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Home > Wernher von Braun > Biography of Wernher Von Braun > Excerpts from "Power to Explore"
The following excerpts are from "Power to Explore," a history of the Marshall Space Flight Center published in 1999 and prepared for NASA by Dr. Andrew Dunar and Dr. Stephen Waring, historians at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. A link to the complete full text of "Power to Explore," is provided at the end of the excerpts. To identify the documents that the historians used as sources for their research refer to the footnote numbers below in the full-text)

(Excerpt from "Power to Explore," Page 7)

Labor for V-2 production became a pressing problem in 1943. In April Arthur Rudolph, chief engineer of the Peenemünde factory, learned of the availability of concentration camp prisoners, enthusiastically endorsed their use, and helped win approval for their transfer. The first prisoners began working in June. Hitler's concern for V-2 development after July 1943 piqued the interest of Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS, who conspired to take control of the rocket program and research activities at Peenemünde as a means to expand his power base. When Dornberger and von Braun resisted his advances, the SS arrested von Braun, charging that he had tried to sabotage the V-2 program. Himmler cited as evidence remarks that von Braun had made at a party suggesting developing the V-2 for space travel after the war. Dornberger's intercession won von Braun's release, but Himmler had made his point. Von Braun's defenders cite his arrest as proof of his differences with the Nazi Party and his distance from the use of slave labor. Von Braun's relationship to the Nazi Party is complex; although he was not an ardent Nazi, he did hold rank as an SS officer. His relationship to slave labor is likewise complicated, for his distance from direct responsibility for the use of slave labor must be balanced by the fact that he was aware of its use and the conditions under which prisoners labored.17

Atrocities perpetrated at V-2 production facilities at Nordhausen and the nearby concentration camp at Dora-where some 20,000 died as a result of execution, starvation, and disease-stimulated controversy that plagued the rocket pioneers who left Germany after the war. The most important V-2 production sites were the central plants, called Mittelwerk, in the southern Harz Mountains near Nordhausen, where an abandoned gypsum mine provided an underground cavern large enough to house extensive facilities in secrecy. Slave labor from Dora carved out an underground factory in the abandoned mine, which extended a mile into the hillside. Foreign workers under the supervision of skilled German technicians assumed an increasing burden; at Mittelwerk, ninety percent of the 10,000 laborers were non-Germans.18

(Excerpts from "Power to Explore," Page 9-10)

The question of what to do with German technicians in American custody was laden with political, military, and moral overtones. Some feared that allowing them to continue their research might allow for a rebirth of German militarism. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau sought a punitive policy toward Germany, with no room for coddling weapons developers.26 The most compelling moral argument hinged on the involvement of the Germans with either the Nazi Party or slave labor at Mittelwerk.

Many German academics, scientists, and technicians had been members of the Nazi Party, often because party membership brought benefits such as research grants and promotions. The Party often bestowed honorary rank as a reward. Heinrich Himmler personally awarded an honorary SS rank to von Braun in May 1940, which von Braun accepted only after he and his colleagues agreed that to turn it down might risk Himmler's wrath. Party membership alone seemed an inadequate criteria, and advocates of using German scientists suggested distinguishing "ardent" Nazis from those who joined the Party out of expediency.27

Similar ambiguities clouded the issue of responsibility for the slave labor at Nordhausen. Manufacture facilities were far from Peenemünde, under the supervision of Himmler's SS. Himmler and SS-General Kammler dictated production schedules and allocated V-2s for deployment and for testing. Neither Dornberger nor von Braun had direct authority over Mittelwerk, but both men visited the plant several times and observed conditions. Dornberger-and von Braun-could influence V-2 production only indirectly, by lobbying for greater resources.28

In the years after the war, when von Braun and other Peenemünde veterans had risen to responsible positions in the American space program, accusations regarding their role in the Mittelwerk slave labor production rose occasionally. Responding to charges leveled by former inmates of the Dora-Ellrich concentration camps in the mid-1960s, von Braun gave his most detailed response. He admitted that he had indeed visited Mittelwerk on several occasions, summoned there in response to attempts by Mittelwerk management to hasten the V-2 into production. He insisted that his visits lasted only hours, or at most one or two days, and that he never saw a prisoner beaten, hanged, or otherwise killed. He conceded that in 1944 he learned that many prisoners had been killed, and that others had died from mistreatment, malnutrition, and other causes, that the environment at the production facility was "repulsive."29

For more information see the online version of "Power to Explore."

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