From German Tunnels to Space, Part 4–Attaining Heaven from Hell

This is hell. Picture of Mittelwerk workers from

A Scenario of Questions

What do you do when you have something absolutely wonderful in your hands?  Perhaps a magical gem that provides a portal to different parts of the universe?  The gem would also be the key to not just your future prosperity, but the future prosperity of your future generations.  You would use it, right?  You would cherish it and ensure everyone knows how wonderful the gem is.  But somewhere along the way, you find out a historically distant but horrible truth about the gem:  a wizard murdered a young girl in fulfilling a pact with a demon to create the gem.

What would you do with the gem, after that revelation?  Would you throw the gem away?  Would you hide the truth about the gem from others?  Would you label the truth as a falsehood because nothing could ever tarnish the gem for you?  Would you rationalize that the young girl was probably dumb, or ugly, or of a different race, and it was therefore okay to kill her to create the wonderful gem?  Would the rationalization be that it only took the unwilling sacrifice of one girl to create the wonderful gem?

Would you want to know more and understand the history of the gem?  Would you acknowledge the girl’s sacrifice, and honor her by ensuring the gem would be used to help others?  What would you do?  And does your answer define the kind of person you are?  Does it define a nation?  This conundrum is present in America’s space programs, which, whether you agree or not, are intertwined with NAZI rocket history and Mittelwerk/Dora.

Building Rockets on Death’s Bed

Mittelwerk/Dora is still a relatively unknown episode of NAZI Germany history for most of the Western world.  It was an underground V2 rocket production facility, and eventually prison camp, that used and killed slave laborers to manufacture V2 rockets.  The previous lesson left off at April 1944.  Of the 17,535 prison laborers that arrived by April 1944, nearly 6,000 died in the activities surrounding Mittelwerk’s renovation from a petroleum/poison gas facility, to a V2 rocket manufacturing facility built into a mountain (it was also to be used to build aircraft parts—but believe it or not, those workers were paid German workers).  So many prisoners died for Mittelwerk, that the NAZIs thought it better for the camp to have its own crematorium.

The number of deaths and working conditions for the Mittelwerk slave laborers were horrifying, but for the NAZIs the results were worth it.  By December 1943, V2 production started in Mittelwerk.  The majority of prison laborers still were sleeping in the Mittelwerk tunnels until sometime in the Spring of 1944.  During the Spring, the NAZIs finally decided work had progressed far enough to build a labor camp near Mittelwerk’s south entrance.  The camp wasn’t completed until October 1944.

Whether living in the Mittelwerk underground facility or the camp outside, the prison laborers faced terrible conditions until the facility’s liberation in April 1945.  Weirdly, the prison laborers worked beside “free Germans”—laborers who were paid by the government to help build the rockets.  While it’s not clear from the sites referenced, the free Germans were probably treated differently, although still under threat of the SS, than the prison laborers.  The prison laborers were supervised by a special class of prisoner—a kapo—who was often a German criminal.

The Mittelwerk/Dora prison laborers worked alternating 12 hour day and night shifts, with certain shifts extending as long as 18 hours.  They worked under supervision of the kapos.  Any mistake the prison laborers made would be considered potential sabotage by the NAZI handlers and they would be beaten.

“Everyone is gasping and crying for air… In all passages, halls, tunnels dead and dying humans. Everything at running pace. The SS ruthlessly hit us to make us work faster. They use clubs, rifle butts, iron bars, and wooden sticks. Whether they hit us indiscriminately on the head, the shoulders, or the back is not relevant. Everything has only one purpose – the production of V-weapons.” – Erich Neumann, German prisoner, from the website

It was so bad, there was a decree disseminated stressing that prisoners shouldn’t be beaten or stabbed so work could continue on the V2s.

A prisoner’s art of prison laborers hung at Mittelwerk/Dora. Image from the “Dora and the V-2” website, here:

Setting Examples for Saboteurs

Many times prison laborers identified as saboteurs would be hanged.  The hanging would be carried out within the Mittelwerk facility from cranes, sometimes in massive groups.  Then they would be left to hang about five feet above the factory floor for that day, with work on the V2s still going on underneath the corpses.  Hangings increased in number when SS guards from Auschwitz were transferred to Mittelwerk.

None of the prison laborers were fed well.  One account told of the prisoners being fed just bread and a few potatoes per day.  This naturally meant the prison laborers were weak, and prone to sickness.  Many of the sick were sent to a hospital ward.  Being sent to the ward was the equivalent of a death sentence as patients weren’t so much cared for, as just parked and recorded in file.  No care, no medicine, no food, no clothing, and no blankets were provided.  Patients shared beds.  Sometimes the dead weren’t noticed for days.

The food situation became worse the nearer the end of the war came.  So did the treatment of the prison laborers.  The number of prison laborers supporting the V2 rocket production in or near Mittelwerk at one time was as much as 32,471, in November, 1944.  Prisoners were mixed, some coming from evacuated camps, such as Auschwitz.  There were Jewish Hungarians, Czech resistance, French army and more.

One French Resistance fighter, Michel Depierre, wrote an account about his capture and subsequent experience at Mittelwerk.  You can read about his experiences at Mittelwerk here.

In spite of these conditions, in spite of the sickness and death, and the bombings by the Allies, the V2 production facility produced 600 to 700 V2 rockets a month.  That production, and the associated slavery, misery, and death, continued until Mittelwerk’s liberation in April, 1945.

Slaves building rockets for NAZI masters—sounds like a sci-fi movie plot, doesn’t it?  But does this part of the tale make the gem of the American space programs less shiny?  What do you think should be done?  I will tell more of the prison laborers story in the next few weeks…

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