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)

(Continued from page 1)

Neufeld: By the time he got to the end of World War II, when he sort of very belatedly woke up to what kind of system he was working for, he really didn’t have any choice anymore. I mean, he wasn’t in a position to quit, but it must be remembered that he didn’t want to quit. He was loyal to the army. He was a German nationalist. As demonstrated by the things he said to his American interrogators after the war, he was pretty Nazified in the way he thought about the world. Now he was influenced by this regime. He came out of a right-wing conservative family, and it was only very late that he woke up to what he was doing. But at the beginning, one of the most interesting things I discovered in doing this was that he was obsessed with going into space personally. This dream he had from the 1920s onward was not just: Space is good for the human race, we should explore space. This was: I want to go into space. I want to lead an expedition to land on the moon. He was driven by that dream. All the way through, from the 1920s at least into the 1950s, when he finally probably had to admit that he wasn’t going to be young enough to be doing that kind of thing. That he would have to be on the ground. He still hoped to go into space. He talked about that even in the 1970s: that he hoped to go up on the space shuttle. So this dream of flying into space was the thing that drove him, and it caused him to be all too willing to accept money and resources from whomever came along and said, “Here, build rockets. Just do it for us. Do it our way.” So he walked into this. And of course the fact is, it was the army. And he came from this conservative Prussian aristocratic family; he was actually a Prussian baron. His family had a lot of army officers in it. His father was a reserve officer in the Kaiser reich. So going into the army was no problem at all.

Then the Nazis came to power, and things got better for the military. And Hitler gave more money to the army. And the whole rocket project took off in an amazing way. Everything as far as von Braun was concerned was just going great. And that continued well on to the middle of the war. And then in the middle of the war, suddenly, he knew he was developing rockets as weapons; he knew that from the very early days. But suddenly the V-2 had to be produced. It was not enough any longer to be spending huge sums of the Reich’s money for experimentation. This weapon had to be deployed. And so starting around 1942, political intervention into the program got much heavier. And they were forced to put that V-2 into production and push it into deployment because they needed it. The war was starting to go bad, and people were grasping at straws, including Hitler, and they decided they really wanted this rocket weapon.

A&S: Did von Braun ever express remorse about the use of slave labor or about any of the other horrors that transpired under the Nazi regime?

After the war, like so many others, he said, “I didn’t know about the Holocaust.” He also came to the realization that Hitler was an evil person. So he certainly distanced himself from that. And late in his life, in the 1960s and’70s, he did express some remorse in letters about the concentration camp prisoners. To me, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not very good. There’s no great sense of guilt there. There always seemed to be more than anything else, a kind of distancing. That it wasn’t really his problem, his responsibility. There wasn’t really anything he could do about it. And it wasn’t his idea. But there was never any acceptance of personal responsibility—for any of it. It was always something done by the Nazis, that he allegedly did not have anything to do with. He went out of his way to conceal this. And when you look at him in the 1950s, when he rose to fame in the United States, he had to provide a story about his Third Reich career. He did several interviews and memoirs. And he quite blithely went forward with a story about Peenemunde that completely left concentration camp labor out—or reduced it to a tiny afterthought. He created a story about his career in the Third Reich that almost totally left that out. Obviously, the fact that he’d been in the SS was completely suppressed. And the U.S. government needed him. We found him very useful, and decided to keep a lot of these things secret.

A&S: Do you think von Braun bought into the idea of racial superiority?

Neufeld: I don’t think he was interested in race theory. And I find no evidence of him being an anti-Semite. But I do find, even in his own words, in a letter he wrote in 1971, that he was really kind of oblivious to the persecution of the German-Jewish population. Like so many others, he just wanted to wish it away, explain it away, because so many other things about the Third Reich were things he liked. So that he just wanted to sort of avert his eyes and forget about it. I mean everything was going great for him personally. Money and power and resources at an incredibly early age. He was 25 years old; he had 400 people working for him. He had 5,000 people working for him when he was 30 years old. I mean he was incredibly talented. His real talent was not being a scientist or an engineer. He had a Ph.D. in physics, but he really was an engineer. But it was engineering management: He had this talent for managing large engineering organizations. Not only managing but also constructing these systems for building really exotic new technologies. And he had a vision of how to construct this giant engineering team to do something that no one had ever done before. And that was his real genius. In terms of nuts and bolts invention of technology, he wasn’t any smarter than a lot of people. And probably wasn’t even as good as a lot of other people. But as an engineering manager, he had a very rare talent.

A&S: What made him such a great manager of these large-scale programs?

Neufeld: It was a combination of talents: One was obviously that he had the fundamental science and engineering background. That he understood what he was talking about. He wasn’t just a figurehead manager type. He really had the engineering and science background.

Number two was that he was enormously charming and charismatic. People just wanted to follow him. He inspired confidence. He was very diplomatic. When he needed to be, he was very pragmatic. When something didn’t work out, he’d try it a different way. He had a skill for dealing with people that was really uncommon.

A&S: The photographs from the book show that von Braun, especially in his younger days, was stunningly handsome.

Neufeld: After the war, a British correspondent described him: “As handsome as a film star—and he knows it.” He was kind of a ladies’ man during the Third Reich. He was extremely good-looking, and that didn’t hurt, obviously, with everything else he had going for him.

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