Wernher Von Braun, Huntsville's Space Prophet: Villain or Hero?
“Von Braun” is a name commonly heard in Huntsville, particularly when discussing concerts, dance recitals, car shows, or hockey games. Have you ever asked the question, who was Von Braun and why is the town’s civic center named after him? His is a controversial story, full of twists and turns.
The date was May 1st, 1945. News of Hitler's death began circulating six days before the German surrender. German research labs were being destroyed and looted. Meanwhile, key scientists fled to an old Bavarian ski resort to avoid Nazi firing squads trying to bury trade secrets.
Allied troops approached from every side as well as overhead. The scientists thought the United States would be most inclined to support their research goals, so Magnus headed down the mountain to surrender to the Americans.
He met the soldiers and delivered the news; "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2 [rocket]. We want to surrender."
This is the story of that brother, Wernher von Braun.
Born in 1912 to a German government official, Wernher enjoyed a high social status in Berlin growing up and had the distinguished cognomen "Freiherr" in his name. A fictional story about a trip to the moon awakened in him a deep pull towards the uncharted and seeded a dream to one day land on the moon. At twelve, he was arrested for what he called his “first ballistic experiment:” Werner strapped a half-dozen large fireworks to his wagon. He recounted, "It performed beyond my wildest dreams; the wagon lurched ahead carrying a trail of fire!" Enamored with astronomy, technology, engineering, and making things with his hands as a child, his mother encouraged his obsession by gifting him a telescope for his confirmation at age 13. Growing in his fascination with rocketry and space travel, Wernher entered the Technical University of Berlin in 1930, graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Ph.D. in Physics. Then the world took a hard left turn.
THE RISE OF THE THIRD REICH
With the world teetering on the brink of war, Von Braun's distinguished rocketry gained the attention of the Nazis. His term as a research assistant was cut short when he was forced to parlay into building missiles for the German military.
Though he didn't really have a choice in the matter, Wernher joined the Third Reich for career advancement. Handsome and tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, he was a commanding, charismatic figure who fit the ideal man of the Reich. His rockets soon proved to be a spectacular success.
In 1933 plans to use his expertise gave the Germans a destructive advantage, making Von Braun a key player in their war strategies. Until then, the focus had been on guns, bombs, and planes that could deliver a payload. Von Braun's V-2 rocket was nearly 50 feet in length and could deliver thousands of pounds of targeted explosives from fifty miles in the atmosphere and 200 miles away - a revolutionary breakthrough. Germany used these missiles to wreak havoc on cities throughout Europe, leaving unprecedented destruction and death.
COMING TO AMERICA
Though the American public was not aware, the US military had long recognized Von Braun as a key player, though the war department did not immediately notify our government of his acquisition. When the German scientists surrendered in 1945, Von Braun and his team were secretly smuggled out to America, arriving at Fort Strong. Fort Strong was the processing point for the highly controversial government program Project Paperclip, the code name that brought hundreds of german scientists to the United States.
The German scientists' Nazi associations were unquestionably controversial, but Von Braun was adamant that he was never inclined toward the ideology. It is no secret that many officials were coerced to save their lives and protect their families. In fact, he was interrogated by the Gestapo in 1944 due to speaking negatively of the German war effort. Quoting directly from archival footage, he said, “We were never meant to develop the weapons of war, but instead, we wanted to fly to the planets!”
Wernher was first put to work by the United States Army on an intermediate-range ballistic missile program. He and his team were relocated to Huntsville, AL, where he worked at the Redstone Arsenal, developing the Redstone Rocket for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests. From the Redstone Rocket, modifications were made, creating the Jupiter-C, which launched our first satellite, Explorer 1, into space in 1958. This was the beginning of America's space program, and the transfer of Von Braun and his team to NASA was complete by the Spring of 1960.
While some still harbored deep resentment and an inability to forgive his role in the Third Reich, Americans welcomed what he brought to space exploration. As the enemy, he was perceived as having blood on his hands. Still, he was eager to redeem his past and desired to shift his life's work from destruction to exploration.
During his first public address to the American people, he reflected on his surrender; "We knew that we had created a new means of warfare…". He expressed concern regarding the morality of who would control this power. He continued, "We felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured." In another interview, he referred to Hitler as "a godless man who thought himself the only god," suggesting that faith guided his understanding of morality. These issues of faith only grew more important as he moved from being a "perfunctory Lutheran" to a committed believer shortly after placing his feet on American soil.
Von Braun realized his dream, ultimately building the rockets he dreamed of at twelve. Despite being vilified for his Nazi involvement, he was also celebrated as a hero because he sent the Apollo to the moon and stirred America's excitement about space in his public interviews. Wernher Von Braun is now considered the Father of Space Travel and was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering and awarded the National Medal of Science. He died of cancer at age 65 on June 16th, 1977.
VILLAIN OR HERO?
It is not uncommon for stories to have a dark side. When Wernher Von Braun's life is laid bare, we find an alarming past, suggesting to some that he is worth cancellation. Is he a villain or a hero? As a long-term member of the Blossomwood Community here in Huntsville, he had much of his front yard paved to make room for the cars of his friends and associates. Von Braun was a good neighbor, always entertaining guests and very active in the community that he loved. Yet, digging up satire from the 1960s, one finds significant evidence that the media regularly poked at him and called out his political roots in the Nazi party. While his repentance seemed genuine and his role as a space prophet deeply benefited both the United States and the world, it leaves him no less a polarizing figure for historians. The two halves of his life are tough to reconcile apart from mere grace, but it's the human temptation to make his life black or white to avoid conflict. The facts are; by birth, he was a Nazi who designed weapons that helped drive the most destructive evil empire of the 20th century. By grace, he was the aerospace engineer that launched us into space and one of if not the most important scientists of that same century. To see evidence of this grace, read the words of the elder Von Braun; "The farther we probe into space, the greater my faith."
Image Credits: Huntsville Madison County Public Library Special Collections