Wernher von Braun – Dangerous Nazi or Hero of the Space Race? Part 2 – The Evidence

Wernher von Braun came to America from Germany after World War II as part of Operation Paperclip. He went on to play a major role in the Cold War’s Space Race with his expertise of rockets. However, views of von Braun are being reassessed as the terrible role he played in Nazi Germany has come to the fore in recent years. Victor Gamma looks at the case for and against von Braun below.

Read part 1 on Von Braun’s life here.

Wernher von Braun in civilian clothes, with members of the Nazi military in May 1941 in Peenemunde. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.024-03 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

Wernher von Braun in civilian clothes, with members of the Nazi military in May 1941 in Peenemunde. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.024-03 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

So what shall we think of the man who probably more than any other was responsible for the unforgettable “Giant Leap” made by Neil Armstrong that famous day in July 1969? Does von Braun deserve to be condemned for the part he played in the war? Was he, as Lehrer indicated, a hypocrite unworthy of admiration? Or was he a visionary, modern-day Columbus who should be providing inspiration for future generations? Let’s look at the record.

Von Braun’s links to the Third Reich began early in the 1930s. Even before Hitler attained power, he and other gifted rocketeers captured the attention of the German military. Specifically, Germany at that time was on the lookout for weapons that would not violate the Treaty of Versailles. Artillery Captain Walter Dornberger was impressed with von Braun and chose him to lead Germany’s rocket artillery unit. Shortly after Hitler took power in 1933, all rocket experiments not under the direct control of the German military were banned. Now the only way for the ambitious young von Braun to continue his research was to work for the German Army. Thus sponsored by the new regime, von Braun and his team developed what was essentially a hobby into the modern science of rocketry – a shift that would soon dramatically alter the course of history. The next step was to find the ideal location, isolated and next to lots of space where failed rocket launches could crash. That place was Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea, where the team moved in 1937 with von Braun as technical director and where the rocket work was kept secret. It was here that his reputation was made and the seeds of later controversy were planted. 

If one were to look only at the surface of von Braun’s record during the Hitler years, the results seem a damning, open-and-shut case. He not only joined the Nazi Party before the war, he was involved with the dreaded SS as early as 1933. As a member of the organization, labeled “criminal” at the Nuremberg Trials, he rose to the rank of SS-Sturmbannführer (major). During his service he earned the War merit cross, first class with Swords and then the Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords. He then proceeded to play an instrumental role in a weapon that was used in indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian targets, built by enforced labor. The working conditions of the laborers, mostly concentration camp prisoners, were characterized by terrible atrocities. All in all, it looks like a watertight case against the hero of the moon landing. However, as any good detective or historian knows, only looking at surface facts does not tell the whole story. A more thorough investigations reveals that the great engineer had a more complex and ambivalent relationship with the Nazi regime than the above facts indicate. 


Reluctant Nazi, Eager Opportunist

Throughout his post-war career, von Braun consistently attempted to downplay his involvement with the labor-camp atrocities and to portray his several encounters with Hitler as unpleasant. In his 1947 army affidavit von Braun was both coy and forthright at the same time. He attempted to diminish his membership and activities in the NSDAP and the SS. Much of this checks out. His early involvement with the SS was as a member of an SS horse-riding school – a quite harmless endeavor. He left the school after one year. He asserted that he was “demanded” to join the National Socialist Party in 1939 (two years later than he actually did). He explained that refusal to do so would have meant the end of his career with rockets, which is true. Therefore he decided to join. His involvement in the party, he maintained, was largely symbolic and did not involve any political activity. In the words of his biographer Neufeld, “… in every case it (joining the party or the SS) appears to be because of external pressure. There isn’t much evidence that he joined voluntarily or shared the racist, anti-Semitic ideology of the party.” As for the SS, von Braun claimed that his membership in the SS came about when he was approached by a colonel Mueller to join. He consulted with his superior and long-time mentor, Major General Dr. Dornberger, who informed him that, once again, a refusal to join would mean the end of his work with rockets. Himmler, always scheming for power, only wanted von Braun to join as a ploy to gain control over the rocket program. The young rocketeer was in no position to refuse. Thus he became SS with the rank of lieutenant. In his own words, “I received a written promotion every year. At the war’s end I had the rank of a “Sturmbannführer” (major). But nobody ever requested me to report to anyone or to do anything with the SS.” He explained that the only occasion he actually used his rank was to help in the evacuation of the rocket program from Peenamunde to a safer location in southern Germany. His account is corroborated by the available facts. There is no evidence that during his time in the SS he did anything more than send in his monthly dues.


Political fighting

The record displays abundant evidence that, rather than seeking to advance the Nazi agenda, von Braun’s priorities were science, rockets and space exploration. According to Neufeld, “He was not ideologically very interested in Nazi ideas.” In fact, his obsession with space travel instead of defense was just the opportunity needed by Himmler to attempt a take-over of the rocket program. The chaotically administered Third Reich was characterized by constant infighting and struggles for power. SS Chief Himmler had cast his eyes on the prestigious field of war production, including rockets. To gain leverage, Himmler had von Braun and his team under surveillance from October 1943. The young engineer and his colleagues were unenthusiastic enough about the National Socialist agenda to provide Himmler what he needed. The SS compiled a file on him and his colleagues, claiming that they were overheard complaining about the use of rockets as a combat weapon instead of for space exploration and making “defeatist” remarks about the war’s progress. In March 1944, without hearing the charges, von Braun was suddenly imprisoned for two weeks. The accusations involved sabotaging or delaying the effort to develop the rocket as an effective weapon in the war effort. The charges were dropped and von Braun was released after Hitler was persuaded that their prisoner was simply too valuable to lose. His arrest does not prove that von Braun was an active opponent of the Nazi regime. It does help corroborate, however, that he was far from a die-hard follower of Hitler. In fact, after his brief incarceration by the Gestapo, the Third Reich’s Wunderkind grew increasingly alienated from the Nazi regime. Fellow engineer Peter Wegener, who worked with him in the last two years of the war, noticed von Braun changing attitude toward the Third Reich: “von Braun joked in small groups about meetings with government leaders and extended his attitude later to the SS. It became obvious to me that he disliked Hitler and all that Hitler did.”

This incident does not absolve von Braun of war-crimes, but it does corroborates the rocket team leader’s claim that he was not a genuine Nazi but rather simply interested in rockets. His behavior at war’s end is also consistent with this view. Rather than hand his blueprints over to the SS, he ordered them hidden in an abandoned mine. After his surrender he cooperated with American authorities, who rescued 14 tons of V-2 documents. Fellow rocket enthusiast William Ley said of him, “I found no reason to regard von Braun as an outspoken anti-Nazi. But just as little, if not even less, did I find him to be a Nazi. In my opinion the man simply wanted to build rockets, period.” He simply took advantage of any opportunity to promote his vision, even if it meant turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. But he, unlike other war criminals, was never eager to contribute to that suffering or to use rocketry to rain destruction upon mankind. After a visit to a 1939 launch, Albert Speer observed, “For him (von Braun) and his team, this was not the development of a weapon, but a step into the future of technology.”


Rockets for the Fatherland

Von Braun’s own politics were typical of the aristocratic, East Prussian class into which he had been born. The engineer shared the hyper-conservative political views of his background. Aristocratic Germans had little use for the vulgar, radical Nazis and viewed them with ridicule. However, as the Nazis restored German stability, prosperity and national pride, the members of this class acknowledged the benefits of the regime and supported it in one way or another, nor were they shy about taking advantage of opportunities offered. This was especially true for von Braun. For him the Nazis offered the only way he could continue pursuing his dream of space travel. This explains his war record as well as his basic sense of patriotic duty, which led him to overlook the moral shortcomings of the regime in order to do his part to help his country. Without diminishing Mr. Salz’ suffering, it is simply inaccurate to say that von Braun wanted to “develop a wonder weapon.” After successful launches of the V-2 against Paris and London, von Braun made a short speech to his team: “Let’s not forget…that this is only the beginning of a new era, the era of rocket-powered flight. It seems that this is another demonstration of the sad fact that so often important new developments get nowhere until they are first applied as weapons.” As for his work for the “final victory,” although serving a terrible regime, he, like millions of other Germans, saw their service as patriotic duty, not war crimes. As one of von Braun’s colleagues put it: “Most of us were pretty sore about the heavy bombing of Germany-the loss of German civilians, mother, fathers, or relatives. When the first V-2 hit London, we had champagne. And why not? We were at war, and although we weren’t Nazis, we still had a Fatherland to fight for.”


What do you think about Wernher von Braun? Let us know below.

Now, read Victor’s series on whether it was right to topple William McKinley’s statue in Arcata, California here.

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