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Wernher von Braun: It Isn’t Rocket Surgery

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977)

I see in the paper that Wernher von Braun’s doctoral thesis went for auction in New York today.

Wernher von BraunLet me tell you a little about Wernher von Braun.

The Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp provided the slave labour needed to produce the V-2 rocket at the Mittelwerk factory, buried deep in the Kohnstein mountain in central Germany. It was no holiday camp: its first commandant, SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Förschner, was followed by Richard Baer, formerly commandant of Auschwitz

20.000 slaves were worked to death at the Mittelwerk, dying at the rate of 250 a day. In fact, more people died in the manufacture of the weapon than were killed by its use. When the American forces approached in 1945, and the Nazis could no longer sustain production, they death-marched most of the prisoners to the death camps at Bergen-Belsen and Sachsenhausen, leaving behind only the sick and dying. In spite of this mass evacuation, American soldiers found 6,000 bodies lying around when they liberated Mittelbau, and subsequently forced the citizens of nearby Nordhausen to bury the dead in a mass grave.

The celebrated scientist, Wernher Von Braun, or to give him his full title, SS Sturmbannführer Dr Baron Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun, led the rocket team which developed the V-2 ballistic missile. He often visited Mittelwerk, and participated in the discussions about gaining maximum production from the slaves and increasing the number of slaves needed to produce the rockets. It was a daily occurrence for von Braun to pass the piles of bodies murdered by the SS, and he personally selected slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Von Braun may have had reason to reconsider his position in early 1944, but it wasn’t due to a crisis of conscience. Himmler had him arrested by the Gestapo for questioning the wisdom of the V-rocket programme, and it was only the personal intercession of Albert Speer with Hitler that secured his release. A year later, as the Russians approached his research HQ at Peenemünde, Von Braun moved 500 of his staff to Mittelwerk and, in what could be the smartest move of his life, hid the plans for the rockets in an old mine shaft.  Eventually, he managed to contact the Americans and was immediately co-opted, along with his hidden blueprints and his technical specialists, to the United States.

442px-Kennedy_vonbraun_19may63_02It mattered not a jot to his new American employers that von Braun was an SS officer, a member of the Nazi party, and a participant in the mass-murder of slaves. What mattered was that he was a gifted scientist-engineer, and he and his Nazi scientists were going to get the Yanks into space before the rest of his Nazi scientists, the ones captured by the Russians, could do it.

He went on to have a hugely-successful career, directing the development of the Saturn rocket that put men on the moon, and he ended up as Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA.

Not bad for an old Nazi war criminal.

When he retired, he became Vice President for Engineering and Development at Fairchild Industries, the aerospace company, located, ironically enough, at Germantown, Maryland, and also a board member of Daimler-Benz, another company heavily involved with Nazi death-camps and slave labour.

This was what Tom Lehrer had to sing about him:

And of course, who could forget Peter Sellers’s Dr Strangelove parody?