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Review of Neufeld, _Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War_

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      From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List [mailto:H-REVIEW@...] On Behalf Of H-Net Staff
      Sent: Friday, January 15, 2010 10:26 AM
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      Subject: H-Net Review Publication: 'Who's Using Whom?'

      Michael J. Neufeld. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.
      New York Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. xiii + 587 pp. $35.00 (cloth),
      ISBN 978-0-307-26292-9.

      Reviewed by Richard H. Beyler (Department of History, Portland State
      University)
      Published on H-German (January, 2010)
      Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher

      Who's Using Whom?

      Michael Neufeld has produced a definitive biography of Wernher von
      Braun, probably one of the most influential and certainly one of the
      most controversial figures in the history of technology in the
      twentieth century. The font of both fame and controversy was Braun's
      role as the design chief for the German V-2 missile program, in which
      capacity he joined the National Socialist Party and eventually the
      SS, and had at least some involvement--the exact degree and
      circumstances are in dispute--with the use of slave labor under
      atrocious conditions to build the missiles. These are the events
      which are probably of most initial interest to H-German readers;
      Neufeld marshals evidence to create a convincing interpretation of
      Braun's actions and decisions during this period. However, the book
      also contains an illuminating picture of the arch-conservative Junker
      background of Braun's early years. Likewise, once the scene shifts to
      the United States after 1945, where Braun headed a series of missile
      projects for the U.S. Army and NASA culminating with the Saturn V
      rocket used for the Apollo moon landings, Neufeld's careful
      examination of myth-making (and deconstruction) about Braun's
      relationship to the Nazi past will also be of interest to many
      specialists on Germany.

      In the two opening chapters, Neufeld places young Wernher squarely in
      the milieu of Prussian aristocracy. Both sides of the family--the
      Brauns and the Quistorps--were deeply conservative, yet cosmopolitan
      in appreciation of culture; deeply devoted to the notion of loyal
      service to authority, yet also tolerant and even supportive of such
      unconventionalities as young Wernher's growing enthusiasm for
      rocketry, influenced by the writings of Hermann Oberth and by
      participation in the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) in Berlin.

      The next section overlaps somewhat with Neufeld's previous book, _The
      Rocket and the Reich_ (1995), but of course concentrates on Braun's
      role. In 1934, the VfR was essentially closed down in the course of
      National Socialist _Gleichschaltung_. Its most dynamic and capable
      members, including Braun, were given the opportunity to work for Army
      Ordnance's missile project, soon headquartered at Peenemünde on the
      Baltic coast island of Usedom. To speak of cooptation by National
      Socialism would not be correct, since, as Neufeld shows, this change
      was quite congenial for Braun's personal interests. Though Braun was
      not an enthusiast, joining the party apparently did not pose too many
      conflicts for him. In the Peenemünde program, Braun showed himself
      to be a skilled engineer, a loyal subordinate to his Army Ordnance
      superiors, and a good manager of an increasingly complex
      organization. Braun also learned--though with some faux pas--the fine
      art of intrigue in the National Socialist state. Expressing loyalty
      to his immediate army superiors and garnering support from the
      central regime meant highlighting the military potential of missiles
      while squelching expression of his own desires for space travel. In
      the intramural power struggles within the Nazi party and state, Braun
      stood clearly on the side of the regular army and Albert Speer and
      against the SS; Neufeld sees his membership in the latter
      organization as not necessarily coerced, but rather as a kind of
      beachhead for bureaucratic infighting against increasing SS control
      over the missile project. In this connection, Neufeld demonstrates
      that Braun almost certainly had knowledge of the brutal exploitation
      of slave labor, but was either incapable of or unwilling to rock the
      boat to make any significant amelioration. In telling the story up to
      1945, Neufeld is significantly handicapped by the fact that
      essentially all of Braun's personal papers were lost during the
      closing days of the war; nevertheless, piecing together a multitude
      of archival and published sources, he manages a remarkably complete
      narrative of events.

      As the war came to a close, Braun quite deliberately sought to ensure
      his capture by the Americans (and not any of the other Allies) and
      confidently assumed that his skills and knowledge would make him a
      valuable asset. In this, he was correct. In the latter part of the
      book--slightly more than half of the pages--Neufeld details Braun's
      trajectory from the semi-secret, semi-irregular White Sands research
      site to his role as the leading missile designer of the 1950s, to his
      leadership of the Saturn V development program for NASA. This section
      of the book is a tour de force in the study of political
      bureaucracies. Alongside his technical capacities, Braun's skill as a
      manager served in him in good stead throughout the complex
      struggles--hardly visible to the general public--within and among the
      armed services, various civilian agencies, and corporate entities who
      all had stakes (sometimes conflicting) in the space program. A major
      sub-theme in this section is Braun's emergence as a public figure or
      indeed hero, an image cultivated by various magazines, the Disney
      studio, and other media outlets. Part of this process was the
      creation of a non- or even anti-Nazi myth for Braun. Remarkable, in
      retrospect, is the sheer ignorance in the United States about the
      basic facts of Nazi use of slave labor. As information about this
      activity began to capture public notice in the 1960s, the Braun myth
      began to erode, even as the space program itself became increasingly
      caught up in the social and political turmoil of that era.

      Neufeld sees a persistent, almost overwhelming continuity in all
      these phases of Braun's life. Simply put, Braun was nearly obsessed
      with the dream of manned space flight. He was eager to use any and
      all resources and institutions that seemed to advance him towards
      this goal. Questions of morality or politics paled in comparison.
      However, as Neufeld's account makes clear, Braun was no idiot savant.
      On the contrary, in marked contrast to some other pioneers of
      rocketry, Braun was socially graceful and charismatic to an
      extraordinary degree, skilled in the management of large and complex
      organizations, astute in the calculations of strategic compromise,
      and capable of coordinating others' multiple agendas while not losing
      hold of his own. Braun was quite willing to be used by the German
      army, the Nazi Party, the SS, or later, by the U.S. Army or
      NASA--insofar as being used by powerful institutions gave him, in
      turn, access to human and material resources useful for realizing his
      own vision of space travel.

      Braun's sympathies were generally positive, or at any rate not
      negative, towards both National Socialist Germany (at least at the
      outset), as well as Cold War America. Common to both was a decided
      aversion towards communism. But in Neufeld's analysis, Braun's
      personal political inclinations (was he "really" a Nazi or not? was
      he "really" a convinced convert to American democracy?) were largely
      beside the point in explaining his actions. Likewise, the extent of
      his knowledge of the brutal exploitation of slave labor at
      Dora-Mittelbau and other missile construction facilities, his ability
      or inability to do anything about it, or the presence or absence of
      any personal ethical qualms were all, in effect, irrelevant for his
      continued leadership of the V-2 program. Wisely, Neufeld leaves his
      readers to draw their own conclusions about whether they find Braun's
      singleness of purpose admirable or repulsive.

      Citation: Richard H. Beyler. Review of Neufeld, Michael J., _Von
      Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War_. H-German, H-Net Reviews.
      January, 2010.
      URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=26091

      This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
      Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
      License.
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