A 20th-Century Faust
Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. Michael J. Neufeld. xvi + 587 pp. Knopf, 2007. $35.
Wernher von Braun is an iconic figure of the 20th century, someone who built deadly missiles for Adolf Hitler and the Saturn V rockets that sent Americans to the Moon. Michael J. Neufeld's long-awaited biography, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, steers a course between the extremes of demonization and hagiography. "Von Braun has often been depicted as a saint or a devil, as a hero of spaceflight or as a Nazi war criminal," observes Neufeld. "It is comforting to pigeonhole him as either white or black," he goes on to explain, "because then one does not have to deal with his ambiguity and complexity, or the ambiguity and complexity of the moral and political choices offered to scientists and engineers in the modern era." Neufeld's thorough, nuanced, insightful account does this challenging subject justice.
Von Braun, who grew up during the vibrant and unstable Weimar Republic, was a brilliant if inconsistent student from a noble and politically influential family. He was one of the youngest members of a group of amateur rocket enthusiasts who dreamed of someday reaching space. Toward the end of the Weimar Republic, the German military also became interested in rockets and therefore in von Braun, eventually giving him the opportunity to build large rockets. Their interest, and later that of the National Socialist state, was of course in rockets as weapons, not as vehicles for space exploration. In 1937, the German army and air force opened Peenemünde, a large center for research and development on the north coast of Germany, and von Braun moved his rocket group there. The Peenemünde project, one of the first examples of "Big Science," was a well-funded, high-tech, interdisciplinary effort to develop rockets and other advanced weapons.
These rockets took on greater significance when the war began to turn sour for Germany in the winter of 1941-1942. By 1943, Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels and others were calling for qualitatively superior "wonder weapons" that would overcome Germany's quantitative inferiority. This set the stage for von Braun's first real triumph: the successful launch on October 3, 1942, of the A-4 rocket, which reached altitudes of about 100 kilometers. (The A-4 was later referred to as the V-2, or Vengeance Weapon 2, when it was used to bomb London.)
Von Braun then had to hurry the A-4 into production, which forced him into "even deeper compromises with the Nazi system," says Neufeld. The SS moved rocket production into a network of underground tunnels and forced concentration-camp inmates to work under inhuman conditions making the ballistic missiles. Many prisoners died. Von Braun was thus brought "face-to-face with the apparatus of oppression, slavery, and murder at the heart of the government for which he so energetically labored."
Von Braun's involvement with National Socialism, and with the SS in particular, culminated in his arrest by the Gestapo in March of 1944 on suspicion of treason; he was accused of being more concerned with reaching the stars than with developing a weapon of war. Neufeld makes it clear that this episode had more to do with the politics of the Nazi regime during the last years of the war and with the SS's attempt to seize control over the rocket project than with what von Braun did or did not do or say.
From the end of the war to the end of his life, von Braun used his arrest to argue that he had been a victim of the Nazis rather than an accomplice or fellow traveler. It's an argument that his advocates continue to put forth to this day. Neufeld, who has an impressive command of the sources, turns this apologia on its head by using it to explode another myth: that von Braun had protested against the treatment of concentration-camp prisoners in the underground rocket factory at Dora. The SS had a "fat file" on von Braun, but they did not accuse him of objecting to how the prisoners were treated. This indicates, Neufeld believes, "that von Braun had been too indifferent or too circumspect to say anything, even though he knew the prisoners were dying in large numbers."
Von Braun and many of his associates surrendered to the Americans at the end of the war and were brought to the United States because of their technical expertise. As important as the National Socialist period of von Braun's life had been, his experiences in the United States were arguably even more significant. He underwent a religious conversion that appears to have been deeply felt. He used religion "to pacify his own conscience," says Neufeld, who nonetheless sees no evidence that von Braun felt a deep sense of guilt. Like many Germans, he seems to have simply chosen not to look back.
Working for the U.S. Army, von Braun recreated the "arsenal system" of in-house research and development that he had used at Peenemünde—first in Texas and then in Huntsville, Alabama. In his work for the military, he built up and managed a quite conservative engineering effort to produce reliable rockets—to carry nuclear weapons first of all, then satellites and eventually people.
In the public sphere, though, von Braun played a very different role, popularizing bold visions of interplanetary travel and the militarization of space, first through articles he wrote for Collier's magazine, then in a Walt Disney television series. Above all, von Braun relentlessly campaigned for ever more governmental support for spaceflight. Neufeld notes that former president Dwight D. Eisenhower said that von Braun and Edward Teller were the scientists he had had in mind when he warned in his famous military-industrial complex speech of the "danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
The shock of the Soviet satellite Sputnik gave von Braun's Army team the opportunity to beat out their Air Force rivals by putting up the first U.S. satellite, thereby becoming the preeminent rocket team in the United States. However, it was President John F. Kennedy's decision to race the Soviets to the Moon that finally provided von Braun with the chance to realize his dream of spaceflight.
Neufeld makes it clear that von Braun's true genius was as a manager of very large, complex and challenging science and engineering projects. Others had conceived and built rockets, but von Braun made them work. Neufeld also sheds light on the Apollo project. Commenting on Kennedy's offer before the United Nations in September 1963 to join forces with the Soviets in attempting to go to the Moon (an offer they predictably rejected), he notes that "as much of a propaganda exercise as it may have been for Kennedy, it also reflected his doubts about the huge expenditure he was undertaking." The president's assassination two months later "had an ironic effect: Apollo became one of the Kennedy legacies that could not be easily questioned and one that President Johnson was determined to carry out."
The last years of von Braun's life were frustrating, because the political will to invest immense resources in space travel dissolved after several Apollo missions landed on the Moon. From our perspective this is not surprising, but it was not something that von Braun or many of his contemporaries had anticipated.
A thread that runs through the portion of the book covering von Braun's time in the United States is that his connection to concentration-camp slave labor surfaced repeatedly but never drew widespread attention or heavy criticism during his lifetime. After his death, however, the connection finally became well known and tarnished his legacy.
Nevertheless, von Braun was one of the most important men of his time. Neufeld characterizes him as "a twentieth-century Faust," someone who succumbed to "the temptation to work with an evil regime in return for the resources to carry out the research closest to one's heart." This book, truly a historian's masterpiece, will become the definitive biography.