A kind of Faustian shadow may be discerned in—or imposed on—the fascinating career of Wernher von Braun: A man so possessed of a vision, of an intellectual hunger, that any accommodation may be justified in its pursuit.
—Washington Star editorial, 20 June 1977
The announcement of von Braun’s death produced an outpouring of obituaries, appreciations, and editorials. President Carter released a statement: “To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun’s name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work. We will continue to profit from his example.” The U.S. media’s tone was similar; obituaries hewed closely to his quasi-official biography and, with a couple of exceptions, celebrated his life as a space visionary who had pursued his boyhood dream and helped put America on the Moon. Most remarkably, his Nazi Party membership was almost never mentioned, and the Mittelwerk and his SS status not at all.
The British stories were a bit more pointed, at least the ones in the London tabloid press, noting the “terror” inflicted on civilians by his V-2s, along with von Braun’s decisive contribution to exploring space. Only the Daily Mail mentioned “the starving slave workers of the rocket factories” in passing. The leading West German papers mirrored the American ones, producing appreciations and hero worship; one limited exception was the left-wing Frankfurter Rundschau, which brought up the Mittelwerk and the moral issues of building long-range missiles but largely as asides. As for East Germany, its official press printed only a one-paragraph item announcing his death. Around 1970 the Communist state had given up its campaign against von Braun, primarily because of a general retreat from the tactic of smearing ex-Nazis in the West, but also presumably because, outside the East Bloc and Dora survivor groups in the West, its campaign had failed to make an impression and had become increasingly irrelevant after the Moon landing.
In Washington his friends and admirers wanted the public celebration of his life denied them by the quick burial. They organized a memorial service at the National Cathedral, an Episcopalian church, on the twenty-second. The West German ambassador brought an official wreath from his government and read scriptural passages; Ernst Stuhlinger, former NASA Administrator James Fletcher, and National Air and Space Museum director Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut, eulogized him in soaring rhetoric. Quoting the Hebrew prophet Joel Fletcher called von Braun one of the “few men [who] arise in each century who ‘see visions’ and ‘dream dreams’ that give hope and spiritual nourishment to us all….Such men cling to this vision despite all efforts to destroy it.”
Still, Wernher von Braun did not entirely escape posthumous moral critiques—in the U.S. capital’s two major newspapers, of all places. A Washington Star editorial explicitly opened with the Faustian bargain, but after making that pointed statement, the editorial writer waffled. The Washington Post began its editorial with a variant of the old Mort Sahl gibe about aiming for the stars but sometimes hitting London. It followed with: “For most Americans, and others, it has never been possible to hear mention of the name of Wernher von Braun, space pioneer, without thinking, uncomfortably, of Wernher von Braun, rocket builder by appointment to Adolf Hitler.” Friends wrote letters in protest. But the Star printed only one missive supporting von Braun and two attacking him; one correspondent declared him “unambiguously a Nazi and a war criminal.”
The totality of responses to von Braun’s death accurately mirrored his bifurcated reputation. The media, major books, and government institutions continued to offer the heroic Cold War biography. Many, however, mostly on the left, disliked or even hated him but had little on which to base their critique but the official account of his Nazi years and the satires of Sahl and Lehrer. That situation finally began to change, at least in the English-speaking world, with the 1979 publication of French Resistance fighter Jean Michel’s memoir, Dora, in translation. It shed light on the still virtually unknown horrors of the V-2 program.
Michel’s book was less important for its direct effects than for the U.S. government investigation it almost accidentally launched. Early in 1980 a Harvard Law student in his final year, Eli M. Rosenbaum, came upon the work in a Cambridge bookstore. The previous summer he had interned at the new Office of Special Investigations (OSI) of the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been set up by congressional amendment in 1979 to discover and deport former war criminals in the United States. Days later Rosenbaum found another new book, The Rocket Team, by Fred Ordway and an MSFC writer, Mitchell Sharpe, an insider history of the von Braun group that had been under way for years. That book, which had received much more press attention than Michel’s Dora, had a chapter on V-2 production that in hindsight reads like an apologia but at the time offered new information. When Rosenbaum went back to OSI full-time as a lawyer in the fall of 1980, he got permission to pursue the subject, in spite of skepticism from Deputy Director Neal Sher that any of the old Paperclip cases were worth pursuing. What did succeed was the case against Arthur Rudolph, whom Rosenbaum and Sher interrogated in 1982 and 1983, using classified documents from army security files, plus the records of the 1947 Nordhausen trial. These brought to light Rudolph’s early Nazi enthusiasm and his role as the Mittelwerk’s production chief. In the end the former Saturn V project director, worried that he might forfeit his civil service pension if he lost a court battle over his immigration, reluctantly signed a voluntary agreement with OSI to go back to Germany and renounce his U.S. citizenship. He departed with his wife for Hamburg in March 1984. In October the Justice Department issued its press release, provoking front-page stories around the world.
“We’re lucky von Braun isn’t alive,” the OSI investigators had said among themselves, as he might have been able to call the conservative Ronald Reagan White House and have the investigation quashed. (One might equally say that he was lucky not to be alive to endure what would follow.) Not only was Rudolph his good friend, it would have been obvious that the investigation could lead back to him. And indeed it did. The case opened the door to all the damaging information that von Braun and NASA had worked to contain in the 1960s. Investigative journalists armed with the Freedom of Information Act ferreted out new documents and wrote sensational narratives. Among the things that emerged in 1985, as a result of journalist Linda Hunt’s work, were von Braun’s SS and party record, his explanations to the War Department, and the bureaucratic battle over his security reports and immigration in 1947–49. His posthumous reputation was greatly damaged.
In the aftermath the anti–von Braun camp shifted from picturing him as a pure opportunist to picturing him as an opportunistic Nazi war criminal. His defenders too were forced to grapple with these disturbing revelations about his past. Nonetheless many in the latter community still say that “he only wanted to go into space,” obviating the moral compromises he made en route. Driven by a hunger for exploration, adventure, and fame, von Braun certainly was single-minded in his space ambitions, but like Goethe’s Dr. Faust, he made a bargain with the devil to carry out vast engineering projects, rationalizing them as being for the greater good of mankind.
All evidence suggests, however, that he was not even aware that he had made such a bargain until rather late in the war. His conservative nationalist upbringing and inclination toward apolitical opportunism made it easy to work for the Nazi regime, which asked for little at first beyond keeping quiet. Gradually, through seduction and pressure, he was drawn deeper into the system. In the end he had to accept the brutal exploitation of concentration camp laborers, and he had to play his part in administering that exploitation, implicating him in crimes against humanity. However much, like Goethe’s Faust, he divorced himself from personal responsibility, after he toured the Mittelwerk tunnels in late 1943 he could have had no illusions about what that meant for the prisoners. His Gestapo arrest a few months later was the final straw; he finally and belatedly understood that he was “aiding an evil regime.”
Having survived the end of the Third Reich by both cunning and luck, von Braun was fortunate that the United States was happy to take him, motivated by equally amoral considerations of the national good. But the early promise of a technologically superior America proved somewhat illusory for him, as the populace was more interested in demobilizing after World War II. What money there was would go to military missile development, and even that was limited before the Korean War. Despite von Braun’s influential efforts to sell spaceflight in the 1950s, it was not until after Sputnik—that is, after he already had been in the rocket business for a quarter century—that he had any money to build space hardware.
Before then the true foundation of his career had not been space but rather the interest of nation-states in the revolutionary strategic potential of the ballistic missile. What he had to offer was not his space plans but rather his “indisputable genius” for the management of huge military-industrial engineering projects. As a designer of nuts-and-bolts rocket technology, he was no better than many others, but as a manager he had few peers. He had a vision of how to build a giant engineering organization for producing such a radical new technology.
Without him, it is hard to imagine that the German army’s liquid-fuel rocket project would ever have succeeded in producing the V-2. Although the V-2 was a profound military failure, that vehicle paved the way for the intercontinental ballistic missile, which when combined with a nuclear warhead finally lived up to the expectations German Army Ordnance had placed on rocketry. Von Braun’s “baby” went on to influence missile technology in the United States, the USSR, France, Britain, and China, accelerating the arrival of the ICBM and the space launch vehicle by perhaps a decade. Nothing von Braun did in his life was ever as influential as that.
Nonetheless, he still managed to produce three more fundamental contributions as a U.S. immigrant and citizen: making spaceflight a reality to the public, leading the team that launched the first American satellite in 1958, and managing the development of the gigantic launch vehicles that sent humans to the Moon. The Saturns were his masterworks; astonishingly, not one failed catastrophically in flight.
The sum total of his accomplishments makes von Braun the most influential rocket engineer and spaceflight advocate of the twentieth century. Others—above all Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, and Goddard—proved that spaceflight was technically feasible. Goddard went further, developing the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, but he was a poor engineer and one constitutionally unsuited to leading a larger group. It fell to the second generation of rocket and space enthusiasts—chief among them being von Braun and Korolev—to realize the founders’ vision by serving their governments as engineering managers in the development of ballistic missiles, then by selling those governments on the idea of spaceflight. In terms of firsts, Korolev’s achievements undoubtedly exceeded von Braun’s. His team launched the world’s first ICBM, the first satellite, the first object to escape the Earth, the first object to hit the Moon, and the first man and the first woman in space. But his postwar accomplishments were founded on German technology: by Stalin’s order, he started over in 1945–46 by copying the V-2.
Five hundred years from now humans may remember little of the twentieth century except for the nuclear bomb, industrialized mass murder, the discovery of global warming, the emergence of computer networks, the achievement of powered flight, and the first steps into space. Assuming that we do not ruin the Earth through our environmental impact, actually leaving the cradle of all terrestrial life to establish a foothold in space may, in evolutionary terms, rank among the most important. In those terms, at least, Wernher von Braun deserves to be remembered as one of the seminal engineers and scientists of the twentieth century. His life is, simultaneously, a symbol of the temptations of engineers and scientists in that century and beyond: the temptation to work on weapons of mass destruction in the name of duty to one’s nation, the temptation to work with an evil regime in return for the resources to carry out the research closest to one’s heart. He truly was a twentieth-century Faust.