to see the third brightest object in the sky skim between us and the stars. That is the space station von Braun enthused about in 1975. His legacy encircles us to this day.
Or perhaps we should leave the last word to Tom Lehrer: