Article Thumbnail

So, Wait, How Much Did Nazi Technology Help NASA Put a Man on the Moon?

Meet Wernher von Braun, the German scientist referenced in Amazon’s ‘Hunters’ who spearheaded our country’s space program — and also designed a missile that killed Allied soldiers in World War II

The Amazon series Hunters is an over-the-top revenge drama concerning a Tarantino-esque collection of Nazi hunters in 1977, but while the show plays fast and loose with actual history, some of it is very real. At one point, the plot takes a breather so that a random character can note that Wernher von Braun, a Nazi scientist, worked with NASA to help American astronauts beat the Russians to be the first humans on the Moon. That’s not fiction — he was an actual person.

Hunters’ storyline involves some Nazis who are hiding out in the U.S., hoping that they can create new identities while continuing to carry out their evil plans. There is mention of something called Operation Paperclip, which sounds like the lamest middle-management-business-meeting project ever, but in fact was an American operation launched after the end of World War II that allowed German scientists to come to the States.

As Newsweek explains: 

“In an attempt to beat Russia, President Harry S. Truman approved the operation that would ‘ensure such coveted information did not fall into the hands of the Soviet Union,’ reported the History Channel. About 1,600 Nazi-linked scientists were believed to have actively worked in America during the Cold War. (Around 2,200 Nazi-connected scientists also worked for the Soviets, according to Inverse.)”

The rationale was clearly “Better to have the Nazis working for us than those damn Commies.” But that meant permitting someone like von Braun to go unpunished for his collaboration with Hitler. Last year, Time looked back at the life of von Braun, who died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 65. Apparently, there’s some debate about how much he willingly helped the Nazis — perhaps he agreed simply as a way to stay alive — but nobody denies this scientist’s wartime deeds:

“[B]efore he was building rockets for America, he was building them for Hitler. Germany launched more than 3,000 missiles of his design against Britain and other countries, indiscriminately killing approximately 5,000 people, while as many as 20,000 concentration camp prisoners died assembling the weapons.

“In 1942, his group successfully tested the A-4 missile, firing the weapon nearly 60 miles into the atmosphere. The trial caught Hitler’s attention, and the Reich began to mass produce the rockets at a feverish pace, often using slave labor. (The project also drew the interest of Heinrich Himmler’s Schutzstaffel (SS), which briefly imprisoned von Braun as part of an attempted takeover of the program.) By the later stages of the war, when von Braun’s missiles began to rain down on London, Nazi propaganda had given them a new name: the Vengeance Weapon Two, or V-2, so named because they were intended as retribution for Allied bombings of German cities.” 

The Time piece is well worth reading in its entirety — the story mentions that the V-2 “traveled so fast that victims, most of whom were civilians, often heard nothing until after they struck” — and lays out all the reasons why the U.S. never should have let von Braun work with impunity. But, then again, perhaps we wouldn’t have enjoyed the triumph of the Apollo 11 mission: It was von Braun’s Saturn V launch vehicle that powered the astronauts on their historic journey to the Moon in 1969.

It wasn’t just that the American government let him stay in the U.S., however — they trotted von Braun out in front of the cameras to be NASA’s de-facto spokesperson, evangelizing for the importance of space travel. Here he is in 1955 discussing how the U.S. could get to the Moon. (Produced by Disney, this half-hour special, called Man and the Moon, also features some wonderfully cheesy sci-fi “reenactments” of astronauts’ journey to the lunar surface.) 

Ironically, space travel had been von Braun’s first love. After reading a story as a student about humanity maybe one day making its way to the Moon, he fantasized about journeying to other worlds. “It filled me with a romantic urge,” von Braun once said. “Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to. Not just stare through a telescope at the Moon and the planets but to soar through the heavens and actually explore the mysterious universe. I knew how Columbus had felt.” 

The notorious scientist never seemed that hung up about the fact that he helped create the missiles that killed so many of our allies during World War II. As far as he was concerned, he was simply making rockets that would eventually allow people to travel outside of Earth’s atmosphere — the carnage they caused in the interim wasn’t his problem. “We wouldn’t have treated your atomic scientists as war criminals,” von Braun rationalized, “and I didn’t expect to be treated as one.” 

Not that people weren’t aware of von Braun’s past even back then. In the 1960s, musician and satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song condemning the scientist as a hypocrite and a monster:

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 

If you go on the NASA site, you can read von Braun’s bio, which doesn’t shy away from his time with the Nazis: “Von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party and an SS officer, yet was also arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 for careless remarks he made about the war and the rocket. His responsibility for the crimes connected to rocket production is controversial.” 

Still, the man didn’t much care what people said about him. To his mind, his was a story of an outsider experiencing the American dream. “I came to this country’s shores after a war, a grim and bitter war, as an enemy alien,” he said in 1972. “And it took me quite a while to get accepted in this country. And I ask you, where in the world would a man be given this chance except in America? Now I look on America as my home, and the home where my three children were born.”

Indeed, the twists and turns of his life are a lot more interesting than anything in Hunters, the mediocre show that inspired me to look into it in the first place.