Wernher Von Braun Was a Space Visionary, and a War Criminal Who Got Slave Workers Killed by the Tens of Thousands
On the one hand, Von Braun (1912 – 1977) was a genius, visionary, and a brilliant engineering manager who is rightly credited as the father of America’s space program. We went to the Moon, in large part, thanks to him, and if the day ever comes when humans set foot on Mars and colonize the Red Planet, it will also be thanks to him in large part. Mankind owes Von Braun a huge debt for his contributions to the space sciences. On the other hand, the man was a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of thousands of slave laborers who perished while toiling on his rockets in atrocious conditions, of which he was fully aware.
During WW2, Von Braun was an SS Sturmbanfuhrer – equivalent to an army Major – who developed and oversaw the manufacture of the V-2 rockets, the world’s first ballistic missiles. His rockets, carrying a one ton explosive warhead, rained down terror and claimed the lives of thousands, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, in London, Antwerp, and other cities. After the war, he pretended to have been an oblivious scientist, too engrossed in his blueprints, calculations, and other pointy head work, to fully comprehend the horrors of the regime he served.
In reality, he had been quite comfortable with the Third Reich, the Nazi party, and the SS, until late in the war. Far from being oblivious to Nazi horrors, Von Braun was personally involved in Nazi atrocities, and was a direct, hands-on participant in war crimes. Among other things, he personally supervised the manufacturing of rockets, using tens of thousands of slave laborers. An estimated 20,000 slave workers toiling to build Von Braun’s rockets died of starvation, maltreatment, or were murdered by their guards while building his rockets. He was often at the slave labor facilities, and had firsthand knowledge of the horrific workplace conditions.
After the war, he was one of the first Germans secretly moved to the US in Operation Paperclip. He was put to work by the US Army to develop its intermediate range ballistic missile program, and he developed the rocket that launched America’s first space satellite. When NASA was created, he joined it as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and was put in charge of the Saturn V rockets that sent the Apollo Program’s spacecraft to the Moon. In recognition of his services, he was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1975.
Wernher Von Braun thus presents a conundrum and a moral dilemma. He is a pioneer who undoubtedly contributed much to the advancement of mankind in the space sciences. If our species ever becomes a multiplanetary one – something many scientists see as the only safeguard against our extinction in the next millennium – it will be thanks in large part to Von Braun. It is no exaggeration to say that he was history’s most important and influential rocket engineer and space advocate. So there is no question that the man did a lot of good in his life.
However, does that absolve him of his personal responsibility for having gone along with the Nazis’ aggressive war plans? Does it wash away the stain of having been a loyal Nazi and member of the SS? Does it cleanse him of the sin of having been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of slave laborers, who perished while building his precious rockets? Was Wernher Von a Braun a Nazi villain, space hero, or both?