Missiles for the Fatherland: Peenemunde, National Socialism, and the V-2 Missile.
One of the standard and not so funny jokes about the Nazi era is that lawyers represented the single largest professional group to join the party. It is also commonly known, but regarded less humourously, that physicians, university professors, and engineers joined in only slightly smaller percentages. While after the war many German professionals claimed they were motivated by self-interest, as opposed to ideological fervor, a number of professionals never formally affiliated with the Nazis and still managed to land prestigous research and development appointments. Such a group formed the core of the engineers and scientists of the missile program centred on the Baltic island of Peenemunde. While only a few of the Peenemunders were committed Nazis, all participated in the development of weapons of mass destruction, and in the creation of production system that depended on slave labour. The story of the V-2 rocket program (called the A-4 by its development team) sits at the intersection of the history of Nazi Germany and the history of space flight, raising some troubling questions about the antecedents of the post-1945 American space age and the role of technology in modern society.
Michael Petersen's book does not retell the engineering history of the German rocket program, thoroughly covered by Michael Neufeld in The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era (1995). Instead, Petersen's goal is to analyze how individuals were enlisted into a technological program that appealed to nationalist fervor, emphasized secrecy, and created complex pieces of technology for a regime that was the epitome of reactionary modernism.
At the centre of this study is the figure of Wernher von Braun, who became the postwar doyen of space exploration. Von Braun's involvement with the Peenemunde project serves as a window into one of the fundamental questions about the Nazi era: how educated, professional individuals can lose their moral compass and not only produce weapons for a dictatorial regime, but provide legitimacy for such a government by working on a cutting-edge technological project.
Petersen's study begins with the pre-Nazi rocket associations, of which the young von Braun was an enthusiastic member. Indeed, he played a key role in facilitating the transformation of these private associations into a military-sponsored project. What is fascinating about these amateur rocketeers is how easily a group of men who claimed to be primarily interested in space travel were assimilated into a military program committed to a completely different goal. When the Wehrmacht created the nucleus of the group around von Braun they also established a zone of confidentiality about their work. Petersen demonstrates that being ensconced in a semi-private and select island community enveloped the men in a culture of secrecy that inculcated a sense of cohesion, privilege, loyalty to the regime, and paranoia about being watched. By 1942 a culture of self-interest had also developed at Peenemunde, as the cult of secrecy and the sense that their work was absolutely essential to the war effort formed a mutually sustaining cycle, driving them to perfect a working ballistic missile.
A majority of the book focuses on the interplay between technology and culture, the technology of missiles, and the culture of a comfortable, privileged lifestyle that came with serving the regime. Although in postwar interviews and memoirs, many engineers insisted that they saw their work in strictly technical and peaceful terms, Petersen demonstrates that, as early as 1939, von Braun and others were willing and eager to see the fruits of their work in military strategic terms.
While parts of the original Peenemunde base were constructed with forced labour, it was not until the mass production of the rockets that the worst aspects of slave labour were introduced. Petersen effectively demolishes the notion that any of the engineers and scientists were ignorant of either the implications of their work, or the Nazi method of implementing missile production. The critical transition from research to development occurred after 1942, when successful tests opened the door to the military application of the A-4 rocket, which Hitler soon renamed the V-2. Even in the name--V for Vengeance--we get a sense of how Hitler and people like von Braun saw the conflict. For years afterwards von Braun described the war in reactive terms, as if Nazi Germany was under siege and not the aggressor. Many of his collabourators continued to justify their work on the basis of their German nationalism, helping the "Fatherland" in its quest for victory.
In addition to demolishing the engineers' contention that they were apolitical technocrats, Petersen also demonstrates that despite their postwar claims, almost all internal factory matters were their provenance and hOt that of the SS, which had little to do with the internal workings of the rocket-production factories. Thus, complicity with Nazi crimes at the infamous missile-productions facilities, such as Mittelbau-Dora, was in many ways a logical result of the culture internalized at Peenemunde. Indeed, Petersen argues that the brutality of the slave labour factories was fundamentally a combination of the engineers' desire to justify their own work and an internalization of Nazi racial ideology.
Petersen's book provides important insight into the relationship between technology and the political and administrative systems that support research and development. The group cohesion formed at Peenemunde lasted beyond the end of the war, and helped propel America's moon program, a sobering thought.
University of Cincinnati Clermont College
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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