How Much Did Wernher von Braun Know, and When Did He Know It?

Michael J. Neufeld talks about his new book, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

(Carolyn Russo)

Michael Neufeld, who chairs the Space History Division at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, recently spoke with A&S Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi about his extensively researched new book, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (Knopf, 2007). A rising star in the German army’s rocket program, Wernher von Braun led the development of the seminal V-2 missile and was a loyal follower of the Third Reich. After the war, he reinvented himself as a leader of the U.S. space program. But questions about his complicity in using slave labor to build the V-2 have never gone away.

A&S: What kinds of choices did von Braun have? Was there any way he could have repudiated the use of slave labor and yet still carried on his work as a rocket engineer?

Neufeld: That’s been the traditional kind of defense: that he was trapped, that he couldn’t do anything. The problem with that is that it makes him look like someone who really didn’t want to be in the Third Reich—someone who didn’t like the Nazis. But all the evidence I have is that he was quite comfortable with the Nazis and the Third Reich until late in the war. And it was only in the very last year or two of the war—through a combination of his last encounter with Hitler, witnessing concentration camp labor, but above all his own arrest by the Gestapo—that he became disillusioned about this regime that he was working for. Up to that time, although not enthused about joining the party and the SS, he’d been a fairly loyal member of the Third Reich and in some sense or other, a Nazi, if not an ideological one or one who cared about the race theory very much.

What choice did he have? Well, by the time he found himself in the middle of concentration camp labor, it’s probably true that he didn’t have many choices. And my argument in the book is, in many ways, he had sleep-walked into a Faustian bargain—that he had worked with this regime without thinking what it meant to work for the Third Reich and for the Nazi regime. And he bears some responsibility for his own actions, therefore. In the case of concentration camp labor, there wasn’t much he could do to help. But he still bears some moral responsibility for being in the middle of that situation, seeing the concentration camp labor personally, face to face. Seeing the horrible conditions and continuing to work. And I mean, he not just continued to work, he continued to work day and night energetically for that program with total commitment—even after being arrested by the Gestapo.

A&S: There’s no question that he knew about the slave labor?

Neufeld: He was in the underground plant at least 12 to 15 times. As I found out in the testimony that he gave for a war crimes trial in West Germany in 1969, he mentioned that he’d been through the underground sleeping quarters, which had been built in the tunnels in late 1943 for the concentration camp workers because the above-ground camp hadn’t been finished or hadn’t even really been started. And those underground accommodations were horrific. And he walked through that area and through the mining area.

A&S: I’d like to think that he would have been deeply affected by the horrific sights that he witnessed, and yet if he had objected to these deplorable conditions, I can’t imagine his superiors saying, “You’re right, Wernher. Let’s put a stop to this.”

Neufeld: I agree that he didn’t have much, if any, power. And that to say very much of anything was dangerous for him personally. But, again, I would emphasize his personal responsibility for having gone along with this regime, in its aggressive war plans, in building weapons for Hitler, in being a loyal member of the Third Reich, and being a member of the party and the SS. And being personally responsible for using concentration camp labor.

We like to have everything resolved black, white; hero, villain, and he’s a complicated, difficult character, and I would agree that there’s a lot of room for ethical debate about what you can hold him responsible for and what you could have expected him to do.

A&S: I really like your term sleep-walking his way into a Faustian bargain, because I can picture him in the beginning having these aspirations and having this great mind and thinking, Why not work for the army? And then things got more and more horrific, and then he would have had to make a really decisive move to say, “I’m going to get out of this. Even at the risk of arrest and persecution.”

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