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      Subject: Review-a-Day: Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

      Today's Review From
      New York Review of Books

      Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
      by Michael J. Neufeld


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      Rocket Man
      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 für
      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 1930â??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
      Peenemünde 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 Peenemünde

      From age twenty-eight to thirty-three, during the years of World
      War II, von Braun continued to work at Peenemünde 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 Peenemünde
      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
      Peenemünde 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.
      Himmler said:

      Why don't you come to us? You know that the Führer'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
      Führer'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
      their crimes.

      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 Peenemünde team.
      Some of the other scientists at Peenemünde 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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