Is Wernher von Braun Spaceflight’s Most Controversial Figure?

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?

I’ve been wrestling with how to treat Wernher von Braun for a while, figuring out how to celebrate his accomplishments in space without apologizing for his actions during the Second World War. So while this is far from a complete look at his life, I’ve taken a stab at dealing with this controversial figure in my lastest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English.

Comments

  1. says

    If von Braun is a criminal, then Einstein and all the other Manhattan Project folks are.

    Truth is the techological and scientific spin-offs from WWII have changed our lives for ever: jets, radar, electronics, rockets, transportation, and so on.

    Dr. von Braun is one of the most charismatic embodiements of this fact. During the 1960s, He was the de facto Nasa head and public face of Space exploration and rocketry and…colonization of new Worlds.

    • Forrest S.W. says

      I’m inclined to avoid the value judgements and just stick to the tech history.
      It’s long time over and done with, at this date value judgements are meaningless as I see it. Would have been a whole different ball game at time it was taking place, though.

  2. Jasper says

    I wrote this somewhere else too, but I think of Wernher von Braun as an apolitical opportunist. He would work for those who would finance his projects to realise his personal dreams. First the German army, later that of the US, because he knew they would be his bet chance of getting further ahead. Not any state in war-torn Europe could finance his ambitions. He knew there were people dying while building his V2’s but at the same time he didn’t think that was his fault.

    Von Braun was in my eyes not really such a big figure in the whole space race, anyway, not as huge as Korolyov was. Okay, von Braun might have designed the Redstone and (most of) the Saturn rockets, but it was just that. No manned spacecraft of his design ever flew.
    Korolyov almost completely designed Russia’s space program; its rockets, its first satellites and all of its manned spacecraft.
    And no, von Braun was not “de facto NASA’s head”. He just was in charge of Marshall Space Flight Center, formerly known as ABMA, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the place where he designed the Redstone missile.

  3. stuyoung38 says

    Fabio, it can be argued that Einstein et. al. were on the “side against” genocide and imperialism; therefore, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were “less evil” than von Braun.
    Regardless, history shows that human personality is usually far more complicated than “all good” or “all evil.” Most of us are very adept at minimizing or denying discrepancies in our values, in order to avoid psychological discomfort (the psychology term is “cognitive dissonance”).
    From our perspective in history, we automatically associate the abbreviation “Nazi” and the initials “SS” with unmitigated evil. From von Braun’s perspective, the Nazi party had restored the pride of his country, and the SS were the elite of his society. Joining both organizations enhanced his career and enabled him to pursue his passion for spaceflight. As for the Mittelwerk prisoners, they weren’t Jews; they were political prisoners (in von Braun’s likely view, “criminals”), and POWs (in other words, “the enemy). How many modern-day Americans would be overly concerned about the treatment of captured Taliban? Most would give it little thought, then ask, “What’s on TiVo?”
    It has been said that when von Braun was asked if women would also be traveling into space, he answered that they would be of little use; then, reconsidering, he added, “Maybe as ‘recreational equipment.'” Was that statement indicative of his attitude towards women, or just “locker-room talk?” (C’mon, you men out there: most of you have said far worse, in private with your buddies!). I work mostly with women, so I hear all kinds of thoughtless comments about the “uselessness” of men, “testosterone-poisoning,” etc.
    Nevertheless, I celebrate October 3 every year – not as the first successful test flight of a weapon of mass destruction (the V-2), but in the spirit of what Dornberger said to von Braun that day: “Do you know what we have just done? We have invented the spaceship!”

  4. says

    Something very relevant about making value judgments is what the basis is.

    Stating the Saturn as majestic is an opinion, albeit fairly ubiquitously held.

    However the other side of the value judgment, that von Braun was “evil” for, about producing the V-2 is faulty. The argument is that the V-2 were “deadly” … this is absolutely untrue – their numbers were too low to be of much consequence, and their accuracy was so atrocious no realistic tactical affect could be achieved.

    The result is an inflammatory false predicate is used as the basis for a opinion piece.

  5. Tom says

    “In German und English, I know how to count down.
    And I’m learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun.”

    I’ve always thought that was very prescient of Tom Lehrer.

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