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Wernher von Braun- war criminal or not?

Gordontrek
Posts: 11
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11/19/2014 5:26:58 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
Hey folks, I'd like get as many opinions as I can about this. All opinions are welcome.
For the past year or so I've been doing a lot of reading on Dr. Wernher von Braun, no doubt one of the most brilliant engineers ever, but also a known member of the Nazi Party.
Some biographies are clearly slanted, saying he was nothing short of a war criminal who should have been tried at Nuremberg, while others are equally slanted in the other direction, saying he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
I'm struggling between these two opinions. It's well known that he was the engineer behind the V-2 rockets which caused no small amount of devastation to London in World War II. On one side, it's said that this by itself should incriminate him, while on the other side it's said that you can't blame him for following his orders and fighting for his country, the same as you don't see veterans of the Wehrmacht that are still alive today being thrown into jail.
Another fact is that more than once, von Braun visited a V-2 production facility called Mittelwerk, which used forced labor from the Mittelwerk-Dora concentration camp. The historical record is just not clear on whether von Braun was disturbed by the forced labor, but he no doubt saw it and there's no indication he did much if anything to stop it.
THEN, finally, there's the issue of the United States bringing him and his crew over here to work on missiles, and ultimately, space rockets. An interesting aside is that while von Braun engineered deadly rockets at the beginning of his career, he used that same engineering knowledge to bring astronauts to the moon bearing a plaque: "We came in peace for all mankind."
So, give me your thoughts. Was Wernher von Braun a war criminal? And was America wrong to use him to advance their military and eventually win the space race?
smlburridge
Posts: 2
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11/19/2014 7:57:02 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
All of my cited information comes from Neufield's biography, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.

Wernher von Braun is, as you have said, an awkward character to talk about. Was he a war criminal or not? We have to look into his family and his early life to see the answer.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr (Baron) von Braun, was born to an aristocratic noble family that lived in what is today Poland but was then owned by the German Empire. His family did not care for much with the politics in Berlin, and were indifferent about Hitler's rise to power. As such, he and his family were never targets of the Nazi administration. Wernher's father wanted him to pursue a life in the aristocracy, because in Germany all children receive the family's title. However, after his confirmation in the Lutheran (Protestant) Church, Wernher's mother gave him a telescope, which first spurned his interest in astronomy. When he read Oberth's books on rockets, he was first inspired to build his own. His maternal aunt had bought him many books about ornithology, which was an interest of that side of the family, and Wernher's mother caught him attempted to sell them for the money for rocket parts. Wernher had many innocent ideas about spacecraft, but even at this time Oberth wrote about the possible military advantages from rocket technology, specifically payload delivery.

After he had completed his schooling in 1930, he joined the Spaceflight Society (VfR) in Berlin, headed by his own role model, Hermann Oberth. However, this club received the attention of the military, and without significant funding von Braun realized that they could make no headway. So, von Braun worked with Captain Dornberger of the Wehrmacht to build rockets, which eventually culminated in the Aggregate-4, or V-2 rocket. Von Braun himself said that "the rocket flew perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet." Von Braun was obviously aware of the underground Mittelwerk labor camp, as you said he did visit it. In 1937 he registered and joined the NSDAP (Nazi party), but there was no more evidence that he did more than pay the monthly dues. In 1940 he was coerced into joining the SS as a lieutenant. However, that's all it was. Coercion. His rocket program was watched with intense interest by Himmler and if he did not join he probably wouldn't have made much more headway, as what had happened with the VfR. I

In 1943 he and his fellow colleagues working on the V-2 were trying to solve a very complex problem with the rocket and "expressed regret." They were overheard by a dentist who was an SS spy at Peenemuende. Himmler's false charges and this "defeatist" attitude got him detained by the Gestapo in 1944, something many forget. He was held in a cell for nearly two months.

I'd also like to bring in the family's perspective again. After the war had ended, Magnus, Wernher's father, said to one of his grandsons "this whole democracy thing is just a passing fad." This displays the von Braun family's huge indifference over politics, a concept that Wernher himself easily could have held.

Unfortunately, we'll never truly know his ultimate thoughts on the issue of Mittelwerk. He took those with him to the grave. Still, I believe he held dreams far beyond this planet and its moon, but to Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. I do not think he is a war criminal, but it's something to be decided for one's self.
smlburridge
Posts: 2
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11/19/2014 8:00:10 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
As shown by my previous argument, Wernher did not get his experience plainly from his work with the German military. He held great interest in engineering even before WWII and worked with the VfR to try and achieve spaceflight. Ultimately, von Braun was looking for a place where his ideas could be accepted. Operation Paperclip is controversial because von Braun was clearly a military asset the United States could use. But we have to remember the Space Race was a competition. The Soviets captured many German scientists and already had brilliant minds working on manned spaceflight. After all, who put the first satellite, animal, and man in space?