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Review: Von Braun

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
by Michael J. Neufeld
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Hardcover, 608 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-307-26292-9

There is, perhaps, no more polarizing figure in the history of spaceflight than Wernher von Braun. He has been canonized by some as one of the great—if not the greatest—pioneer of rocketry, to some degree for his early technical accomplishments in Germany but more for his later achievements in the US, including the launch of the first American satellite and the development of the Saturn 5 rocket that enabled the Apollo missions to the Moon. Others have tarred him as a Nazi collaborator—or even a war criminal—for his willingness to work with the Nazi regime to develop the V-2 rocket, an effort that cost the lives of thousands of Allied civilians and concentration camp laborers. That debate has continued, and even intensified, more than 30 years after his death, and will likely be revisited in the mass media again in a couple months as the 50th anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1 approaches.

There has been no shortage of books about the life of von Braun over the years. However, as Michael Neufeld, a historian at the National Air and Space Museum, notes in the preface of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, none of these could be considered a comprehensive, authoritative account of his life. Many were hagiographies written by friends and supporters, while others, particularly those critical of his work in Germany, relied on secondary sources. Adding to the challenge is the difficulty accessing primary sources about von Braun, particularly of his early life and career: most of his early papers and records were lost in the chaos of the collapse of Nazi Germany, while family members have been unwilling to cooperate with even the friendliest of biographers. (Neufeld, who wrote a previous book critically examining von Braun’s role in the Nazi regime, The Rocket and the Reich, noted in the preface of von Braun that von Braun’s surviving German colleagues would no longer speak with him after the publication of that book.)

That von Braun’s life is still so sharply debated is testament to the tremendous influence—for good or ill—he had not just on spaceflight but on 20th century history.

Despite these challenges, Neufeld has succeeded in his effort to write the authoritative biography of von Braun. The broad outlines of von Braun’s life remain the same: a childhood interest in rocketry and spaceflight leads to work with German amateur rocketeers and, in turn, with the Nazi regime; at the end of he war he casts his lot with the Americans to develop missiles and, later, rockets that enable the US to reach the Moon. What differs is the rich level of detail found here and virtually nowhere else about von Braun’s life and career, details that turn von Braun from an almost mythic historical figure into a complex human being. Anyone who doubts the thoroughness of Neufeld’s research need only turn to the back of the book: the notes, bibliography, and index of von Braun span more than 100 pages.

So what do these additional details tell us about von Braun, in light of the conflicting perceptions of the man? Neufeld sees von Braun as something like Goethe’s Faust, who made his infamous pact with the devil and “uses his infernal powers to build great engineering works for what he believes to be the betterment of mankind.” Faust’s soul was saved by angels; von Braun was saved by the Americans, who protected him from any consequences of his wartime actions and ultimately allowed him to pursue his dream of spaceflight. The idea of a Faustian bargain as applied to von Braun is not new, as Neufeld notes, but he states that von Braun didn’t appear to have even recognized he had made such a deal until the final years of the war, in part because his conservative upbringing and “inclination towards apolitical opportunism” made it easy for him to ally himself with the Nazis when they rose to power, and his focus on rocket development made it possible for him to tune out unpleasant realities as the war progressed. Only after his arrest and brief imprisonment by the Gestapo in early 1944—an apparent tactic by the SS to try to take control of the V-2 project—did von Braun come to realize the true nature of the regime he was working for. (As for any complicity in war crimes, Neufeld finds no evidence that von Braun was directly responsible for the conditions and treatment of concentration camp labor at the Mittelwerk V-2 factory, but that he had to be aware of the appalling situation there.)

That von Braun’s life is still so sharply debated is testament to the tremendous influence—for good or ill—he had not just on spaceflight but on 20th century history. Had he not gotten involved with rocketry, Neufeld notes, the Germans likely would not have developed the V-2, which would have had minor effects on World War 2 itself but much greater ones on the post-war world, since the V-2 accelerated the development of both American and Soviet ICBMs. Had von Braun not survived the war—and he was seriously injured in a car crash in early 1945—or otherwise not made it to the US, both the Cold War and the early Space Age would have developed much differently; it is hard to see Apollo succeeding in any recognizable form without von Braun leading the development of the Saturn 5. Von Braun had not just technical expertise, but also managerial skill and a penchant for (self-)promotion, all of which he brought to bear to realize his dream of spaceflight, even if he himself would not be able to go. Neufeld calls von Braun the “most influential rocket engineer and spaceflight advocate of the twentieth century,” an assessment that is hard to argue with. He was also, Neufeld writes, “a symbol of the temptations of engineers and scientists” who have been willing to work on dangerous weapons and for nefarious regimes as a means to realize their own goals—temptations that are still strong today. That makes it all the more important to better understand the life and influence of Wernher von Braun, something that von Braun makes possible.