Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
by Michael J. Neufeld
Reviewed by Freeman Dyson
New York Review of Books
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 bombs.
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 incomprehensible 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 Braun.
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 bombardments. 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 1930–1932 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 establishment.
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 sabotage.
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 experimenter.
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 successfully, 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 done.
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.