Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Michael J. Neufeld

Wernher von Braun was one of the preeminent technological figures of the second half of the 20th century, and the man for whom the term “rocket scientist” was largely coined, regardless of the fact he considered himself a rocket engineer, rather than a scientist. He’s apparently also, with Edward Teller, one of the motivator’s for President Eisenhower’s parting warnings against the influence of the military-industrial complex; and one of the inspirations for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He is also one of the most successful engineering leaders of history, having led the development the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo moon-landing missions to orbit, and which never failed in operation.

In a preface, Neufeld makes much of the fact that following his earlier book on von Braun’s work in Germany, his family and his German colleagues declined to be interviewed for this more comprehensive biography, apparently considering Neufeld to be biased against von Braun. However, this biography does not seem to be anything short of fair to von Braun. Other biographies listed on Amazon seem to criticize straight from their titles, such as Dark Side of the Moon and The Man who Sold the Moon (by the author of The Nazi Rocketeers), while others, such as Dr. Space offer “uncritical praise” (according to Publisher’s Weekly). Neufeld, on the other hand, spares no effort to maintain balance in his analysis of von Braun’s career.

The main issue is von Braun’s work for the Nazi regime in World War II. First, because the V-2 rocket he developed was used to attack civilians in Britain and other countries. It would be hypocritical, though, to condemn a man simply for developing a weapon for his country, at least for anyone who might praise the American nuclear physicists who developed the atomic bomb, or the engineers who contributed to the firebombings of Dresden or Tokyo.

A second criticism comes because von Braun held an officer’s rank in the SS. Neufeld makes a review of the evidence on this point, and concludes that von Braun took this position only because it was expected of him as a civilian leader of a military project, and that he treated his membership more as a distraction from technical work than as a heartfelt association. Without further reading, I can’t be certain that this isn’t a whitewash, but Neufeld’s evidence and reasoning are quite convincing.

Finally, and most damningly, von Braun has been criticized because slave labor was used to produce the V-2 rocket, and Neufeld doesn’t wholly let him off the hook for this. However, his research seems to show that von Braun wasn’t aware of the use of slave labor, and of the other atrocities of the Third Reich, until it was too late. By the time slave labor came into use on the V-2 project, von Braun would have risked his own life if he refused to accept it, or even spoken out against it. In fact, notwithstanding his SS membership, he was even arrested once by the gestapo for suspicion of communist sympathies and for voicing doubts about the eventual victory of the Nazi state in the war. So to have actively fought against the use of slave labor in his operation would have taken the moral strength and self-sacrifice of a saint.

Concomitant to these criticisms is, of course, that von Braun and his inner circle were at least evasive, and occasionally even deceptive in confronting these issues during his post-war career in the US. While this evasion will likely add to whatever stain there is on von Braun’s legacy, considering the general lack of nuance in public debate about such things, I can’t really imagine him doing anything else.

Analysis of von Braun’s moral limitations is not the sole thread of the book. Various technical, financial, and political hurdles of the work on the V-2, and later at NASA, are recounted at length. Neufeld is unstinting in his praise for von Braun’s abilities as a leader among engineers. Von Braun’s family life is also covered in some detail, although this aspect is probably most hampered by the family’s unwillingness to cooperate with biographers.

So, the book shows von Braun as no saint, and no strong moral leader. He did not even express the self-doubt at the consequences of his work as, for example, Oppenheimer did. But he was no enthusiastic Nazi either; in fact the strongest picture painted in this biography is of an engineer who was single-mindedly devoted to the development of a new technology; a man at least initially proud to serve his country, and who hadn’t the immense strength of character necessary risk everything when he did discover the failings of that country.

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