Category Archives: NAZI Space History

NAZIs working with rockets.

A Landmark Anniversary for Space?

The first image of Earth from space. Image was atop an A-4 rocket. Image hosted on Wikimedia.  Go here to read more about this rocket and image.

Oct. 3, 1942–72 years ago–an A-4 test rocket was launched from Peenemuende Army Research Center.  The fourth A-4 to be tested, it was the first to successfully fly.  It was also the first rocket to reach the edges of outer space (it flew about 85-90 kilometers above the Earth).

If you’ve never heard of the A-4, there’s another name for it you’re probably more familiar with:  V2.  So yes, the Germans, NAZI Germans in particular, were responsible for achieving a very historic moment–something everyone should have been proud of.  It’s unfortunate that NAZIs were the ones to do this with their V2 for the very obvious reasons that were later exposed through history.

However, such a feat is what led the US government to eventually hire ex-NAZI German scientists after the war, in a secret program called Operation Paperclip.  The US intelligence agencies were convinced the Germans were at least 25 years ahead of the US scientists and engineers.  So they recommended vetting the NAZI scientists, and if they passed certain criteria, they recommended thne hiring the best brains of Germany.

Celebrate, then, the achievement of the first spaceflight conducted by man.  The rather rotten roots of that labor yielded fruit that helped to accelerate the US space and missile programs.  But remember, there were people in the war who were involved–both criminals and victims–who should be thought of as well.  About 27,000 victims died as they assembled and constantly perfected the V2 as a weapon for the Reich.  If you’d like to read more about this particular aspect of NAZI space history, please read my 7 part series, starting with this particular post, here.  Warning–it can get a little depressing.

 

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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).

From German Tunnels to Space, Part 6–The Corruption of Clippy

Corrupt Clippy

In beginning of part 4 of this series, I mentioned the “magical gem,” with the gem obviously representing the benefits we enjoy resulting from space technologies.  The scientists and engineers of the United States have done great and historic accomplishments, including landing on the moon.  The magical gem of space technology has proven very fruitful.  But it’s good to understand the history of those accomplishments and the price, the immense number of lives sacrificed, that was paid for them.

Leave the Fatherland, or Stay?

After World War II, there was an explosion in science and technology in the US, with a corresponding growth in the number of scientists and engineers working in the US.  But some of the scientists and engineers didn’t start their rocketry careers in the US.  Some of these scientists and engineers started off their careers in Germany.  Still not a surprise—the Germans were at the forefront of particular sciences after all, so why not let them become productive American citizens.  Albert Einstein is perhaps the most well-known example of a German becoming an American citizen.  It seems he didn’t think he’d do well under Adolf Hitler’s leadership, and left Germany well before World War II broke out.  He wasn’t the only German to do so.  This indicates there was an public awareness of what would happen when Hitler obtained power.

There were other Germans who worked in the US after World War II, though.  Germans who thought staying in Germany and working for Hitler was a jim-dandy idea.  And so they did, right up until the end of the war.  Would it be too much of a stretch to call them NAZI scientists?  Or NAZI engineers?  Wernher and Magnus von Braun, Walter Riedel, Hermann Steuding, Rudolph Hermann, Ernst Steinhoff, Arthur Rudolph, Klaus Riedel, Kurt Debus, and Walter Dornberger to name a few.  If this list sounds familiar, it’s because a few of the names on it worked at Peenemuende and was written about here.  And of course Huntsville, Alabama keeps naming buildings after Wernher von Braun, too.

It’s interesting they worked for the US after the war, if only because American law at the time should have prevented their employment by the US.  They never should have entered into the US, except perhaps as prisoners.  How did these NAZI rocket scientists end up living cozy, productive lives in the US?  Simple.  They (over 100 of their fellow NAZI rocket scientists) were transferred, paid, and promoted under an American program called “Operation Paperclip.”

fear and Hiring in the USA

“Operation Paperclip” is perhaps one of the most shameful episodes in modern US history.  It’s probably hard for a lot of us to imagine the circumstances surrounding the program’s inception.  The program was created and used out of fear.  Remember, the US still worried about Soviet intentions after World War II.  A big US fear was of the Soviet Union attempting to use the NAZI scientists to forge a huge lead in technology and science—particularly rockets and missiles.  So one reason for Operation Paperclip’s existence was to deny the Soviets the expertise in those areas by writing contracts with German and NAZI scientists and paying them to work for the US, sometimes offering to move them to the USA.  The 100 or so NAZI rocket scientists were a very small part of a bigger migration of NAZI science expertise and people into the USA.

The program was kept secret, because the US Army and federal government didn’t want US citizens–particularly citizens who had fought against the NAZIs–to find out details like: the US was hiring NAZIs (but since they’re scientists, they really are amoral, right?) to work in the US.  Operation Paperclip, like many government programs, was prone to abuse, with some very questionable decisions made regarding who was a “good” NAZI versus a “bad” one.

Did the US government succeed in making balanced and moral decisions about these NAZI scientists?  That will be discussed in the next post.

From German Tunnels to Space, Part 5–Liberation

In the previous post, slave prison laborers were working underground in a mountain, building rockets for the NAZIs.  The slaves were very literally worked to death, producing hundreds of V2 rockets a month.

Ruthless People, Brutal Numbers

Between April 1944 and March 1945, the slaves produced about 4,575 V2 rockets .  The conditions they worked in remained hellish.  They barely had any food and no medical aid to speak of.  The threat of beatings and hangings remained present throughout their lives at the camps.  The slaves of Mittelbau-Dora paid an intolerable price while producing and perfecting space technology for the NAZIs.  As many as six prison laborers died for every V2 that rolled out of Mittelwerk.

…while you’re pausing to do the math, please remember the 4,575 rocket number I gave you was only for nearly a year of Mittelwerk operations.  There were obviously more V2s produced earlier.  But if you want to multiply 6 times 4,575, you’ll come to 27,450 deaths.  I don’t really know if there were truly that many deaths, as other sites and sources are stating “only” 20,000 died of the total 60,000 prison laborers who lived in the horror of the Mittelbau-Dora camps.  I’m guessing the death of 20,000 people to build an Atlas or Delta rocket would not be acceptable on any level.  The information about the number of deaths is fuzzy, but the most reliable source I’ve found is information coming from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, here.

The numbers of prison laborers are so large, because more were added to Dora-Mittelbau.  The encyclopedia talks of the “dumping” of prisoners from other concentration camps into the Dora-Mittelbau system.  Most prison laborers arrived barely alive, but some also arrived dead.  There were so many bodies, the camp’s crematorium couldn’t keep up with it’s relatively slow rate of incinerating them—so the NAZIs stacked the bodies instead, burning piles of them in huge pyres.

One of the ovens in Dora’s Crematorium. Image from V2Rocket.com.

Killing the Evidence

Still, the prisoners were in for much worse during the days before their liberation.  On April 1, 1945, work stopped on V2 rocket assembly.  The NAZIs knew the Americans were close and started herding the majority of prison laborers on “annihilation transports” to other camps.  The prisoners were never intended to make it to the camps.  8000-11000 prisoners were estimated to have died during their evacuation from Mittelbau-Dora in April alone.  The marchers were part of a nation-wide, systematic attempt by the NAZIs to ensure no one would know what they had done, while getting rid of the subhumans–the “untermenschen.”

Liberating the Dead

But liberation of these slaves, what remained of them, eventually came.  Almost exactly 69 years ago, actually, on April 11, 1945.  Here’s a picture of Mittelbau-Dora survivors (and relatives) taken a few days ago, in front of the Dora crematorium.

The True Space Pioneers. Unwilling, but hopefully never forgotten.  Image from Buchenwald.de.

The liberators were American soldiers, belonging to Combat Command B (CCB), 3rd Armored Division and the 104th Infantry Division (ID).  What they found there was hard for them to describe.  The picture, below, supposedly taken by 104th ID troops entering one of Dora’s subcamps, gives an idea of the hell facing the American troops.

Entering Mittelbau-Dora.  Image from 104infdiv.org.

Supposedly there were 6,000 residents in the camp when the American soldiers entered the camp’s gates.  But only 1,000 of them were still alive.

And it was, by all accounts, a difficult task to figure out who was living and dead.  The surviving prison laborers were, as you might imagine, in very bad shape.  And, as American troops are still prone to do today, both divisions pretty much dropped what they were doing to help the survivors and bury the dead.  Medics provided what care they could, chaplains and chefs working to feed the walking dead, getting them back to a form of humanity.  If the American soldiers had any doubts why they were fighting the NAZIs, those doubts must have vanished on April 11, 1945.

Descriptions by troops who happened upon the V2 rocket assembly tunnels in Mittelwerk noted the contrast between the studied neatness and organization of the assembly area and the rockets before them, and the bodies of slaves, the “living skeletons” of the survivors, and the camp conditions they had encountered just outside.  But for the survivors, they were done building V2 rockets for the NAZIs.

The survivors might have been some of the first rocket assembly-line workers in the history of humanity.  They might’ve helped iron out “quirks” and other flaws in a propulsion system or gyroscope.  They might’ve been one of the biggest history-making groups of slave laborers ever.  But I’m sure they were thankful their part in this horrific segment of world history was over.

So how did the deaths and labors of prison workers building rockets in German tunnels, working for NAZIs, contribute to American space programs?  Some of you might have an idea.  But for the rest of you—what do you know about paperclips?

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

This is hell. Picture of Mittelwerk workers from Jirzy.webzdarma.cz.

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 benthere.com/Travel/Europe/Germany/Germany11.html.

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: http://dora.uah.edu/slavelabor.html#

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…