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The Other Side of Wernher von Braun

The Other Side of Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun is one of the most important rocket developers of the twentieth century. His contribution to technologies used in space exploration is immense. People have praised his name as a champion of space exploration in the twentieth century.

The accolades towards von Braun are truly warranted. For one example, he became a spokesperson for Disney to advocate for space exploration. This sparked the imaginations of many toward the prospect of space travel. Then he worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle. This was the rocket that brought the first astronauts to the Moon.

Wernher von Braun with the Saturn V Rocket. Photo Credit: NASA
Wernher von Braun with the Saturn V Rocket. Photo Credit: NASA

But, there is a dark side to his story. A side of Wernher von Braun that many people have already forgotten or ignored. The truth of the matter is that he was a Nazi during the 2nd World War. And there is nothing we can do to change that fact. The only way forward is to understand why.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

Wernher von Braun was born on the 23rd of March 1912 in Germany. During his earlier years, he read a book called The Rocket into Planetary Space. The book’s author was rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. As a result, von Braun became enamored with the possibilities of space exploration. This passion for space travel led him to pursue the sciences.

Dr. von Braun was among a famous group of rocket experimenters in Germany in the 1930s. Photo Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center History Office
Dr. von Braun was among a famous group of rocket experimenters in Germany in the 1930s. Photo Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center History Office

Wernher von Braun enrolled at the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1930. During this time, he also joined the German Society for Space Travel. These institutions honed von Braun’s knowledge of space travel. And by 1932, von Braun graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then von Braun continued his education at the University of Berlin.

Making A Deal with the Devil

Wernher von Braun had financial instabilities by the fall of 1932. Because of this, von Braun had difficulties in continuing his education and his development of rocket technology. As such, he hacked a plan to finance both his education and his pursuit of developing space rockets. Wernher planned to join the German military and have them finance his doctoral dissertation. In return, von Braun will help them create a liquid-propellant rocketry weapon.

Wernher von Braun (in suit) with German officers in 1941. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv
Wernher von Braun (in suit) with German officers in 1941. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv

At this point, I will be quoting Michael Neufeld. He is a chair of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. And he also wrote a book about Wernher von Braun’s time. According to Neufeld, von Braun was like sleep-walking his way into a Faustian bargain. This means Wernher is making a deal with the devil without fully understanding its consequences.

Going Deeper Into the Rabbit Hole

Wernher continued his work within the military until the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. Not much passed before the Nazi Party invited von Braun to join them in spring 1940. Initially, he was hesitant and asked his military superior, Walter Dornberger. He told von Braun that if he wanted to further his research then he must join them. This ultimately pushed von Braun into joining the Nazi Party. By 1943, he had scaled up the Nazi leadership to the rank of Sturmbannführer (major).

Wehren Von Braun's Letter While As Nazi Officer. Photo Credit: National Archives and Records
Wehren Von Braun’s Letter While As Nazi Officer. Photo Credit: National Archives and Records

In dealing with the Nazis, von Braun was creating a weapon of immense destruction for them. By October 1942, von Braun first successfully developed the Vengeance Weapon 2 (V-2). This weapon became the world’s first ballistic missile. Experts estimated that the V-2 killed about 2,724 people. And it further harmed at least 20,000 people as slaves to build it by the end of the 2nd World War.

Peenemunde Was the Site of the Secret V2 development Program. Photo Credit: British Broadcasting Corporation
Peenemunde Was the Site of the Secret V2 development Program. Photo Credit: British Broadcasting Corporation

Remorse for the Victims

After the 2nd World War, von Braun and about a hundred of his associates escaped to the US. They were able to do this through Operation Paperclip. Braun and his associates continued their lives in the US. They help with many of America’s rocket programs. Chief among them is the Saturn V rocket that carried the first people to the Moon.

See Also

Wernher von Braun After Surrendering to U.S. Forces. Photo Credit: NASA
Wernher von Braun After Surrendering to U.S. Forces. Photo Credit: NASA

Braun expressed remorse for the people in slave labor in the V-2 production plants. But, von Braun never accepted personal responsibility for the things he did. For him believed he had nothing to do with it. He had no power over the regime of the Nazis. Though, there is some truth to von Braun’s words. There is little Braun can meaningfully do to save those people. So, Braun is like so many others in Nazi Germany who just followed orders.

A Bombed Out Area in the UK During the 2nd World War. Photo Credit: British Broadcasting Corporation
A Bombed Out Area in the UK During the 2nd World War. Photo Credit: British Broadcasting Corporation

In the end, Wernher von Braun is a person both good and bad. He did so many good things for humanity. But he also did horrible things to his fellow man. His story is a lesson for us all. We must ask ourselves, what are the consequences of our actions? Your good intentions mean nothing if others are harmed in the process.

will end this article with a quote from Neufeld.

“Everybody wants to reduce him to a stereotype: Either he’s the great pioneer of space or he is a bad Nazi with jackboots who’s tromping on concentration camp prisoners. I find him to be a much more ambiguous figure—much more complicated.”

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