The All-American Nazis who put a Man on the Moon

In the growing chill of the Cold War after 1945, the expertise of Nazi scientists was desperately needed in the US as an essential ingredient in the struggle against the USSR. Operation Paperclip was approved by President Truman in September 1946 and it brought 1,600 German scientists and engineers to the US throughout the 1950s. 

All this gelled with employing former Nazis in the West German Foreign Office, the rehabilitation of Spain’s General Franco and the curtailing of long sentences meted out to Nazi war criminals.

Part of the deception was to play down the scientists’ past, to ignore those who had welcomed slave labour at Peenemünde and Mittelwerk and to believe those who said that they were blissfully unaware of those who had died from exhaustion and malnutrition. 

Yet they had been responsible for the evolution and production of the V-2 rockets. 1,358 V-2s targeted London in the latter stages of the war. One of the last, on 27 March 1945, hit Hughes Mansions in the East End’s Vallance Road. 120 out of the 134 killed were Jewish.  

At the war’s end, the Americans searched assiduously for Werner Von Braun and his team of V-2 specialists — and they were only too happy to please their new masters and leave for the sunny uplands of the American dream. Six weeks after the war ended in Europe, the US Secretary of State approved the emigration of Von Braun. By September 1945, he and his colleagues from Hitler’s Germany were hard at work at Fort Strong on Long Island.

By the 1960s, the American public was gradually becoming aware of the Nazi missile scientists who were living in their midst and working to fulfil President Kennedy’s pledge to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  

Werner von Braun was depicted now as a patriot, involved in the space race. In 1960, a film, entitled ‘I Reach for the Stars’, characterised his life journey. Jewish wits such as Mort Sahl commented: ‘I reach for the stars, but sometimes I hit London.’

The Jewish mathematician, Tom Lehrer, in one of his biting, satirical ditties from the 1960s was also brilliantly critical: 

‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

That’s not my department’ says Werner von Braun.

By the 1980s, many of the surviving scientists were coming under scrutiny. Arthur Rudolph, Peenemünde’s head engineer, heard about the possibility of using concentration camp inmates in April 1943. He visited the Heinkel aircraft factory in Oranienberg-Berlin and had been impressed by the SS’s enthusiasm in providing slave labour from the camp at Sachsenhausen. Rudolph’s labourers began arriving in June.

In the US, he became the project director for the Saturn 5 rocket which eventually put Neil Armstrong on the moon. He received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal for his contribution.

In the early 1980s, researchers began to look into Rudolph’s past. He was investigated and forced to renounce his US citizenship and relocate to West Germany.

Hubertus Strughold claimed that he had no knowledge of medical experiments carried out on prisoners at Dachau. In the US, he was known as ‘the Father of Space Medicine’. Strughold had been exonerated by the US Justice Department in 1958. Following his death in 1986, however, his Institute of Aviation Medicine was found to have conducted experiments on epileptic children in 1943. This discovery was accompanied by protests from Jewish organisations in the US. His name was subsequently removed from a string of awards and honours.

Tom Bower’s excellent book, The Paperclip Conspiracy, in 1987, brought the issue to a wider British public. He recalled the suffering of the tens of thousands of slave labourers who helped to create the V-2 and thereby prepared the way for the moon landing. Bower states that ‘there is no doubt that the rocket pioneers fully accepted the necessity of slave labour since only Himmler and the SS could provide the organisation and manpower’.

Von Braun’s explanation was that he was engaged in a war and was not in a position to disobey. He was actually arrested in 1944, but freed on Hitler’s orders. In the US, he embraced evangelical Christianity. Was he remorseful? Was he at peace with himself?

All Jews in 2021 are survivors, but justice never arrived for many in the case of the Nazi rocket scientists. As the Midrash comments: ‘When the time comes for an accounting of a man’s deed, it is too late to do anything’ (Bereshit Rabbah).

Kehila April 2021

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