Was It Right For The US To Take In Wernher von Braun?

He was the visionary who helped put humans on the Moon. But should his Nazi past have prevented him from joining NASA?

Saturn V

ARGUMENT 1: IT WAS RIGHT

Who was Wernher von Braun? Only the greatest rocket scientist of all time. The word "genius" doesn't quite cover it. As well as being a world-changing master of aerospace, he was a dreamer, a thinker, and an artist whose interests ranged from literature to music (he even composed classical music in his youth).

Hitler's Grand Plans Weekend

Portrait of German-born American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

Portrait of German-born American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

He hob-nobbed with US presidents, and worked with Walt Disney. Without him, NASA wouldn't have come up with the Saturn V rocket, the iconic spacecraft which would put Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

But here's the snag. Before his triumphs in the United States, Wernher von Braun had been a willing servant of the Nazis. Actually, it's more serious than that. He had actually BEEN a Nazi. A member of the SS, no less. And he had helped invent the V-2 rocket, a weapon which would claim civilian lives.

So was it right that, after Hitler fell, Wernher von Braun was spirited away to begin a new and charmed life in the US? Is his talent alone enough to make us look the other way?

Well first of all let's consider the extent of his Nazi past. Anyone with his stature and prestige would have been expected to go along with the regime. As he himself said, "My refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activity."

The thing about Wernher von Braun is that he was always a scientist first and foremost. He considered Hitler "a pompous fool with a Charlie Chaplin moustache", and did not share any Nazi beliefs. He just went along with things to continue his research.

His dream was to take mankind to the stars. Yes, he created the V-2 rocket, which was certainly no spaceship, but that was the time he lived in. As he said, "a war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help win that war."

Space historian Amy Shira Teitel, author of Breaking the Chains of Gravity, puts it very succinctly: "Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions."

And why didn't he protest about the horrendous working conditions of the Nazi prisoners who were forced to work on the V-2 rocket? His explanation is all too understandable: "My spontaneous reaction was to talk to one of the SS guards, only to be told with unmistakable harshness that I should mind my own business, or find myself in the same striped fatigues!"

Ultimately he was trapped by circumstances beyond his control. It would have been foolish not to let such a uniquely talented man continue his research in the United States, where he could do so much good. Not just integral to the Saturn V, he was also a great evangelist for space travel - his articles and TV work shaped the dreams of the nation, and made people dare to reach for the stars.

Footprint on the Moon from the Apollo 11 mission July 20, 1969.

Footprint on the Moon from the Apollo 11 mission July 20, 1969.

ARGUMENT 2: IT WAS WRONG

So Wernher von Braun was merely "naïve" during the Nazi era? You'd have to be even more naïve to believe that. It simply won't do to treat him with kid gloves, as some kind of innocent, pure scientist who didn't know what was going on.

He knew. And he didn't care. He even lied about the extent of his complicity in the regime, claiming to never wear his SS uniform at official functions. Former SS colleagues later revealed that he DID wear the uniform, regularly. According to Michael J. Neufeld, author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, "all the evidence I have is that he was quite comfortable with the Nazis and the Third Reich until late in the war."

Then there's the crucial question of the slave labour behind the V-2 rocket. Cold War historian Patrick Major is in no doubt that "the incriminating case against von Braun is clearly that the production of V2s at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp complex was based on the use of slave labour from concentration camps. So, he clearly was tainted by association."

Indeed, more people were killed making the V-2 than were killed during V-2 attacks. Working in an underground factory, the slaves were beaten and starved. There were also public hangings. Von Braun was absolutely aware of all of this. He claims not to have approved, yet he doggedly pursued his ambitions in the face of such horror. Are we seriously to ignore the ugly facts and applaud him as a space age pioneer?

Speaking of which, Patrick Major also points out that "von Braun was not initially working on a high-minded project such as the Moonshot programme, but was working for the US Army at their White Sands missile development site. This was clearly a military project, and von Braun profited from the rivalry between the Army and Navy, when shady pasts could be swept under the carpet."

Historian Monique Laney agrees. "The decision to bring von Braun and the other rocket team members to the United States was therefore one based on the logic of war," she says. "Nobody at the time was thinking of using their expertise for space programs."

He was a military man whose expertise was used to create lethal weaponry before he finally transferred his talents to space travel. And while he was a genius, his character was hopelessly tarnished by his key role in the most vile regime ever to tarnish history. As Wayne Biddle, author of Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, The Third Reich, and the Space Race, sums it up, "no other public figure of the twentieth century was so forgiven so much as Wernher von Braun." All these years later, it's perhaps time we stopped forgiving him.