Wernher Von Braun has to be one of the most interesting individuals of the 20th Century. He pioneered Nasa and set the stage for the United States of America to surpass the Soviet union in the space race. He was an admired American and highly popular for his record of achievements in the field including the Saturn V rocket which took the astronauts to the moon in the 60s & 70s.
He was also heavily involved in many military projects such as the Redstone & Jupiter ballistic missile platforms. These missile systems were front and centre to the strategic deterrence posture of the United States in the 50s & 60s and along with the early advantage the US had in Nuclear weapons gave them a competitive position in the cold war.
However, beyond the glamour of this highly successful patriotic American who no doubt acquired many admirable achievements throughout his career is a past. A past which cannot be ignored and deserves further investigation and insight.
This past is of course his birth in the German empire and his childhood in WW1. His early life in Weimar Germany and of most interest his work and involvement in the 3rd Reich as well as his membership of the SS. What was he up to in the pre war and wartime years? Who was he affiliated to? What did he believe? And when the CIA whisked him away after he surrendered to the Americans in Bavaria what legacy of this experience did he take with him?
This is the side of the man I want to do a deeper dive into and identify the good, the bad and the ugly. Operation Paperclip and its legacy needs to be examined further to see whether any lasting impacts were seen in the United States. Who is to say that of those 1600 or so Germans that arrived in the US simply did their work and had no influence on the countries future. What if they took some ideas and beliefs with them? We already know they took a great deal of scientific knowledge which greatly benefited the United States in the cold war. But what if they brought more then just that?
Nevertheless, lets start with the early life of the man. Born on March 23 1912 in Wirsitz, Germany (Now Wyrzysk, Poland) Von Braun was born to an Aristocratic German family and was the middle child of three sons. His father was a conservative politician and was known through the title “Freiherr”. A Freiherr was a title of the nobles in Imperial Germany stretching all the way back to the Holy Roman Empire. This was a Hereditary rank equivalent to a Baron and is the reason why Wernher Von Braun had the Nobiliary particle of “Von” in his name.
His Father served important roles in Germany he was a politician with the DNVP party. This party was a Nationalist and Conservative party founded late 1918 after Germany’s defeat in world war 1 and the November revolution that toppled the German monarchy. It heavily opposed the newly created Weimar Republic and was the largest conservative and nationalist party in Weimar Germany. It contained an alliance of conservative, nationalists, reactionary monarchists, volkisch and antisemitic elements supported by the Pan-German league.
Little is known about Wernhers mother Emmy Von Quistorp however as is the clue in the title she also descended from from a family of Nobility and is also reported to have sparked Wernhers initial interest in outer space. Reportedly Von Braun’s mother was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer.
“Odd,” von Braun told time magazine, “few mothers are.”. He went on to say “For my confirmation, I didn’t get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys, I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift.”
Looking now to his brothers the first of who was Sigismund who also enjoyed a career inthe political sphere of both wartime and post war Germany. In 1936 he was an attache in the German foreign service. He joined the National Socialist party in 1939 and remained a member till the end of the war and during denazification, Braun was classified as “discharged”, despite his party membership.
His other brother Magnus Von Braun worked closely with his brother Wernher on the V2 production. In late summer 1944 he transferred to the Mittelwerk where he engineered V-2 rocket gyroscopes, servomotors, and turbopumps.
Here’s what we know so far, firstly, The Von Braun family had a long and deep history in the German political and aristocratic spheres and would have had deep connections in relation to that. We also know both Wernher and his two brothers were heavily involved in the National Socialist party and their various scientific projects.
Now back to Wernhers upbringing, before reading Hermann Oberth’s “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space” when he was thirteen, Von Braun did not do well in school. After receiving his first telescope from his mother the next year, he made the decision to dedicate his life to rocketry and space exploration. Von Braun, then seventeen, joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (the VfR or German Rocket Society) in September 1929 and worked alongside his instructor Hermann Oberth on testing of liquid-fueled rocket engines.
After working with the society for a few years as a young man his enthusiasm and knowledge were noticed by the Wehrmacht which was still a dwindled force due to the treaty of Versailles. Late in 1932, army commanders made arrangements for von Braun to be sent to Berlin’s main university to complete a covert physics dissertation on liquid-propellant rocketry. Wernher started working for the Wehrmacht not long after Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist party came to power.
During the early stages of the National Socialist government he was not an enthusiastic supporter due to his Conservative Nationalist/Traditionalist upbringing. Von Braun, however, grew more supportive of the government as Hitler strengthened German national sovereignty and contributed funds to rearmament, aiding the Army rocket program.
He joined the Nazi party in 1937, participated in an SS riding club while a university student in 1933–1934, and rose to the rank of junior SS officer in 1940. Over time he quickly rose through the ranks in the Third Reich and developed a strong loyalty to the National Socialist government.
Wernher von Braun was appointed the technical director at Peenemünde in 1936, Peenemünde has a view of the Peene River’s mouth, where it empties into the Baltic Sea. Wernher von Braun, an engineer, had identified the town as the ideal, covert location to create and test rockets in 1935 since it provided a 400 km testing range off the German coast.
He initially worked with the German Air Force to create jet-assisted takeoffs and liquid-fuel rocket engines for airplanes. He started working on a long-range ballistic missile called the A-4, subsequently known as the V-2 for “Retaliation/Vengeance Weapon 2” as soon as World War II broke out in 1939.
The V-2 was the initial long-range guided ballistic missile ever developed. As a form of retribution for German city bombings by the Allies the missile was deployed to attack their cities. With its launch on June 20, 1944, the V-2 rocket made history by being the first artificial object to ever enter space.
The attacks from V-2s are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 9,000 civilians and military personnel, and a further 20,000 forced laborers and Nazi concentration camps prisoners died as a result of their forced participation in the production of the missiles.
These prisoners came from the Buchenwald SS camp as well as Mittelbau-Dora and mainly consisted of French resistance fighters along with Polish and Soviet prisoners. The work was hellish and gruesome with prisoners housed in improvised sleeping tunnels with rows of bunk beds. The SS forced them to labor every day and marched them into the tunnels which caused the suffering and the loss of life.
The Mittelwerk, an underground weapons factory in the German Harz Mountains, was made up of two mile-long tunnels that were joined by a large number of cross tunnels. It was located close to the town of Nordhausen. Raw materials were brought in and finished rockets were sent out by railways built through the major tunnels.
Work included tasks such as removing the storage tanks and other equipment and blasting to extend one of the two parallel main tunnels all the way through Kohnstein mountain. Prisoners who couldn’t keep up with the heavy labour were shot or beat to death and issues such as starvation, diarrhea and typhoid fever were rampant.
Wernher von Braun, who was involved in the planning of the facility, initially remained in Peenemunde but was in charge of quality control at the Mittelwerk. By his own admission he visited the Mittelwerk “10 or 15 times” including an extended stay during the hellish construction period in the Fall of 1943.
Von Braun was well aware of the appalling conditions at Mittelwerk and the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, despite the fact that he had no direct control over either. Later, he stated that it was shameful that such things could occur in Germany, even during a war. Whether this was a genuine expression of remorse or just a PR stunt can only be known by Wernher himself.
The A-4/V-2 was the first missile to carry a sizable warhead along a planned trajectory, and the Allies hoped to acquire the technology it contained after the war. The USSR, Great Britain, France, and the US all offered citizenship and positions to German rocket scientists and engineers who served the national socialist dictatorship. These individuals most certainly left a significant impact in wider society in the United States through their technologies and ideologies.
Von Braun later made a name for himself by settling in the US and working for NASA, where he created the rockets that launched the Apollo manned lunar landings. The research and development carried out at Peenemünde and the Mittelwerks influenced not just the space race but also the Cold War’s advances in rocket engineering.
Wernher and his brother Magnus were central to these projects. They obviously were aware of the morale ramifications of it and the sheer human cost involved. This we have to be clear was overlooked once he was in American custody and without the scientific knowledge he did have may well have been looked at in history a lot differently.
As this is a dynamic blog as my future blogs will be if anyone has further information on his Pre-war and wartime life I would love to expand on this further. This will also be included as part of a series on Operation paperclip and German history.