September 20, 2007

Wernher von Braun

Some may have been slightly surprised a couple of weeks ago when I posted masterpiece by Tom Lehrer about Wernher von Braun, the German scientist. Hopefully therefore this review of a biography of Von Braun from the Washington Post will help. Essentially the story is easily told. Von Braun was a brilliant engineer and scientist. During World War II he realised that the root to advancement and to securing his ambition of space flight lay through the development of the V1 and V2 rockets, both of which were used to bomb southern England and could have been used to carry a more devestating payload had Hitler wanted to exploit physics. Von Braun's work was very effective- but it relied upon the use of slave labour camps which built the actual structures. Von Braun was whisked away by the Americans at the end of the war in order to help with the construction of nuclear facilities and ultimately to provide one of the leading minds behind NASA during the 1950s and 1960s. His engineering work is what took the Apollo project to the moon and contributed to a giant leap for human kind.

What Lehrer of course and plenty of others have drawn attention to is the price that Von Braun paid for that. The giant leap was based upon the bones of the slave labourers and the victims of the rockets throughout southern England- a row of tombstones is about as adequate a memorial of Von Braun as is the manifest destiny of Neil Armstrong. Von Braun's political neutrality led him into a situation where he was a war criminal- protected but still a war criminal.

Ultimately as with any prominent German of that generation- Wernher Heisenberg would be another- the stench of what they did and didn't know and when they knew it hangs over their reputations. Perhaps one of the best things we can learn about Von Braun and Heisenberg is that whereas they were accepted in the West, they were also lampooned and criticised, they never escaped. Whereas a tyrant like Mao went to his grave secure in the praise of his fellow countrymen, Von Braun went to his with the words of Tom Lehrer echoing around him. It would have been better had they stood in the halls of Nuremberg and heard the judgement of history, but I suppose ridicule is better than nothing- even if it was not universal.