The trouble with Wernher

Amy Shira Teitel has a nice essay about how we grapple with (and awkwardly avoid) the full legacy of Wernher Von Braun — father of the American space program and a Nazi whose rockets were once built by prison laborers.


  1. WvB was also unapologetically racist, a creationist, and he produced children by having sex with his first cousin.

      1.  One incident of inbreeding like that is actually not such a big deal, so long as you’re part of a population that generally avoids having kids with close relatives. It’s when it becomes a cultural norm to marry relatives that you really start seeing major problems.

        1. Hasn’t it been the cultural norm for most of humanity for most of history?

        1. I hope that’s soon  to be a major motion picture.  Thank you for a great laugh after a long Monday. 

    1. Point 3:  The royal families of Europe have been doing that for centuries.  Oddly enough, they can still string the occasional marginally coherent sentence together, and are largely loved by “their peoples”.  Or at least not actively hated.   Go figure.

      The same, allegedly applies to certain remote parts of the U.S.  Apart from the lack of hatred from everyone else.  Again, go figure.

      Either way, under Anglican rules you’re allowed to marry first cousins (Ehwww! *), so if it’s good enough for Elizabeth Saxe Coburg Gotha it can’t be bad for Wernher.

      Point 2:  That would very surprising.  Creationism, in it’s modern guise, is largely an American invention. Literal creationism certainly isn’t something that the protestant churches in Germany have subscribed to since Darwin.  Nor the catholic church generally.

      Point 1: Citation, please?

      Was he? Were Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Churchill?  Quite possibly. George Washington? Hell yes!

      By modern standards, anyway.  By the standards of their time, probably not. If you judge historical people by modern standards, you’re going to get skewed answers.

      So, Evil Nasty Scientiest? IMHO, no.
      Careerist? Possibly.
      Brilliant, driven engineer?  No doubt.

      *) Wikipedia says so, anyway. 

      1. “So, Evil Nasty Scientiest? IMHO, no.”

        What do you call someone who participates in an institution that relied upon enslaved concentration camp labor, resulting in the death of many thousands?  And that, although not directly responsible for these conditions, he had personally witnessed them and could have no illusions about the nature of the regime?

        This is not like the ordinary German citizen, soldier, or even state bureaucrat, who might have heard rumors about the horrors committed by the Nazi state but not know for certain.  He was there.  He saw the slaves being worked to death, or beaten, or starved.  If someone could see these things, know these things, and still serve such a regime, well, I’m sorry – the only word for that is evil.

  2. Growing up in Huntsville, the center for most big public events was the Von Braun Civic Center.  It was a bit disconcerting to read about his life later, starting with a reference to “I Aim At The Stars (But Sometimes I Hit London).”

    (The other related oddity of my childhood that stands out was learning later that the most common second language to take in school in the US was Spanish, not German, as it seemed to be in Huntsville, with many of us taking it from children of the transplanted scientists.)

    1. What was disconcerting? That he built weapons for his home country?

      As a Kraut living in Britain, I have on occasion noticed the …err…no nice way to say it… bloody hypocrisy between condemning the “blitz” as a war crime and hailing the firestorms off Dresden and Hamburg as heroism. 

      Not to mention the dam busters, which were designed to drown lots of innocent civilians.

      Now, obviously,  on the one hand, there were people who were unequivocally evil; on the other hand, there were people who figured out early what was going on and took a determined stand against it (Niemoeller, Paul Schneider, The White Rose, even the communists who’d sabotaged the spanish republic, etc etc).   And some, like the 17th June Saboteurs figured it out later and acted then.  

      But there are an awful lot of shades of grey between black and white.  And if you cast people “just doing their job” (even if their job is killing enemies or designing systems to do that) as war criminals because they lost, how do you call the same people on the other side heroes?

      1. As a Kraut living in Britain, I have on occasion noticed the …err…no nice way to say it… bloody hypocrisy between condemning the “blitz” as a war crime and hailing the firestorms off Dresden and Hamburg as heroism.

        Germany was the aggressor. That’s an absurd false equivalency.

        1. With all due respect, German children are no more deserving of firebombing than British children.  They didn’t choose to be born in Nazi Germany.  Targeting of civilians is just as wrong when “we” do it as when “they” do it.  Any discussion of the morality of warfare starts with the distinction between combatant and non-combatant.  Combatants may be justly attacked, non-combatants (civilians, surrendered prisoners, the wounded/incapacitated) may not.

          I strongly recommend Michael Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars” as a starting point.

          1. Germany (and Italy) declared war on the US December 11th, 1941.  Helluva selective reading of history there.

      2. Hello Kraut – I’m British and living in Britain. Agree with everything you say – have thought it all myself. One qualification – am surprised and disappointed that you’ve observed exultation in the wartime attacks on German cities. I don’t know how drunk dickheads in football scarves feel about the raids (I can guess), but among everyone who thinks at all the predominant feeling about the firestorm attacks seems to be a compound of regret and shame. Consider the protests that attended the unveiling of a statue to Arthur Harris, and the extreme delay in creating a memorial to the dead of Bomber Command.

        The dam raids, on the other hand, do seem to be regarded in a wholly positive light. The technical accomplishment of the attacks and the heroism of the fliers are celebrated, while the civilian deaths are rarely considered.  New film about the raids is on the way – Peter Jackson producing, script by Stephen Fry.

  3. “Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,

    A man whose allegiance
    Is ruled by expedience.
    Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown.
    “Ha, Nazi Schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun.

    Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
    Say rather that he’s apolitical.”

    Also *cough* Project Paperclick *cough*

    And perhaps “Our German scientists are better than their German scientists!”

    1. Tom Lehrer had the “Haters gonna Hate” going way before Hip Hop picked it up!

  4. I think philosophers who study german philosophers have similar issues over Heiddiger, but you can’t really avoid him if you want to talk about existentialism.  He never became a US citizen, working to further US goals, either. Probably not entirely the same thing. But how do you deal with Nazis who influenced academia, just in general.

    1. Another one is the other Werner…. Heisenberg.

      After the war Heisenberg was lauded as a noble scientist-hero who purposely prevented Hitler from building a fission bomb because he didn’t like Nazis.  Heisenberg humbly accepted these laurels, and explicitly claimed to have prevented a Nazi bomb for humanitarian reasons on several occasions.  He’d made a few anti-Nazi statements in the 30s that got him in trouble with Himmler, so it was easy for him to claim that he’d been forced to join the Uranium club in the 40s, and make unverifiable claims of secret sabotage.

      But then the British government declassified the Farm Hall recordings and it became abundantly clear that our hero of 50 years worth of history textbooks didn’t build a bomb because he didn’t know how.   Now some claim that Heisenberg was a fervent Nazi, and his history as a gung-ho leader of Nazi youth tends to support those claims.  It’s really quite possible that he was trying his damndest to give the Master Race a Super Weapon, and he certainly wasn’t the hero he allowed people to claim he was.

      1. I guess the problem with things like that is we can’t really know what is in their mind, only what they actually did. In this case, it seems as if the two sets of sources contradict each other, so who knows. I’m sure there are arguments on both sides…

        Also,  someone should do something about Heisenberg’s role in the meth epidemic in Albuquerque… it’s shameful what he’s been allowed to get away with there…   ;-)

          1. Sadly,we could only determine Heisenberg’s velocity.  We could not simultaneously know his political position.

    2. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.

      As to Wernher von Braun.  He was – totally – my engineering hero when I was a kid. 
      Was he an unprincipled opportunist? Quite possibly.  Or maybe he was just someone so focused on his work that he didn’t care who he did it for?  Also possible.

      Did he know about he slave labour used to produce the V2s? I don’t know. I hope not.

      Was he wrong to produce weapons that killed innocent civilians?  Certainly. But was he more culpable than the people that designed the incendiaries that turned Dresden and Hamburg into fire storms?  

      To a certain extent, who’s a hero and who’s a villain is decided by who wins.

      But there are some things that are for certain. Wernher v.B., together with lots of others like Tsiolkovsky and many unsung heroes, helped to take mankind from single stage, solid fuelled rockets, via single stage liquid fuelled rockets, all the way to the moon.

      I think we can acknowledge the ethical ambiguity and political failings, and still praise the engineering accomplishment. I can. YMMV.

      1. That’s true, but at what point do we draw the line, I’m wondering… I’m not saying we should shun these men, but just wondering what you think  is too much. What do you think? I really don’t know on this. It’s clear that these mean contributed much to civilization, but they aided genocidal criminals (and it’s not clear how complicit they were either)… 

      2.  Exactly!  Nobody’s mentioned Oppenheimer and those working on the Manhattan project? Were they evil mad scientists? Hardly.

        But I have to admit it was kind of bad ass to say “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” When Trinity went off.

        1. Considering that the development of the Bomb set off an arms race that could have cost us the planet, and considering that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is considered a war crime by most people (outside of the US, that is), I’d say that developing am A-bomb is *definitely* more evil than the development of the V2 rocket.

          It’s also an interesting lesson on how the view on history still differs in different places. Around here, Oppenheimer and his colleagues are *the* prime example for scientists that “failed to consider how their inventions would be used”.

    1.  I think we actively sought these folks out, as we didn’t want them to fall into Soviet hands and they were also smart…  I thought that was pretty well-known stuff, actually.  The article made it sound like it was all pretty hush-hush… 

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