13. After World War II, This Space Pioneer Went to Great Length to Whitewash His Nazi Past
Wernher von Braun 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 evil regime he served. In reality, he had been quite comfortable with the Third Reich, the Nazis, and the SS, until late in the war. Far from being oblivious to Hitler’s 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 workers.
An estimated 20,000 slaves toiling for 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. The US Army put him to work to develop its intermediate-range ballistic missile program, and he developed the rocket that launched America’s first space satellite. When NASA was created, von Braun joined it as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.