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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 571


This is the grave of Wernher von Braun.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun was born in 1912 in Wirsitz, Germany. His father was Minister of Agriculture in one of the Weimar Republic governments. This was an elite family all around. His mother had royal ancestry from around Europe. From the time he was a boy, von Braun was fascinated by things that moved fast, especially planes and rocketry. He was also a very skilled musician in the classical style and could have had a career as a pianist or composer had he wanted. By the time he was a teenager, he was totally enmeshed in the idea of rockets and he worked hard on physics and math in order to master this field.

By 1930, von Braun was studying with Hermann Oberth, one of the foundational figures of early rocketry. Rockets were also one of the only types of weapons not banned for Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, which made the nation a center of study for them even before the Nazis took over. Speaking of such…..Von Braun claimed later in life to not really having wanted to be a Nazi but it was required if he was to continue studying rockets. And he did not become a Nazi Party member until 1937. But in 1933, he joined the SS horseback riding school and then later joined the SS in 1940. He claimed to have only worn his SS uniform once, in a famous picture where he is with Himmler. But others said he wore it all the time. And he probably did lie up and down the line to Americans to get him out of the trouble he was in by 1945.

Of course that trouble is because von Braun did an awful lot to advance the Nazi military machine. He received his PhD from the University of Berlin in 1934. He led a group that was already successfully launching rockets by the end of that year. And then he developed the V-2 rocket, the famous weapon used against British civilians by the Nazis in the last year of World War II. Hitler ordered its production in 1942 and called it a “vengeance weapon.” This was not about military targets. It was about killing civilians and nothing more. A 1943 RAF air raid on the production facility, which they had heard about from the Poles, did kill some of the leaders on the project, including Walter Thiel, though not von Braun, and damaged the facility but only delayed the whole thing by a bit. Von Braun always claimed his interest in rockets was about space travel, not killing people, but if he really believed this, it was nothing more than self-justification, as he always knew what his rockets were going to be used for. Moreover, his plant was run by slave labor and he knew this. Some of the prisoners used for slave labor claimed that von Braun himself ordered beatings of them and that he personally visited a nearby concentration camp to pick his workers. Like everything else, he denied it.

The Nazi leadership didn’t trust von Braun, for whatever that is worth. In 1944, he was arrested and held without charges for two weeks, but Hitler finally decided that he was too valuable to be locked up, even if he was considered untrustworthy. At the end of the war, von Braun wisely figured he and his team would be better off surrendering to the Americans than the Soviets and he forged documents so they could move farther west, away from the Red Army. He and his brother eventually fled into Austria, where they surrendered to an off-duty American soldier, getting him to take them seriously by telling him that he was the inventor of the V-2.

Sure, von Braun had committed horrible crimes. But the U.S. was more than happy to work with lots of people who had collaborated with Nazis, including most of the people in what became the West German government. Within a month, von Braun was in the U.S., working on rockets for the Americans. He was sent to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. He was basically a prisoner there, working on rockets, but not getting the materials he wanted, and not being respected at all. He hated it. After all, he was used to his every whim being catered to, not to mention having slave workers. In 1950, he was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where he spent the next 20 years leading the nation’s rocket program. He developed the Redstone rocket, which was used to deliver nuclear weapons, the first test of which he personally witnessed. Still, he was not respected. The American military was a lot less interested in rockets than either the Germans were or the Soviets had become. He was infamous in the U.S. for his work with the Nazis and his use of slaves and didn’t like living in the U.S.

Still, he maintained his obsession with space travel. As this became a national obsession in the 1950s, even before the Soviets launched Sputnik, he managed to publish widely about it, including in popular articles that got him a good bit of fame. He wrote about how to make space stations, for instance. He also wrote about the possibility for manned missions to Mars, using his space station designs as a staging point. He might have been a personal pariah, but he also got to work with Disney for three television programs about the potential of space travel. The first, 1955’s Man in Space, was a huge hit, with over 40 million people watching.

After Sputnik, von Braun became a lot more important to the military. Now it was all about space. He might not have his slave laborers anymore, but he was once again catered to, getting most of what he demanded. He moved over to NASA in 1960 and stayed for the next decade. He was very cautious in his experiments, moreso than the Soviets, and was blamed by the American military for delays that got a Soviet manned flight into space before the Americans. But von Braun was the lead developer for the famed Saturn rocket, which is what took Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. He was the most important person behind the creation and development of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Throughout this whole period, he embraced one great form of American hypocrisy–he converted to evangelical Christianity while also sleeping with every woman he could find, including many of the women who worked for him.

In 1970, von Braun left Huntsville for Washington. But he was frustrated by declining rocket budgets and he resigned from NASA in 1972. He became VP for Engineering and Development for Fairchild Industries, a military-industrial complex contractor. In 1973, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He worked as long as he could, including giving lots of talks at universities to increase interest in space travel and rockets. He finally had to retire entirely in 1976, dying in June 1977.

Wernher von Braun is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery, Alexandria, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other figures involved in the American space program, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alan Shepard is in East Derry, New Hampshire and Gus Grissom is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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