Wernher Von Braun, mass murder or great inventor?
The quandary that is the 'Rocket Man'
Have you ever found yourself so committed to a life project or goal that no matter what obstacle comes in your way you find a way to overcome and succeed? Wernher Von Braun is one of those individuals. Singularly focused he could either be considered the single greatest hero of the space age or one of the most notorious Machiavellian figures in history. Helping to propel the first satellites and then men into space while also creating the worst cross-continental attack missiles built using Nazi concentration camp labor. This complex individual is brought out in living color in Neufeld's book and allows you as the reader to decide your own feelings on this famous figure.
Image Credit: NASA.gov
The story and the controversy
Michael Neufeld's biography of Van Braun is one of the most readable technology biographies I have had the pleasure of sitting down with. With first person dialogue backed up by a tremendous amount of factual data, Neufeld builds a portrait of a complex individual in a condensed yet fascinating story. I think it would be difficult for any scholar of Von Braun to not build strong feelings either positive or negative into a book, and yet Neufeld takes on the awesome task of presenting the individual with an impartial historical view. He allows the reader to make up their own mind based on the facts that are presented. As you will see, this is not an easy task with a genius that helped the Nazis but then went on to pioneer manned space flight and inspired an entire generation of space enthusiasts. Regardless of which side you fall on, it is a fascinating story of an individual intertwined with major historical events from WWII to the cold war.
Even at the age of 10 when asked what he would like to do with his life he replied "I want to help turn the wheel of progress". Already at the earliest age he had already found a desire to change the world. He quickly became interested in science and just as quickly into the potential of rockets, which was a popular topic in science fiction in the early 1920s and 1930s. A gifted student, who was recognized for his talents in math and science early in his life, came into focus by the government specifically the military branch of the government. Funding was tight in his early days but once the Nazi's came into power suddenly more resources became available, a wonderful turn of events for an individual who wanted to build larger and more powerful rockets.
Claiming to be a reluctant member of the Nazi party, he was suddenly provided resources that allowed him to dramatically increase his research in the field of advanced single stage multi-stage stage rockets. While his goal was always to reach the moon or beyond, Hitler's were more terrestrial based, wanting to create a new vastly powerful weapon. Von Braun was happy to accommodate as long as it might help him learn and build better rockets. Soon the V2 rocket program was born to build massive weaponized rockets to attack England from France and Germany.
Predominantly Jewish concentration camp workers constructed the V2 rockets in vast underground bunkers. Von Braun designed these new missiles and oversaw every step of their construction, which included on-site supervision. These rockets were fired blindly into England hitting civilian and military targets interchangeably with devastating consequences. Following the end of the war after he negotiated his transition of allegiances to the United States in a series of meetings in London his driver stopped the car in front of a building that his V2 had destroyed; his only reaction was recorded in a letter where he stated, "I was unable to tell the precise way in which the V-2 had done its damage, because the rubble had been cleared away." He never gave any indication of any remorse for the loss of life, just clinical analysis of his missiles.
When the Nazis were defeated, Von Braun hid his team until he was able to negotiate amnesty for himself and his team and then transfer to the United States to continue his research work on rockets. Given his expertise and the new race to the stars with the Soviet Union his expertise was quickly coveted. While not completely trusted and thus placed with military guards in New Mexico, he was shielded from any investigations into his involvement in slave labor or mass murder with the V-2 program. Instead he was given vast resources to bring the United States into the stars and far beyond as the United States competed with the Soviet Union. Not only was he entrusted to build the program for the US but also to be the face of the space program with the goal of inspiring the masses in the United States to ensure continual funding and public support for these incredibly expensive and many times controversial projects. To this aim, like everything else in his life, he dove headfirst taking on a punishing schedule of public speaking, research experiments and leadership responsibilities for the newly formed NASA organization. He advanced the belief that through math and science any student could reach for the stars and fulfill their dreams.
I do not believe there have been many other instances of a public figure so universally hated in one time period and then so universally admired in another as Wernher Von Braun. He was the father of modern rockets as well as military missiles and stayed committed to his work throughout his life stepping over anything and anyone in his way. He was the public face for NASA in its infancy helping an entire generation of school children to dream of flying amongst the stars until his death. Neufeld's book challenges you to make up your own mind as to the final feeling you will have of this complex individual. Regardless, for anyone who has ever watched a space shuttle launch with a sense of wonderment or danced around with a level of childlike excitement when launching their own toy rocket, this book is well worth your time.
Some interesting resources on Von Braun
The historian Ian Kershaw has said "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but was paved with indifference". This was in reference to Von Braun's choice to look the other way when his missiles were built using concentration camp labor.
When asked about the importance of putting a man on the moon, Von Braun answered, "I think it is equal in importance to that moment of evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on land"