Michael J. Neufeld, chair of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, spent twenty years researching the life of rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun. The result is Von Braun, the first complete biography of the controversial German engineer who spearheaded the Nazis’ V-2 rocket program at Peenemünde and then became a key figure in U.S. Army and NASA rocket development after the war. In this new book, Neufeld reveals previously unknown details about von Braun’s Faustian bargain with the Nazi regime.
You make the point that Peenemünde could scarcely have existed without von Braun.
He really was indispensable. There are lots and lots of talented scientists and engineers, but there aren’t very many of them who are very good at managing large numbers of people. Even rarer are the people who successfully manage thousands of people.
Why did it take so many people to develop the V-2?
If you look at rockets circa 1930, they were small-scale battlefield weapons. In World War I rockets were basically signal flares— that’s the only application they had. Small solid-fuel artillery rockets appear in World War II with the German Nebelwerfer and the Soviet Katyusha, but the liquid-fuel project in Germany was radical. It took a speculative technology and scaled it up in an enormous way in a very short time. In ten years they went from an amateur scale to a rocket that could go two hundred kilometers.
Nobody else was even close.
In World War II, on liquid-fuel ballistic missile technology, they were way ahead of everybody. One of the ironies of course is that the V-2 wasn’t a good investment for the Third Reich. It was a spectacular technology but militarily it was a boondoggle.
Did von Braun himself really believe in the V-2 as a wonder weapon?
He believed in it until late in the war. The British captured one of the officers of the V-weapons unit towards the end of the war and he said that von Braun had acknowledged very late in the war that the V-2 wasn’t going to live up to the promises made to the führer. Right after the war, in May ’45, when von Braun gave his famous report to the Allied investigators in which he predicted space flight, he also mentioned that the V-2 was somewhat like the bomber of World War I—something that was a pathway to the future, not so much effective in itself.
In fact the V-2 really didn’t make much of a difference in the war.
No—the V-2 was really a failure. It was a very inefficient way to deliver a one-ton bomb. A B-17 could deliver maybe six times the bomb load of a V-2, and a Lancaster considerably more. The accuracy was also incredibly poor—the prob able error was on the order of ten miles. So an urban area the size of London was the only thing you had a hope of hitting.
You speculate that the Nazis were actually thinking of using the V-2 with a chemical warhead.
Although no documents survive from this period—and I wonder if that’s not intentional—I think in the early years of the program one option would be to bombard enemy cities with poison gas. Chemical weapons were very closely integrated with the German army rocket program.
Von Braun later tried to give the impression that his only real interest in rockets was for the future of space flight. Was that true, or was it a way to justify his work for the Nazis?
It was a bit of both. In reality he was obsessed with going into space. I really became convinced of it when I found that he actually wanted to fly in space and land on the moon himself. Certainly from the age of sixteen, he decided,“This is my life’s work,” and became completely obsessed with it. So this was fundamental to his being willing to sell his soul to the Nazis in order to get money for rockets. But that’s one side. The other side is that he came from a very aristocratic, conservative family. He was a Prussian baron; he had a family line of Prussian officers behind him; he was raised as this right-wing German nationalist. He had no trouble going along with the Third Reich.
The morality just didn’t seem to concern him that much.
Exactly. He does wake up in 1944, after his arrest by the Gestapo, and suddenly realizes just who he’s working for and the deal he has made.
How do you explain his decision to join the SS in 1940?
Earlier, in 1937, he was told, “You really ought to join the [Nazi] party; if you don’t it will harm your career.” Then the SS came along with the same kind of appeal. It’s inconvenient to say no, and he gets in deeper and deeper. But we shouldn’t give him a free pass on that. The reality in the Third Reich was that you could figure out a way to weasel out by making excuses, by saying “I don’t have the time.” But I think in the case of von Braun these thoughts never even entered his head. For him his career, rocketry, was everything.
After the war things started to come out about the horrific treatment of con centration camp prisoners at the un derground V-2 factory, the Mittelwerk.
There were three to four thousand prisoners living in the tunnels, sleeping on bare rock or straw. The tunnels quickly became filled with lice, fleas, and excrement; there were no sanitary facilities and virtually no drinking water, and the prisoners were totally exhausted and began dying like flies from diarrhea, lung diseases: dozens per day. There were three thousand deaths in the winter of ’43–44.
Is it possible von Braun didn’t know what was going on there?
Absolutely not. In the sixties when this began coming out mostly from East Germany, nobody paid it much attention and it was dismissed as [Communist] propaganda. But we now know that von Braun set foot in that place at least a dozen times. We know of his direct encounters with concentration camp prisoners.
The most striking thing that emerges about von Braun’s personality was his seemingly boundless confidence.
Yes, and one of the things that undercuts his later claims to have felt guilty about what happened during the war is that when he was captured by the Americans in 1945 he was just ecstatic. He wanted to go to the United States because he felt that this was the place he could continue rocket development.
He was extraordinarily self-confident— this is one thing that everybody says about him over and over. He was an enormously charismatic person; he would just light up the room. He was funny, he was smart, extraordinarily good looking. He mesmerized people.
In 1951, here he is being interviewed by the New Yorker magazine, proudly talking about how Hitler personally granted him the title “professor”— which he kept on using.
I wonder if he ever did realize it was an embarrassment. After the war he was clear in saying that Hitler was an evil person. But he still viewed his so-called professor ship, which in the German system was the highest honor an academically trained person could have, as something he had earned for his accomplishments with the V-2 and rocket development.
It was in the late fifties, the Sputnik era, when the U.S. Army told him, “You just can’t use the professor title anymore.”
How important was von Braun to the American rocket program?
A lot of the histories have almost left everyone else out and acted like we got everything from the Germans. The reality was a lot more complicated. The Germans played a significant role, certainly. The most significant thing was in the late fifties when von Braun and company were transferred to NASA and led the development of the Saturn launch vehicles for the moon landing program.
But fundamentally what happened in the cold war was the huge resources invested by the air force in the ICBM pro gram, which is where a lot of American rocket development happened. And it took technological revolutions in both missiles and nuclear bomb design to produce an effective weapon. The ballistic missile wasn’t an effective weapon until you put a nuclear warhead on top of it—and suddenly it became a super weapon.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.