This article was originally published by American Experience to accompany its documentary, CHASING THE MOON. Written by Michael J. Neufeld and edited by Ben Greenberg.
By Michael J. Neufeld
Six weeks before the historic, December 1968 Apollo 8 mission to orbit the Moon, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Wernher von Braun, received an unpleasant surprise. A West German court asked him to testify in the trial of three former SS men from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, which had supplied slave labor for the production of the V-2 ballistic missile. Von Braun had been the technical director of that project and visited the associated Mittelwerk factory a dozen times. Now the head of the center that managed the gigantic Saturn V Moon rocket, he was afraid the attendant publicity would damage his reputation and that of NASA. He tried to beg off, but in the end spoke to the judge and the court at the West German consulate in New Orleans on February 7, 1969. An excerpt from his press interview afterward appears near the beginning of Chasing the Moon, part 3. He denied any personal responsibility and put as much distance as he could between his Peenemünde rocket development center and the Mittelwerk complex.
As his long-time press person, Ed Buckbee, notes in Chasing the Moon, von Braun had received few such inquiries. He and his employer from 1945 to 1960, the U.S. Army, had effectively neutralized most of the uncomfortable questions surrounding his former service for Adolf Hitler. In autobiographical articles and press interviews, he stuck to the line that he was an apolitical scientist who only wanted to go into space. He built missiles used against Allied cities because it was his national duty in wartime. He admitted that he had been a member of the National Socialist Party but labeled it nominal and necessary to protect his career in a totalitarian society. If he mentioned concentration-camp labor, it was only obliquely, while assigning all blame to the SS. In fact, very little information about the camp story was available to the public, in part because the Army classified much of it. The military did the same with von Braun’s SS officer rank and the Nazi records of the more than one hundred associates who had come to the U.S. with him. The one thing he was willing to talk about was his March 1944 Gestapo arrest. He allegedly made drunken remarks at a party about Germany’s likely defeat and his preference for building a “spaceship.” It made him look like a victim of the Nazis, rather than a perpetrator.
Von Braun died prematurely of cancer at age 65 in 1977 and thus missed the storm that broke out seven years later. One of his closest associates, Arthur Rudolph, voluntarily went back to Germany in 1984 rather than contest a denaturalization hearing over his role as production manager in the underground plant. The Justice Department released records relating to Rudolph, von Braun and the Mittelbau-Dora camp. Von Braun’s SS membership first became widely known then, although Communist East Germany had tried in the 1960s, with little success in the West, to publicize it. Thanks to the work of investigative journalists in the 1980s and scholars in the 1990s, everything about his Nazi record, and those of associates, came out. Belatedly, many became aware of the deaths of thousands of prisoners in the V-2 program and the potential implication of von Braun, and a few key associates, in those crimes.
Michael J. Neufeld, a Senior Curator at the National Air and Space Museum, is the author of The Rocket and the Reich (1995), Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (2007) and Spaceflight: A Concise History (2018), among other works.