FW: Review-a-Day: Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
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New York Review of Books
Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
by Michael J. Neufeld
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A review by Freeman Dyson
In the summer of 1944, the population of London was accustomed
to the loud rumbling of a buzz bomb flying overhead, the abrupt
silence when the engine stopped and the bomb began its descent
to earth, the anxious seconds of waiting for the explosion. Buzz
bombs, otherwise known as V-1s, were simple pilotless airplanes,
launched from sites along the French and Dutch coasts. As the
summer ended and our armies drove the Germans out of France, the
buzz bombs stopped coming. They were replaced by a much less disturbing
instrument of murder, the V-2 rockets launched from more distant
sites in western Holland. The V-2 was not nerve-wracking like
the buzz bomb. When a V-2 came down, we heard the explosion first
and the supersonic scream of the descending rocket afterward.
As soon as we heard the explosion, we knew that it had missed
us. The buzz bombs and the V-2 rockets killed a few thousand people
in London, but they hardly disrupted our civilian activities and
had no effect at all on the war that was then raging in France
and in Poland. The rockets had even less effect than the buzz
To me at that time the V-2 rockets were a cause for joy and wonder.
I was a civilian scientist analyzing the causes of bomber losses
for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. I knew that the main cause
of our bomber losses was German fighters, and I knew that the
Germans were desperately short of fighters. If the Germans had
had five times as many fighters, they could have stopped us from
flying over Germany, and that would have made it much harder for
us to invade their country and finish the war. I knew that the
buzz bomb was a cheap and simple device but the V-2 was complicated
and expensive. Each V-2 cost the Germans at least as much in skilled
labor and materials as a modern fighter aircraft. It was
to me that the Germans had chosen to put their limited resources
into militarily useless rockets instead of crucially needed fighters.
Each time I heard a V-2 explode, I counted it as one German fighter
thrown away and ten fewer of our bombers downed. It seemed that
some unknown benefactor in Germany was unilaterally disarming
the German air force for our benefit. I had no idea then who the
benefactor might be. We now know his name. It was Wernher von
Michael J. Neufeld's "Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of
War" is a meticulously researched and technically accurate biography
of von Braun. He was not intentionally working for Germany's enemies
in 1944. He was at that time a patriotic German, working for the
Fatherland, producing V-2 rockets for the German army. It was
not his fault that V-2 rockets were not what the Germans needed
for defending the Fatherland. He was our benefactor only by accident.
Von Braun's primary purpose, from the time he began rocket experiments
as an amateur at the age of eighteen until the end of his life,
was interplanetary space travel.
In 1932 he was recruited by the German army to develop rockets
for military missiles. The army gave him what he wanted: steady
funding and freedom to experiment. He pushed hard to develop a
rocket that could fly into space, not caring whether or not the
army had a reasonable military mission for it. The result of his
pushing was the V-2, the first long-range ballistic missile, capable
of delivering a one-ton explosive payload with very poor accuracy
to a range of two hundred miles. When the V-2 made its first successful
flight in October 1942, this was a big step toward von Braun's
dream of walking on Mars. It should have been obvious to German
military and political leaders that it was, from a military point
of view, an expensive and useless toy.
How did it happen that Hitler gave his blessing to a crash program
to produce the V-2 in quantity? Hitler was not a fool. As a foot
soldier in World War I he had survived some heavy artillery
Von Braun demonstrated his plans for the V-2 to Hitler in person
in August 1941, and Hitler reacted with sensible objections. He
asked whether von Braun had worried about the timing of the explosion,
since a normal artillery shell arriving at supersonic speed would
bury itself in the ground before exploding and do little damage.
This was a serious problem, and von Braun had to admit that he
had not thought about it. Hitler then remarked that the V-2 was
only an artillery shell with longer range than usual, and the
army would need hundreds of thousands rather than thousands of
such shells in order to use them effectively. Von Braun agreed
that this was true.
After the session with von Braun, Hitler ordered the army to plan
production of hundreds of thousands of V-2s per year, but not
to begin production until the bird had successfully flown. This
decision seemed harmless at the time, but it played into the hands
of the army rocketeers. The army leaders knew that the notion
of producing hundreds of thousands of V-2s per year was absurd,
but they accepted the order. It gave them authority to spend as
much as they wanted on the program, without any fixed timetable.
In August 1941 the war was going well for Germany. The army had
won huge victories in the first two months of the Russian campaign,
France was knocked out of the war, and America was not yet in.
Hitler did not imagine that within three years he would be fighting
a defensive war for the survival of the Reich. He did not ask
whether the V-2 might be a toy that the Reich could not afford.
In Germany as in other countries, the main factor driving acquisition
of weapons was interservice rivalry. The army wanted the V-2 because
of rivalry with the Luftwaffe. The German air force was leading
the world in high-technology weapons, developing jet aircraft
and rocket aircraft and a variety of guided rocket missiles. The
army had to have a high-technology project too. The V-2 was a
high-technology version of artillery. It gave the army the chance
to say to the air force, our rockets are bigger than your rockets.
Although Hitler was nominally a dictator, he was no more successful
than political leaders of democratic countries in keeping rivalries
between different branches of the military under control. He could
fire military leaders, and did so from time to time, but he could
not make them do what he wanted. The army leaders, with the help
of von Braun, launched a crash program to produce the V-2. They
produced a few thousand V-2s altogether, enough to outshine the
air force but not enough to be militarily useful. Hitler could
not force them to produce as many as he thought necessary, and
he could not force them to stop the program and transfer its resources
to the air force. The army and the air force continued to operate
as independent principalities until the day Hitler died.
Von Braun's career as a rocket-builder was divided into six periods
in which he worked for six different masters. From age eighteen
to twenty, he worked as an amateur in Berlin with the Verein fÃƒÂ¼r
Raumschiffahrt, the German Space-Travel Society, a private group
of rocket enthusiasts. He was technically the most competent member
of the group. In the years 1930Ã¢??1932 he built and successfully
launched at a small airfield near Berlin a series of liquid-fueled
rockets. Rockets are of two kinds, solid-fueled and liquid-fueled.
Both kinds are driven forward by hot gas escaping from the back
when the fuel burns. Solid-fueled rockets are simpler and cheaper.
They were used unsuccessfully by the British navy attacking Fort
McHenry in 1814, as recorded in the US national anthem. Liquid-fueled
rockets fly faster and farther, but are much more complicated
and difficult to handle.
From age twenty to twenty-eight von Braun worked as a civilian
for the German army. The army acquired a large area of land at
PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde on the Baltic coast of Germany, and built facilities
there for large-scale development and testing of rockets. Von
Braun's mother had lived nearby as a child and suggested the place
as suitable for her son's activities. Von Braun's friend Walter
Dornberger, an army major, was in charge of the program. Von Braun
served under him as technical director of the PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde
From age twenty-eight to thirty-three, during the years of World
War II, von Braun continued to work at PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde as a civilian
for the German army, but he was legally an officer in the SS.
This meant that he was under SS discipline. He wore his SS uniform
as little as possible, and only on formal occasions. He disliked
and distrusted his SS colleagues. But when, toward the end of
the war, the SS took over the manufacture of V-2 missiles from
the army, he had to do what the SS ordered. During the final weeks
of the war, when he was evacuated with the remnants of the PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde
staff to the southeast corner of Germany, he was escorted by SS
guards to keep him in line.
From age thirty-three to forty-eight he worked for the US army
at El Paso, Texas, and Huntsville, Alabama, as leader of a large
group of German rocket experts. These experts were hastily recruited
in 1945 by the US forces occupying Germany to keep them out of
Soviet hands, transferred to the United States, and then employed
in developing Redstone missiles for the army. From age forty-eight
to sixty, von Braun worked for the newly created NASA, first at
Huntsville and later in Washington. The Army Ballistic Missile
Agency at Huntsville became the NASA Marshall Space-Flight Center
in 1960, with von Braun in charge of the development of the huge
Saturn booster rockets that safely carried twenty-one Apollo astronauts
to the moon and back. From age sixty until his death at sixty-five,
he worked for the Fairchild Industries corporation in Washington.
At Fairchild he worked as hard as ever, supervising a variety
of technical projects, helping to develop new airplanes and satellites
for military and civilian missions.
The central concern of this book is the third period of von Braun's
life, the five years during World War II in which he realized
his dream of shooting rockets into space and accepted a position
of responsibility in the SS. The SS was the most criminal part
of the Hitler regime, directly responsible for the administration
of the concentration camps in which millions of prisoners were
either murdered, starved to death, or used as slave laborers.
Von Braun knew at first hand the dark side of the SS. After the
PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde complex was seriously damaged by an RAF bombing attack
in 1943, the SS took over the production of V-2 rockets, and the
main production line was moved to an underground factory called
Mittelwerk that would be safe from air attacks. Mittelwerk was
conveniently located near the Dora concentration camp and the
town of Nordhausen in central Germany. Dora prisoners became a
large part of the workforce at Mittelwerk, with SS guards to control
them. Thousands of prisoners were confined in the tunnels where
they worked under horrible conditions and slept on straw or bare
rock. A large number of them died of hunger and disease. A smaller
number were publicly hanged for disobedience or alleged acts of
The boss at Mittelwerk was an SS general called Hans Kammler whom
von Braun feared and hated. Von Braun was not responsible for
running the operations. He was only a technical adviser. But he
visited Mittelwerk many times to supervise the production process
and improve the quality of the output. The facts about von Braun's
activities at Mittelwerk and his SS membership were first revealed
in a book, "Geheimnis von Huntsville" (The Secret of Huntsville),
by Julius Mader, published in East Berlin in 1963. This book was
not translated into English and attracted little attention in
the US, being dismissed as Communist propaganda. A later book,
"Dora" by Jean Michel, originally written in French but published
in English in 1979, reported the same facts and attracted much
more attention. The book under review contains nothing essentially
new, but adds many details that the author found in unpublished
papers by von Braun and others. Von Braun must have been well
aware of the atrocities being committed in the tunnels, even if
he avoided personal contact with the prisoners.
Von Braun was never interested in Nazi ideology. He belonged to
the old aristocratic class of Prussian nobility who owned big
estates in Pomerania or Silesia, now annexed by Poland, or in
East Prussia, now annexed by Russia. His father's estate was in
Silesia, his mother's in Pomerania. These were the people who
ruled Prussia for hundreds of years and ruled Germany from 1871
to 1918. They were for the most part highly educated and capable
administrators, conscientious public servants, and social snobs,
having more in common with their aristocratic cousins in other
European countries than with the common people of Germany. They
despised the socialist riffraff who came to power in 1918 and
established the Weimar Republic.
They despised equally the Nazi riff-raff who destroyed the republic
in 1933 and gave supreme power to Hitler. But they respected Hitler
as an effective leader who brought order and prosperity to Germany
after the chaos and misery of the Weimar years. Hitler was, after
all, more nationalist than socialist. He did not threaten their
social position or their estates. Most of them served him willingly
as leader of Germany, while continuing to despise the Nazis as
social and intellectual inferiors.
Wernher's father was a typical member of the Prussian nobility.
He spoke three languages fluently and his wife spoke six. His
three sons grew up in Berlin, in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege.
Born in 1912, Wernher was sent to a private boarding school in
Ettersburg Castle near Weimar with high intellectual standards
and high fees. His friends there were boys of his own class. At
school he became obsessed with rockets. He read the classic text,
"The Rocket into Interplanetary Space," published by the rocket
pioneer Hermann Oberth in 1923. He decided that his mission in
life was to bring Oberth's dreams to reality. At age thirteen
he made a good start by studying the mathematics that he needed
in order to understand Oberth's equations. At age sixteen he became
a member of the German Space-Travel Society. At age eighteen,
when he graduated from school, he was proficient enough in the
theory and practice of rocketry to become the society's chief
Von Braun did not hesitate to accept the job of military rocket
developer that the army offered to him in 1932. Hitler was not
yet in power, and the army was a conservative institution. It
was interested in unmanned missiles rather than manned spaceships,
but the same rockets that would drive missiles could later be
used to drive spaceships. He found the army rocket people congenial.
They were unpolitical like himself, good at working together on
difficult technical problems and staying out of the limelight.
When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, nothing much changed for
von Braun. The army remained unpolitical, and the budget for rocketry
continued to grow.
Change came in 1939 when Germany went to war, the army rockets
were no longer technical toys but real weapons, and the SS tried
to take over the program. The decisive moral choice for von Braun
came in 1940, when he was asked by the army to become an SS officer.
He did not want to have anything to do with the SS, so he went
to his superior officer, Walter Dornberger, for advice. Dornberger
told him there were only two alternatives. Either he must accept
the SS commission or he could no longer work with the army. This
had been decided at a higher level in the government. Von Braun
would not abandon the army project to which he had devoted eight
years of his life, so he said yes to the SS.
One of his friends in the project expressed dismay when he appeared
in an SS uniform. Von Braun told him unhappily, ""Es geht nicht
anders,"" "There is no other way." There was another way that
von Braun might have taken: to give up his dreams of rocketry
and volunteer for service to his country as a soldier or an airman.
He was a trained pilot and loved flying, so he might have enlisted
in the Luftwaffe and served the Fatherland by shooting down RAF
bombers. But his dislike of the SS was not strong enough to make
that other way seem reasonable.
On February 21, 1944, came von Braun's moment of partial redemption,
when he stood firm against the devil to whom he had sold his soul.
He was unexpectedly summoned to a private meeting with Heinrich
Himmler, the chief of the SS and the second-most-powerful man
in Germany. By this time the V-2 was supposed to be ready for
operational use against England but was delayed by technical problems.
Himmler invited him to stop working for the army and move over
to the SS, bringing the entire rocket program with him. Von Braun
reported the conversation in a memoir written six years later.
Why don't you come to us? You know that the FÃƒÂ¼hrer's
door is open to me at any time, don't you? I shall be
in a much better position to help you lick the remaining
difficulties than that clumsy Army machine!
Von Braun politely declined the invitation. According to his memoir,
he ventured to compare the V-2 with "a little flower that needs
sunshine, fertile soil, and some gardener's tending." He told
Himmler that "by pouring a big jet of liquid manure on that little
flower, in order to have it grow faster, he might kill it." His
reason for refusing the invitation was probably concern for the
welfare of his beloved rockets rather than concern for the welfare
of the Dora prisoners. Still it took courage to refuse an invitation
from Himmler. It took even more courage to compare the help offered
by the chief of the SS to a load of shit.
"One month later, the pay-off came, Himmler-style," von Braun
reported in his memoir. Gestapo agents knocked on his door in
the middle of the night and took him to a prison cell in Stettin
on the Baltic coast in present-day Poland. After a week in the
cell, he was given a hearing before three SS officers and formally
accused of sabotaging rocket development, making defeatist remarks
about the war, and planning to fly to England with all the plans
for the V-2. Meanwhile, with the help of Armaments Minister Albert
Speer, who was a personal friend both of von Braun and of Hitler,
Dornberger succeeded in obtaining a piece of paper signed at the
FÃƒÂ¼hrer's headquarters, releasing von Braun provisionally for
three months. Von Braun sat in jail for only ten days and was
not physically abused. Those ten days were of enormous value to
him when he came to the United States. Whenever people asked him
about his past, he could mention those days as evidence that he
had not been a Nazi. He never claimed that he had actively resisted
the Nazi regime, but the story of his imprisonment made him appear
to have been a victim of the Nazis rather than an accessory to
The second half of Neufeld's book describes von Braun's life in
America after 1945. He adapted with astonishing speed to the American
way of life. In 1946 he became a born-again Christian and joined
the congregation of a small Church of the Nazarene in Texas. For
several years he worked patiently for the army, refurbishing surplus
V-2 rockets that the US had imported from Germany. The army could
not give him more interesting work because there was no money
for further development of rockets. He quickly understood that
in America the money was controlled by Congress and Congress was
controlled by public opinion. The money was lacking because the
public was not interested in rocketry. So he resolved to go directly
to the public.
Whenever he had the chance, first with magazine articles and then
with speeches on radio and television, he preached the gospel
of rocketry. He spoke not only about unmanned rockets to defend
the country but about manned rockets to explore the solar system.
It took him only seven years from his arrival in the United States
to become world-famous as the chief promoter of space travel.
In 1952, "Collier's" magazine published a flamboyant article with
pictures of winged spaceships in orbit and a text, "Crossing the
Last Frontier," by von Braun. In the next year his book The Mars
Project, with detailed specification of rocket weights and payloads
required for a manned exploration of Mars, was published in English
and in German. As his fame grew, so did the budgets for the army
rocket program at Huntsville.
There were two high points of von Braun's life in America. In
1958, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the US Navy
Vanguard satellite crashed ignominiously on its launch-pad, von
Braun's team at Huntsville successfully put Explorer 1, the first
American satellite, into orbit. In 1969, he watched Neil Armstrong
and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, carried there by his rockets
and fulfilling his dream of the human race moving out of the nursery.
Von Braun was unique as an organizer of big projects who could
persuade prima donnas to work harmoniously together, and who also
understood every detail of the hardware.
After 1969, he remained as busy as ever, but his hopes for going
on to Mars faded. Five more Apollo missions reached the moon
and one, Apollo 13, was an epic failure from which the crew came
home safely. After that, the public was not interested in going
further. Budgets rapidly decreased and the Apollo program ended.
All that von Braun could do to keep manned rocket missions alive
was to promote the Space Shuttle, a reusable ferry vehicle that
had originally been the bottom part of his Mars Project. The Shuttle
was supposed to be cheap and safe, flying frequently with a quick
turnaround between missions. When after many delays the Shuttle
finally flew, it turned out to be neither cheap nor safe nor quick.
He was lucky not to live long enough to see how miserably the
Shuttle would fail.
This book raises three important issues, one historical and two
moral. The historical question is whether von Braun's great achievement,
providing the means for twelve men to walk on the moon, made sense.
Was it a big step toward the realization of his dream of colonizing
the universe, or was it a dead end without any useful consequences?
In the short run, the Apollo program was certainly a dead end.
As a public program dependent on taxpayers' money, it collapsed
as soon as the taxpayers lost interest in it. When von Braun moved
from NASA to Fairchild Industries in 1972, he was wagering that
human adventures in space would in future be better supported
by private investors than by governments. He died of cancer five
years later. Now, thirty years after his death, we see a vigorous
growth of privately funded space ventures. If von Braun had lived
twenty years longer, he might have pushed us sooner into the era
of private space ventures. He might even have rescued the Space
Shuttle, his orphaned baby, and made it become what he had intended
it to be, cheap and safe and quick. In the long run, one way or
another, people will again dream of colonizing the universe and
will again build spaceships to embark on celestial journeys. When
that happens, they will be following in von Braun's footsteps.
The two moral issues that the book raises are whether von Braun
was justified in selling his soul to Himmler, and whether the
United States was justified in giving sanctuary and honorable
employment to von Braun and other members of the PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde team.
Some of the other scientists at PeenemÃƒÂ¼nde were guilty of worse
offenses than von Braun. The most notorious was Arthur Rudolph,
a close friend of von Braun, who had been an enthusiastic Nazi
and served as chief of production at the Mittelwerk factory. Rudolph
was far more directly involved than von Braun in the exploitation
and abuse of prisoners. After that, Rudolph lived in the United
States for thirty-nine years and enjoyed a distinguished career
as a rocket engineer. Finally, in 1984, formerly secret documents
describing Rudolph's activities in Germany emerged into the light
of day, and he was threatened with a lawsuit challenging his right
to American citizenship. Rather than fighting the lawsuit, he
renounced his citizenship and returned with his wife to Germany.
One of the investigators of the Rudolph case said, "We're lucky
von Braun isn't alive." Von Braun had died, full of years and
honor, seven years earlier. If von Braun had been alive in 1984,
with his public fame and political clout intact, he would have
come to the defense of Rudolph and probably won the case.
The author of this book condemns von Braun for his collaboration
with the SS, and condemns the United States government for covering
up the evidence of his collaboration. Here I beg to differ with
the author. War is an inherently immoral activity. Even the best
of wars involves crimes and atrocities, and every citizen who
takes part in war is to some extent collaborating with criminals.
I should here declare my own interest in this debate. In my work
for the RAF Bomber Command, I was collaborating with people who
planned the destruction of Dresden in February 1945, a notorious
calamity in which many thousands of innocent civilians were burned
to death. If we had lost the war, those responsible might have
been condemned as war criminals, and I might have been found guilty
of collaborating with them.
After this declaration of personal involvement, let me state my
conclusion. In my opinion, the moral imperative at the end of
every war is reconciliation. Without reconciliation there can
be no real peace. Reconciliation means amnesty. It is allowable
to execute the worst war criminals, with or without a legal trial,
provided that this is done quickly, while the passions of war
are still raging. After the executions are done, there should
be no more hunting for criminals and collaborators. In order to
make a lasting peace, we must learn to live with our enemies and
forgive their crimes. Amnesty means that we are all equal before
the law. Amnesty is not easy and not fair, but it is a moral necessity,
because the alternative is an unending cycle of hatred and revenge.
South Africa has set us a good example, showing how it can be
In the end, I admire von Braun for using his God-given talents
to achieve his visions, even when this required him to make a
pact with the devil. He bent Hitler and Himmler to his purposes
more than they bent him to theirs. And I admire the United States
Army for giving him a second chance to pursue his dreams. In the
end, the amnesty given to him by the United States did far more
than a strict accounting of his misdeeds could have done to redeem
his soul and to fulfill his destiny.
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