From German Tunnels to Space, Part 7–Living in America

Taped over

In the last post, I posed the question about whether the US government succeeded in making moral and balanced decisions when a government program, “Operation Paperclip,” was used to shepherd NAZIs into the US.  Before you answer that question, here is some more information to consider.

Flexible Ethics, Questionable Judgement

A very good book, “Operation Paperclip,” written by author Annie Jacobson does a great job of illustrating just how badly certain portions of the government wanted the “bad” NAZIs to work for the US.  But the book tells the tale of more than German rocket scientists.  Chemists, biologists, and medical professionals were also targeted–many with very obvious dark histories.  And it’s disheartening to read about decisions made by people, the very ones entrusted with safeguarding the United States, and the ones who should know better to allow scientists with very questionable morals to work for the US.  This kind of decision-making using a flexible moral scale is called “situational ethics.”  Some politicians use this scale, too.  With such a scale, almost any atrocity can be condoned and excused.  The book shows there are a lot of Americans willing to excuse what the NAZI scientists did.

So somehow, quite a few “undesirables” were allowed to work and succeed in the US.  There have been strong denials from these NAZI scientists and their families about what they did while working for the NAZIs during the war.  Some say they worked for the NAZIs under duress, or that they weren’t aware of prison laborers being used to death to build their V2 rockets.  That might be.  But when these scientists and their works were co-opted by the NAZIs, many of them didn’t just hide their feelings and talents, but thrived, using their talents fully.

Being all that they could be, in Nazi Germany

An example of a person thriving in a NAZI system:  Wernher von Braun.  Wernher von Braun was the German Army’s technical director of the V-weapons development program.  He became the head of the Mittelbau-Dora planning office, which was a part of the NAZI Schutzstaffel (SS), an organization requiring racial purity and unquestioned loyalty to the NAZI party.  His brother, Magnus, was a production supervisor for V2 gyroscopes in Mittelwerk.  They probably talked with each other, as brothers might, of the happenings of the day in Mittelwerk.

Another consideration, not just about von Braun, or even the rest of the NAZI scientists, is the nature of most engineers and scientists generally.  It’s not fair to say that engineers are all evil or even amoral.  But engineers are naturally involved and focused on their projects.  Engineers love to see their designs and dreams assembled.  They enjoy looking at the progress of their technical achievements, seeing just what they can tweak to make their inventions work that much better.  That’s just the basic nature of the engineer.

Were NAZI engineers any less involved in their projects?  Throughout the NAZI rocket programs, the rocket scientists showed a particular tenacity to keep their programs alive.  It’s very likely any engineer involved in the V2 program would be heavily invested.  Particularly an energetic visionary engineer like von Braun, who probably ventured into the tunnels to see his visions and designs made into reality.  It’s unfortunate he appeared to deliberately ignore the plight of the rocket factory slave workers.  For any of those engineers and scientist to plead ignorance of the “unpleasantness” going on around their projects seems to go against the engineering natures they exhibited.

Choices ignored

These NAZI scientists might not have had the genius that Albert Einstein possessed, but they surely were smart enough to understand what would happen to Germany when Hitler came to power.  Einstein decided working in the US was healthier for him and other German scientists and engineers had that option, too.  But the scientists who became NAZIs or collaborators chose to stay in Germany and work, fully committed to the Reich until the day the camps from which they drew their laborers were literally liberated by enemy troops.

These committed people, with “Operation Paperclip’s” help, came over to the US, worked for the US, and thrived in the US.  If the NAZI scientists were amoral, then the “Operation Paperclip” was immoral–especially since it seems everyone involved knew the truth of the NAZI scientists.  While national security seemed to be the banner applied to keeping “Operation Paperclip” a secret, it wouldn’t be beyond question that the real reason to keep the program secret just involved fear of being caught, and great shame.  Ms. Jacobson’s book seems to paint that fear loud and clear.

And they, at least the rocket scientists, accomplished great things for the US.  Von Braun is well-known as one of the visionaries for the US rocket program.  His rocket, produced by his team, was the first successful US rocket to launch a satellite into orbit.  He helped the US get a man on the moon.  He, and the NAZI scientists who came with him, undeniably helped the US stay relevant in the Space Race.  Their ideas still inform the designs of new companies like SpaceX and the exciting things going on with their Falcon 9 Reusable rocket.  Those achievements, as great as they are, will never erase the NAZI rocket scientists’ histories, nor should they be used to justify the scientists recruitment into “Operation Paperclip.”

Space’s true Foundations?

But these achievements, these magnificent achievements done for the US, the tremendous legacy we dared grab from Europe’s ashes, are all built on the piles of bodies–at the very least, 20,000 of them, that were found at Mittelwerk and Dora.  Their ideas were conceived in circumstances to produce fear in the enemy’s civilian population, using slaves to “work out the kinks” and make their ideas real, and enforced a sort of quality control with death in conditions that were likely worse than Hell.

It’s very easy to want to bring these scientists to account for their contributions to Mittelwerk and Dora.  Revenge is a very human reaction to such atrocities.  But another very human trait is our learning–the pattern recognition that allows us to survive.  The reaction, then, should be to acknowledge the tragedy, the sheer evil committed in such places, and learn from them.  It should be to recognize the unnamed and unwilling victims, the slave laborers, and to honor their contributions to humanity’s forays into space, learning from the courage of the survivors about the brutality man can levy on other men.  For on their backs the space age was born, and we are the ones who are now thriving, reaping the rewards the dead should have also received.

I started this series with my memory of living in a beautiful region of Germany, among very kind people.  But it’s a region with a violent and dark history, marked with memorials to all sorts of wars across that beautiful countryside.  It’s very hard to forget about that sort of history when you stumble upon a blown up pillbox in a peaceful forest.  What about a memorial to the first “space war” victims?  Germany’s already done that, somewhat, with the victims of Mittelbau and Dora.  Perhaps it’s time for the rest of the world to remember the dead slave laborers, the true space pioneers who built the path to the space age from Germany’s tunnels.  To remember them, learn from them, and thank them.

One of Mittelwerk’s transverse tunnels now. Image hosted on Buchenwald.de and taken by Claus Bach.

This was the last post for this particular series. If you are interested in this history, please read the other six posts prior to this one, starting with Part 1 (click here).

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