The Holocaust Historiography Project

Peenemünde and Los Alamos: Two Studies

Donald E. Tarter


The Second World War produced two great and memorable scientific and technological teams: the German Peenemünde rocket team under the direction of Dr. Wernher von Braun, and the American Los Alamos atomic bomb team under the direction of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Taken together, the contributions of these teams created the post-war capability for intercontinental nuclear warfare. These teams, working in different countries under radically different political systems, encountered severe political difficulties during and after the war. Each, in its own way, has had to live with its deeds, endure public suspicions, and bear the judgment of history. This article, based on 13 hours of interviews recently completed with members of the von Braun Peenemünde team, together with an analysis of several hours of video interviews of members of the Oppenheimer Los Alamos team, seeks to present a meaningful contrast and description of the environments and the pressures under which each worked.


Late in 1982, the United States Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) began a series of interrogations of a former von Braun rocket team member, Arthur Rudolph. Rudolph had been one of the central figures in the American Apollo Lunar Program, having been the Saturn 5 project manager. He had left his previous home in Huntsville, Alabama, site of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, and was then residing in San Jose, California.

Throughout 1983, OSI continued its investigations, and late that year informed Dr. Rudolph that it believed there was sufficient evidence to link him to war crimes activity at the World War II German rocket facility, Mittelwerk, a forced-labor installation in the Harz Mountains. OSI threatened prosecution and indictment unless Dr. Rudolph signed an agreement to leave the country and renounce his citizenship. After agonizing over the prospects of a long and expensive trial or doing as the OSI requested, Dr. Rudolph decided in November 1983 to leave the United States. On March 27, 1984, he and his wife boarded a plane in San Francisco en route to Germany.

The disposition of the Rudolph case bitterly incensed many of Rudolph’s original German colleagues and many of his associates in the American space program. In early 1989, an effort was launched by several of his friends and colleagues in Huntsville to have the government allow his return to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the lunar landing in July. That effort failed.

A 1989 editorial in the Huntsville Times[note 1] noted that Rudolph chose to leave the USA because there was a possibility of prosecution, and a chance that if successfully prosecuted he would be deported and lose his government benefits. The editorial added:

The right and justice of the matter have never been established. The aging retiree chose to acquiesce rather than fight. The West German government has said it did not find evidence to prosecute him.

… [This] leaves unanswered the question of the basic justice of the Rudolph case. The OSI’s decision is, of course, subject to review. Rudolph has recourse through the federal courts, but to date, he has not taken it. And his dilemma is what it always was: a court order dissolving his voluntary surrender of citizenship would also set aside the OSI’s side of the agreement. By starting the case over, Rudolph would be exposed to prosecution with the prospect of deportation and the loss of retirement benefits.

It is a dilemma best left to history.

In late 1983 and early 1984 Mr. Konrad K. Dannenberg and I were beginning a project at the University of Alabama in Huntsville which would add to the recorded recollection of members of Wernher von Braun’s Peenemünde rocket team. Dannenberg himself was a former member of that team. He had served as a propulsion engineer on the first successful A-4 (later termed V-2) launch in October 1942. Later, among other duties in the United States, he had served as deputy director of the Saturn Program at George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Both Dannenberg and I were most interested in seeing that early recollections of German rocketry were preserved. Likewise, we were interested in obtaining comments about the future of space development as anticipated by these pioneers. Hence our project was entitled, “Our Future in Space: Messages from the Beginning.”

As a sociologist, I was also interested in obtaining a sense of the human responses to the conditions under which scientific and technical work was conducted in the totalitarian environment of Nazi Germany. Epochal work was being done. It was work that would literally begin the space age. While popular perception dates the beginning of the space age to thc famous Soviet Sputnik launch on October 4, 1957, in fact the first human-designed object ever to ascend into the environment of space was launched some 15 years and one day earlier, October 3, 1942. That object was the German A-4 rocket, launched from the Peenemünde test facility, reaching an altitude of over 80 km (50 miles) and a range of 192 km (120 miles).

Thus, at a place now almost forgotten, humanity began its ultimate adventure into the cosmos. As a realist, I know that the drive behind much of human technology has been the military advantage that it might give. As an idealist, I am opposed to the use of science to further human destructiveness. As a behavioral scientist, I wanted to understand how men refined by sophisticated scientific and technological training could be reduced to the service of tyranny and human oppression.

For over two decades I have had the privilege of associating with many of the members of the von Braun team both as a neighbor and as a scholar interested in the social impact of the space age. That association with these gentlemen who stood at the beginning of the space age has, I believe, given me some insight into the questions I have asked. It has always been difficult, at best, to discuss such matters with them. Even in the most relaxed of times, the subject is not an object of easy reflection. I had hoped that our project to videotape the remembrances of key scientific and technical personnel at Peenemünde would be able to probe for answers to difficult and sensitive moral and political questions. The news of the Rudolph case, and the fact that other members of the original rocket team were also under investigation by the Department of Justice, left a heavy pall over any such discussion. Many of the group who had originally agreed to hour-long video sessions decided that they did not wish to grant such an interview under the existing circumstances of rumor and suspicion. Television networks and newspapers were, at the time, contacting me in attempts to obtain materials that would be useful to assist in compiling their own reports on the possible connection of the Peenemünde Team to Nazi atrocities. Some members of the group who decided to go ahead with the interviews stipulated that as a condition for their appearance they would talk about the history and circumstances of technological development, but did not wish to enter into a discussion relating to politically sensitive subjects. Although circumstances made our project most difficult, a grant from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and assistance from the Huntsville affiliate of the Alabama Public Television Network permitted us to obtain 13 hours of videotaped interviews from a dozen members of the original Peenemünde rocket team, but for the reasons stated above I have relied more on information obtained in my 20 years of association with members of the Peenemünde team than on comments made directly in the video interviews.[note 2]

During the same period that we were recording the recollections of the Peenemünde pioneers, I, along with several of my students, was engaged in an in-depth analysis of the experience of the Los Alamos atomic bomb team, directed by the late Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Through an extensive search of the literature and analysis of several hours of videotaped interviews with key members of that team, we compiled what we thought were some interesting points of comparison between the experiences of the members of the Los Alamos project and those working at Peenemünde. We felt that such a comparison could, perhaps, put the whole question of the moral and political posture of those at Peenemünde into somewhat sharper focus. In addition, I had at least two reasons to seek such a comparison. Firstly, taken together, the contributions of these two great technical teams made the age of intercontinental nuclear warfare possible. Secondly, these were ends not consistent with the motives that drove them in their youth.

The young men who were later to go Peenemünde and begin the space age dreamed of interplanetary space flight. Almost all of them with whom I have talked have specifically mentioned their thrill and excitement about the early German science fiction movie, Frau im Mond ("Girl on the Moon"). This Fritz Lang movie, filmed in consultation with the early Romanian space pioneer Hermann Oberth, stimulated an entire generation of young idealists into seeking careers in space technology. Likewise, as youths, the men who were to go to Los Alamos to begin the atomic age had their own captivating visions that stirred within them. The young Oppenheimer was intrigued by a box of minerals given to him as a gift and was soon exploring the rock formations of Central Park in New York City. At the age of 11 he was accepted into the New York Mineralogical Club. The young Edward Teller was seized by the excitement of science through the works of Jules Verne. The young Leo Szilard showed an almost prescient childhood fascination with the classic Hungarian poem of pessimism, The Tragedy of Man, which, perhaps, accounts in part for his lifelong mission to forestall nuclear tragedy.

The youthful dreams and aspirations of these men did not involve the development of weapons of destruction. Rather, they hoped as adults to understand the laws of nature and to travel into interplanetary space. The world as it was, however, demanded that their noble aspirations be put to the service of much less noble ends. Though they were to move to the very edge of human understanding, they could not escape the political, economic, and social forces of their time. Their dreams were laid aside while their professional talents were channelled into designing means of death and destruction. What types of readjustment are required for such an awesome redirection of one’s own purpose for existence? This question led me to investigate the experiences of these two groups for answers.

Their members shared an early experience that an increasing number of scientists and technologists in our current world now face. Out of the processes set in motion at Peenemünde and Los Alamos, the world has now evolved a global militarized culture. A very substantial portion of scientists and technologists trained for participation in our modern world economy find themselves in a situation where their prime opportunity for employment and career development lies in the service of the international arms industry. As nations drain their resources in search of military superiority, many of the more productive and hopeful goals of humankind are cancelled or delayed. The experience of those at Peenemünde and Los Alamos may give us a fuller understanding of the forces that have increasingly put science and scientists in pursuit of destructive goals.

Los Alamos and Peenemünde: A Sense of Perspective

In seeking to gain perspective through comparison of Los Alamos and Peenemünde, it is informative to consider the forces that led each group to come together as a team. Few of their members anticipated careers associated with the military establishments of their respective countries. Yet all of them found that the military was their prime avenue of career development.

In the case of the Peenemünde group, many of its members had been affiliated with small German rocket societies such as the Society for Space Travel (Verein für Raumschiffahrt, or VfR) that had been forming since the late 1920s.[note 3] While such organizations were not taken seriously in their early days, publicity that played upon the intriguing possibilities of interplanetary space flight made them an object of public curiosity.

Many accounts of German military developments prior to the Second World War suggest that the concept of the high-angle rocket appealed to German officialdom because it might offer a legal way around the restrictions placed on the development of artillery weapons in the Treaty of Versailles.[note 4] While a case be made for this, it should be remembered that development of potentially illegal artillery had been underway for some while. In the words of Dr. Georg von Tiesenhausen,[note 5]

When I was drafted in 1936, I found the 8.8 cm anti-aircraft cannon already developed, including its advanced semi-automatic range finders, and velocity and direction indicators. This was a superior masterpiece of engineering development that must have started many years earlier.

Indeed, Dr. Gerhard Reisig points out that[note 6]

The development of the '88' (as it was commonly called) had begun as early as 1929, in the Weimar Republic. Its use as a replacement for aging weapons was allowed under the treaty. However, the same weapon had great potential for anti-aircraft purposes, making it of questionable legality.

Given the general drift away from the strictest adherence to the standards of the Treaty of Versailles, even in the Weimar Republic, it is unlikely that legal questions overshadowed more practical considerations of feasibility and economics in the earliest days of rocketry.

Early military development of German rocketry fell under the aegis of Walter Dornberger, an artillery captain who, in 1930, had graduated from the Technische Hochschule, Berlin. In the fall of 1932, Dornberger recruited Wernher von Braun as his chief technical assistant, thus making von Braun the ranking civilian in the rocket program. Subsequently von Braun obtained his doctorate in physics in 1934 at army expense. In the meantime, on 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler had been officially appointed Chancellor and the Nazi Party of Germany quickly consolidated its power. Thus, as the Weimar Republic crumbled, the young von Braun was completing his formal education under circumstances that were to obligate him to serve the German army.

It should also be remembered that the Great Depression hit Germany with a vengeance. The severe economic climate motivated individuals to take employment anywhere it could be found, and, with the early rocketeers, it could be found only in the army. Neither German universities nor private industry showed the slightest interest in rocketry. At the best of times, private funding for studying rocket propulsion would have been most difficult to obtain, but, with the depression threatening the very survival of German industry, such a venture into basic research was out of the question. Arthur Rudolph, like so many of his counterparts, found himself without work and without money. Captain Dornberger moved through this cadre of unemployed engineers looking for ideas that might serve the army’s interest in rocketry. From his recruitment efforts and from the lack of any available economic alternative, several young rocketeers were brought on to the government military payrolls. For reasons completely beyond their control, and toward ends that were divergent from their dreams, an increasing number of young German space visionaries found themselves in the service of a military establishment that was later to serve Nazi Germany.

As the activities of the early rocket pioneers grew, it became obvious that they would need a larger and more elaborate facility to test their new generation of vehicles. The first test facilities at Kummersdorf, some 25 kilometers south of Berlin, were rapidly becoming inadequate. The vicinity of the small fishing village of Peenemünde on the Baltic Coast seemed to provide the perfect place. First suggested to von Braun by his mother, the site offered isolation and a place to fire the still highly experimental vehicles. As political tensions heightened in Europe, the advanced guard of the Peenemünde team was almost totally preoccupied with the elaborate preparations involved in the opening of the world’s first large-scale rocket test facility. The Army Research Center at Peenemünde became fully staffed in August 1939. On September 1, 1939, Hitler ordered his troops to invade Poland, thus formally beginning the Second World War. By 1942, the facility at Peenemünde employed 1,960 scientists and technicians and some 3,852 other workers. Work on rocket development was then proceeding at maximum intensity.

The nearly complete mobilization of German society in the course of the Second World War saw many individuals with scientific and technical skills pressed into the military service. Among the interview group was Dr./Lance Corporal Ernst Stuhlinger, who was serving on the Russian front as an infantryman when he received orders to report to Peenemünde. This was a place and a project of which he had never heard. Likewise, Konrad K. Dannenberg, an infantry lieutenant in France, was called away from the battlefield to join the rocket development center. For individuals such as these, the motivation was clear: build rockets or dodge bullets.

In contrast, the factors that led to the assembly of the Los Alamos atomic bomb team were remarkably different. The scientists who were to comprise the core group at Los Alamos came from the well-established scientific field of physics. Physics, as a discipline, had become increasingly important since the turn of the century, and had acquired respect in major universities. In Germany, however, with the rise of thc Nazi Party, the physics community had suffered a terrible blow. Fully 25 per cent of academic physicists in Germany, almost all Jewish, found themselves forced from their positions shortly after Hitler came to power. By 1934, one of every five institute directorships in Germany was vacant.[note 7] The number of physicists who left Germany was large, but the quality was truly astounding. Fascism flushed away the cream of European physics: Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Michael Polanyi, Theodor von Karman, George de Hevesy, Felix Bloch, James Franck, Lothar Nordheim, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr and Eugene Rabinowitch. Along with some sympathetic non-Jewish scientists such as Erwin Schrodinger and Martin Stobb, these men were to become the driving force behind atomic research in Britain and the USA.

Hence, there was a stark contrast between the unemployed and unknown engineers and technicians who were seeking affiliation with the German army, and the relatively affluent and widely known physicists who were leaving Germany in droves. Of the Peenemünde team, only a few members could be considered to have outstanding credentials in science. Among them were von Braun, with a Ph.D. in physics; Ernst Stuhlinger, also with a Ph.D. in physics; and Carl Wagner, a Ph.D. physical chemist. Engineers did not yet enjoy the status of scientists. As Ernst Stuhlinger stated:[note 8]

According to my own observations, during the late twenties and the thirties, the general public held natural scientists in higher regard than philosophers. Engineers were considered with less awe than scientists, but their high value to society was well recognized — more than that of philosophers. Engineer covers a very broad field; engineers were never treated all alike. After all, engineers built the fabulous new airplanes and ocean liners, the worldwide telephone networks, and the television systems that began to appear during the mid 1930s, but engineers were also those simple-minded people who were at fault when the electric light did not work; when the car had a defect; when a train was late; or when the elevator got stuck between floors. The scientist, in the conception of the public, presented a far more homogeneous image than the engineer. There is no doubt that scientists found a far greater degree of respect than engineers in social circles during the 1920s and 1930s.

Even in the USA, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not unusual to find lingering traces of status comparisons among certain scientists who sometimes referred to the transplanted Peenemünde Team as “von Braun’s plumbers.”

Stuhlinger continues:

During the war, many things were different. From the standpoint of those who felt responsible for the conduct of the war, those scientists and engineers who contributed directly or indirectly to the war effort were, of course, of utmost importance. For Hitler and his immediate entourage, things were again different. Hitler did not like scientists (because they failed to rally around his flag), and he let them feel it. During the first years of the war, he denounced them, or at least neglected them, saying that he did not need them. He wanted production experts who could deliver large quantities of ammunition and other war matériel. He needed and wanted engineers who could help with that production. Only toward the end of the war, when things went badly for Germany, Hitler complained bitterly that his scientists had not provided him with the wonder weapons he would have needed to win the war.

This complaint, Stuhlinger insists was directed primarily at the scientific community, not the engineering and technical community. Hitler felt that his initial mistrust of scientists had been verified. These fuzzy minded dreamers had failed to deliver on their promises, not only in terms of rocket technology, but in terms of a host of land, air and sea weapons.

According to Stuhlinger, considerations of relative status were not a factor within Peenemünde itself. Scientists, engineers and technicians worked together without reference to privilege or prestige. Whatever the general public or the Führer thought of their relative merits, for practical purposes such considerations were unimportant.[note 9]

Neither the community of Jewish physicists nor the community of non-Jewish scientists and engineers was particularly active politically. The prevailing attitude of both was, insofar as possible, to ignore the political world and get on with their chosen professions. There were exceptions, most notably among the academic physicists such as Szilard, Bohr and Schrodinger, but the activist attitude was not the norm. Alan D. Beyerchen, in his study of thc political posture of the physics community in the Third Reich, refers to this attitude as a form of “inner migration."[note 10] Edward Teller expressed much the same early rejection of political involvement by noting that the continuing European political difficulties forced him to be “enveloped in the feeling that only science is lasting."[note 11]

In Germany, this apolitical posture was even more pronounced for the Peenemünde group. At least three reasons can be identified that may account for this. First, their educational backgrounds had certainly not prepared or predisposed them to ask political questions or seek out political activities. Second, as they gravitated toward the closed and restricted environments of Kummersdorf and later Peenemünde, they became progressively more isolated from the intellectual currents at play in the cities and in the universities. Third, and perhaps most important, their lot was improving under the rule of the Third Reich. For the most part, the men of Peenemünde were plain, practical men, mostly members of the volkisch ideal, the German or Nordic middle class. Their training was in practical, not theoretical matters. They were, in the eyes of the Aryan thinkers, the finest example of native German utilitarianism.

Hitler’s Aryan ideology even found its way into physics, in a movement led by two Nobel laureates, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark.[note 12] Perhaps the most prominent statement of the philosophy of Aryan physics can be found in Lenard’s Deutsche Physik, published in four volumes during 1936 and 1937.[note 13] Aryan physics proclaimed the applied and experimental over the theoretical. Applied physics was German; theoretical physics was Jewish. Technology was preferred over theory. Non-Jewish German theoretical physicists such as Heisenberg were chastised for bringing a Jewish spirit to German physics, yet statements from the Peenemünde group tend to confirm the failure of Aryan physics to become an influential part of German physics, even in the darkest days of the push toward ideological conformity. Physicist Ernst Stuhlinger observes,

When Lenard’s book, Deutsche Physik, was published, it met with head shaking and amazement among colleagues. We young physicists read a few pages out of curiosity, and then put it aside. I remember that Hans Geiger once said to a group of students, “This is all very strange. One cannot do away with the facts of physics just like that. I'm so surprised that Lenard should have digressed so far; he used to be a very fine experimenter.” Under the circumstances, it was very courageous for Geiger to say that much. We students got the message. I remember that I was very glad to have this assurance and confirmation of my own thoughts.

Stuhlinger goes on to confirm Alan Beyerchen’s observations that Aryan physics was very ill-defined, and fraught with internal contradictions.[note 14]

The names connected with Aryan physics were Lenard, Stark, Tomaschek and a few hot-headed students, but that was an extremely small minority among the hundreds of physicists who were active at universities at the time. Lenard, Stark and Tomaschek were really ostracized. Physics was taught as usual, with Einstein’s relativity, Bohr’s atom model, Heisenberg’s and Schrodinger’s quantum mechanics, Pauli’s principle, etc.

Gerhard Reisig, who was in the field of engineering physics, dismissed Lenard and Stark as being thought of as eccentric old men, opportunists seeking to resurrect their declining careers.[note 15] Georg von Tisenhausen thinks they had virtually no influence in the practical or intellectual activities of engineers. In his words, “Aryan Physics? I never heard of it."[note 16]

Hence, as the 1930s drew to a close, we see an interesting phenomenon among the community of German scientists and technologists. Large numbers of an old intellectual elite had been dethroned, while a new and emergent elite of physicists and engineers was assuming command. Pressures for ideological conformity were apparent, even to the most politically detached, but an ideological physics was destined to be stillborn.

The historical trap was set. The engineers and technicians bound for Peenemünde were absorbed by new and seemingly unlimited opportunities. The rush of excitement and the promise to be able to pursue the long-held dream of opening thc door to the cosmos dimmed their already feeble propensity to question political policy. The Peenemünde team was lured into a political and moral lethargy that would later be enforced by the powers of a police state.

The Jewish physicists who were destined to become a major component of the yet-to-be Los Alamos team were busily directing their efforts toward the rescue of their families and colleagues. What little time was left was spent urging the British and American governments to prepare to develop the ultimate weapon against Fascism: the atomic bomb. Those who were to be at the core of the Los Alamos team were made callous by the human outrages occurring around them. In the process, their concerns for survival surpassed the moral questions raised by a weapon of mass destruction.

Social scientist have long held that moral questions can only be understood within the context of their times. Perhaps that is why so many members of these two technical teams answer the probes of modern moral investigators with the response, “You just don’t understand.”

The War Years

The Peenemünde research facility became fully operational in August 1939. It was not until April 1943 that the Los Alamos atomic development facility was opened. Some comparisons of these two major research and development facilities are useful in understanding the behavior of those who worked at each. Both facilities were secret and isolated. Peenemünde had nearly 6,000 operational personnel at its height, the Los Alamos facility had a total workforce of nearly 5,000. Both facilities were heavily dependent upon support facilities in other parts of their respective countries. In Germany, these support facilities were increasingly disabled by Allied attacks as the war progressed. In the United States, the support facilities were secure and increasingly grew more productive. Peenemünde itself came under direct bombing attack in August 1943. Los Alamos never had such concerns. The mission at Peenemünde was open-ended and growing. It was assigned to develop, produce and supply an increasing variety of rocket-propelled vehicles for military use. The mission at Los Alamos was singular and finite: produce an atomic weapon. Both Peenemünde and Los Alamos operated under a military commander: General Walter Dornberger in Germany and General Leslie R. Groves in the United States. Both project directors were civilian scientists — Dr. Wernher von Braun and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer — and both were natives of their respective countries. Peenemünde operated in the totalitarian environment of war-ravaged Germany, whereas Los Alamos operated in the more open and democratic environment of a secure United States. Because collaborative scientific and technological enterprises require a great deal of free discussion and exchange of ideas, both facilities seemed to maintain a good deal of internal freedom with regards to discussion of the best strategies to achieve their stated mission. Open discussion of other applications of technologies, most specifically space travel, were forbidden at Peenemünde, and political discussions were most certainly forbidden, while at Los Alamos the political ramifications of the work were an open but infrequently discussed topic.

From the date the Peenemünde facility became fully operational to the date of the first successful A-4 test, October 3, 1942, there was a lapse of three years and two months. From the date that Los Alamos opened to the first successful test of the atomic bomb at the Trinity Site, July 1945, there was a lapse of two years and three months. The time from the first successful A-4 test launch in October 1942 to its first successful military use in September 1944 was one year and eleven months. The less complex V-l weapon was ready some two and a half months earlier and was first used on the battlefield on June 13, 1944. The time from the test of the atomic weapon at the Trinity site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, to its first use in warfare at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was a mere three weeks. Credible analysts estimate that the German V-weapon effort cost approximately three billion war-time US dollars. The Manhattan atomic bomb project cost approximately two billion dollars.[note 17]

While it is impossible to judge with quantitative certainty, the general conditions under which the two research and development facilities existed, and the missions they were assigned to accomplish, suggest that the task faced by the Peenemünde group was more difficult than that faced at Los Alamos. The industrial, university, and governmental support facilities that were necessary for the completion of the Manhattan Project were enormous, and they were located in a country that was not under direct attack. The administrative and production challenges faced by Peenemünde, being open-ended and constantly subject to disruptions through enemy attack, were far greater than those of Los Alamos.

The Peenemünde facility first came under direct attack with the Allied aerial bombardment of August 17, 1943. Although the Royal Air Force specifically intended its mission to kill as many of the expert technical and administrative personnel as possible, in fact only two key figures were killed, Walter Thiel and Erich Walther. Seven hundred and thirty-three other individuals died in the raids, and major damage was done to personnel housing and development works. Following the Peenemünde bombing, systematic raids were launched against supporting assembly plants and hydrogen peroxide production facilities. Peenemünde itself was not bombed again for almost a year, and never with the same intensity. This was because intelligence reports indicated that much of the testing and production had been moved elsewhere.[note 18] Helmut Zoike, the engineer at the control panel who actually launched the first human object in space, stated in our interviews that “The bombings came too late to hinder the A-4 development, this was already done. The raids were, also, too early to interfere with deployment. It really came at a very opportune time from the German perspective."[note 19] Thus, the actual raid on Peenemünde was not as crippling to the program as the continuing raids on support facilities.

It was, nevertheless, in an increasing atmosphere of desperation that the decision was made to move rocket production underground into the infamous Mittelwerk facility. This site was the location of an old gypsum mine in the Harz Mountains in north-west Germany. The conversion from mine to missile-production facility was a harsh and dirty task, performed under intense pressure, and using forced labor from a mixture of criminals, homosexuals, prisoners of war and political prisoners. Von Braun described the conditions of the labor force at Mittelwerk as “horrible;” Albert Speer used the term “barbarous;” and Arthur Rudolph calls the treatment of prisoners “primitive” and “awful.” Prisoners were literally worked to death or exposed to such unsanitary conditions that they died of disease. Those who resisted faced summary execution. Bodies were disposed of in a local crematory. Only eleven months after General Dornberger had proclaimed the A-4 vehicle to have opened the doorway to the heavens, it was being produced in the dungeons of hell.[note 20]

The universal question asked by students of the history of technology and ethics comes here. Did the Peenemünde personnel know the composition of the Mittelwerk task force? Clearly, they did. Were they personally terrified, or did they shrug off the barbarities because it was the job that mattered? It has been their position that it was thc former: their welfare and the welfare of their families depended on their compliance with the situation as it was. Given the tyranny and the desperation of the Nazi regime, this seems a distinct possibility. Social science has no power to read the minds and motives of human beings. We can describe events, describe the behavior of individuals in those events, and record their explanations of their behavior. It is up to the student of history to interpret his or her acceptance of those explanations.

Rudolph, and others at Mittelwerk, were frequently reminded that they too could join the forced labor teams if they did not fully cooperate with the SS authorities. Previously, in March 1943, Wernher and Magnus von Braun, Klaus Riedel, Helmut Grottrup and Hannes Luhrsen had been arrested by the (Gestapo at Peenemünde and charged with treason for describing the A-4 as a space vehicle rather than a weapon of war. Obviously, this arrest was not over mere semantics, but was designed as a warning to key members of the team that nobody was immune from the force of SS control.

The madness of war became complete. German atrocities at home and in occupied territories mushroomed. This was followed by the growing insensitivity to human suffering on the part of the Allies. In July 1943, the mostly civilian city of Hamburg was fire-bombed, and in one night 45,000 Germans died — most of them old people, women and children.[note 21] Other cities such as Cologne and Dresden were to suffer the same fate. Hostility had escalated into mutual barbarity. With these developments, the world’s first generation of space vehicles changed their name from A-weapons, which innocuously meant assembly, to V-weapons, in which the V meant, ominously “vengeance” (Vergeltung).

By comparison, the scene surrounding the isolated mesa that was home to the Los Alamos laboratory appeared almost serene. Here, desperation was nowhere apparent on the landscape, but, rather, was hidden in the emotions and fears of the men who labored frantically against a possibility that proved eventually to be a phantasm. These scientist worked with a fair certainty that Japan would not be able to develop the atomic bomb, but there was much less certainty about what the German potential might be. In their minds, the real enemy was Germany. Japan was a force to be dealt with after the demise of Hitler was assured. Emotional responses to the Third Reich were unusually intense because of the personal associations that many at Los Alamos had with the Third Reich. Several, including Oppenheimer, had relatives who were suffering and dying under Nazi persecution. Whether they shared personal experience or not — Jewish, non-Jewish, American-born and foreign-born — all at Los Alamos were melded together into a coordinated and determined force to produce the agent of mass destruction that they knew was possible.

Motivations had been internalized. These men did not work under the threat of midnight arrest. There was no possibility of being assigned to forced-labor parties. They worked voluntarily for a cause they considered essential. This, too, made the task at Los Alamos easier. There were reservations expressed and even some resignations, but the team as a whole had an esprit de corps that was remarkable.

Interestingly, from a behavioral science point of view, the positive esprit de corps at Los Alamos had its counterpart in a sort of “negative” esprit de corps at Peenemünde and Mittelwerk. Dr. Paul Figge, who was a major figure in A-4 production, described it thus:[note 22]

The bombings hardly affected progress on the A-4 program, because our enthusiasm still remained high to accomplish the goal. So actually, the more difficult the conditions became, the more the enthusiasm grew to finish what we had begun. “Enjoy the war — the peace will be terrible” was the motto.

Caught up as they were in the enthusiasm for their task, members of the Los Alamos team, as well as their Peenemünde counterparts, were to come to accept and take pleasure in the pernicious products of their science and technology. No member of the Los Alamos team, during the course of his work, ever had to witness a summary execution. No member ever lost one of his immediate family or a close colleague to enemy bombing. No member of the Los Alamos team ever had to look into the wretchedly pitiful face of a slave laborer dying in the process of being forced to serve a cause he detested. Yet the war culture prevailed. Its all-consuming power instilled into the Los Alamos team a growing callousness that effectively precluded deep moral and ethical reflection on the ultimate consequences of their deeds.

Donald A. Strickland, in his study of the atomic scientists' political movement of 1945 and 1946, notes that at Los Alamos there was “no political arousal before the end of the war, save for a few private conversations.” He calls this an “arresting” fact, considering that the politically active Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard were frequent visitors to this remote site.[note 23] The drive to achieve the task was too intense for reflection. It was after the grisly weapon was a fait accompli that the ponderous questions of morality were asked.

Fermi moved to Los Alamos in September 1944. Although he was technically an enemy alien until his American citizenship was granted in 1945, he was allowed to become a lab director. Bohr, on the other hand, had incurred the severe displeasure of Winston Churchill over his insistence that the Soviets be informed as to the existence of the weapon and invited to collaborate in a scheme of international control. Bohr had further made unauthorized disclosures about the project to Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter. It has been reported that, for this, Churchill was on the edge of ordering Bohr’s arrest.[note 24] Roosevelt adopted Churchill’s position and became extremely cool toward Bohr. Despite these political difficulties, Bohr was allowed a major consultancy role at Los Alamos. These two cases seem to demonstrate that the practical matter of building the bomb was placed above political questions about those who were building it. It is not likely that the same lenience would have been extended to the key technical personnel on the Peenemünde team.

While most at Los Alamos simply lost themselves in the task at hand, there were more glaring examples of growing insensitivity to humanitarian considerations. From the time Edward Teller arrived, he set his sights not on the mission at hand, but the even greater destructive potential of the hydrogen bomb, or the “super,” as he almost affectionately called it. Teller eventually refused to work under Hans Bethe on further calculations concerning mere fission weapons, and was given his own small group at the laboratory for investigation of the, development of a thermonuclear weapon.[note 25]

In addition to this minority thrust toward overkill, there was a disquieting theoretical possibility that the ignition of the fission weapon might just produce enough heat to cause a reaction between deuterium and nitrogen, and thereby set fire to the world’s atmosphere. On hearing this, Oppenheimer immediately set Hans Bethe to work checking Teller’s initial calculations. Was this, the ultimate catastrophe, really possible? For the first but not the last time in history, human beings had to make a decision as to whether a task at hand was worth the risk — albeit infinitesimal — of ending our collective existence. The logic we used then may give us a hint of the logic we shall have to use again.

According to Teller, the matter was firmly laid to rest in 1942, when some of his initial calculations were found to be in error. As Peter Goodchild notes in his classic study of Oppenheimer, several scientists were, over the next three years, to make the same calculations as Teller; and because Teller’s initial calculations had been kept secret, they too came to Oppenheimer with great alarm.[note 26] Calculations were checked and rechecked right up to 1945, shortly before the first test detonation at the Trinity site. Rumors of the potential total human catastrophe had become so widespread among all levels of personnel at Los Alamos that the authorities drew up contingency plans for psychiatrists at the Oak Ridge facility to be flown to Los Alamos should panic ensue. Arthur H. Compton has said that his group calculated a three-in-a-million chance of destroying the world, and that was an acceptable risk. Edward Teller, on the other hand, insists that they were able to dismiss the possibility entirely. At that time such statements of high confidence seemed most reassuring.[note 27] Looking back from the perspective of a generation that has heard similar confident risk assessments before events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the space shuttle Challenger, those expressions of high confidence sound more hollow.

A final observation on the darker face of Los Alamos is now in order. The prevailing pathos of the general culture had affected all who labored there, but perhaps the extent to which it had changed basic human values is best illustrated by J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. Based on information recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Joseph Rotblat, a physicist who assisted in bomb design, and one of the few who left prior to project completion, relates the following story. In a letter dated May 25, 1943, from Oppenheimer to Enrico Fermi, the issue of using radioactive materials to poison German food supplies was raised. Oppenheimer was asking Fermi whether he could produce enough strontium without letting too many in on the secret. Oppenheimer continued, “I think we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men.” Rotblat offers the following observation, “I am sure that in peacetime these same scientists would have viewed such a plan as barbaric; they would not have contemplated it even for a moment. Yet, during the war, it was considered quite seriously, and I presume, abandoned only because it was technically unfeasible."[note 28]

Richard Rhodes comments on the same incident as follows, “There is no better evidence anywhere in the record of the increasing bloody-mindedness of the Second World War than that Robert Oppenheimer, a man who professed at various times in his life to be dedicated to Ahisma (the Sanskrit word that means doing no harm or hurt …) could write with enthusiasm of preparations for the mass poisoning of as many as five hundred thousand human beings."[note 29]

After The War

Their accomplishment in the Second World War made the members of the Los Alamos and Peenemünde teams into legends. Their actions and statements after the war shaped and moulded the public perceptions of these legends, yet the environments that the two groups faced after the war were radically different. It is those differences that have done much to shape our postwar evaluations of them. Members of the teams at Peenemünde and Mittelwerk fled their posts as the Allied forces closed their grip around Germany in early 1945. They arranged a rendezvous at a small Austrian village named Reutte. There they surrendered to the American forces, and their journey to the United States began. The code name Project Paperclip was given to this movement. Some 118 individuals comprised the first group of Peenemünde personnel coming to the USA. Later, several hundred additional individuals, including family and colleagues, joined them. One member of the core group, Helmut Grottrup, decided to remain in what was to become East Germany and work with the Soviet missile program. A small cadre of other German rocket personnel joined him and were later transferred to the Soviet Union.

From the time von Braun and his group surrendered until some years after their arrival at Fort Bliss, Texas, they remained, as Ordway and Sharpe put it, “prisoners of peace."[note 30] They were allowed substantial freedom of movement and association, but they were subject to governmental restrictions and objects of continued surveillance by the FBI and other government agencies. Although acceptance by the American public was generally polite, some degree of suspicion and hostility was occasionally apparent. In contrast, the key figures at Los Alamos, their mission completed for the most part, sought to leave weapons work and return to academic environments. They did so with an enhanced prestige that made them instant scientific celebrities wherever they went. They existed in an atmosphere of honor and respect, and they were encouraged to express their views freely on what they had done and what it might mean for our future.

There was pressure on the atomic scientists to help us think about the new issues we faced in the nuclear age. Their academic settings made this possible. Their organization into politically active groups and their launch of the influential Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were reflections of this type of environment. But for those who had come from Peenemünde, conditions were very different. Between 1945 and 1950, there was little public discussion of their role or their activities. They worked for thc US army on the remote missile test ranges of Texas and New Mexico and their actions were shrouded in secrecy. Occasional announcements of V-2 launching were made, but very little was said about the German team that assisted. The United States government was still too uncertain about the possible public reaction to play up the presence of these men from Peenemünde.

It was not until the early 1950s that the public began to learn of the activities of these men. Shifting as they did from the sparsely populated regions of Texas and New Mexico to the more populated regions surrounding Huntsville, Alabama, they came increasingly to public attention. The focus of publicity was on Dr. Wernher von Braun. His charismatic manner and his ability to capture public attention were immediately apparent. He began to publish books such as Across the Space Frontier, Man on the Moon, and Mars Project in the early 1950s. As these works came to public attention, the Cold War intensified. With the advent of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, in October 1957, attention focused on the Germans at Huntsville. The USA increasingly began to look to them to save its international prestige by answering the Soviet challenge with its own successful orbital vehicle. After dismal failures by the Navy in its Vanguard program, von Braun’s team at Huntsville was given the task and, on January 31, 1958, the Redstone rocket lifted the USA’s first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit. The space age for the United States had now really begun, and Dr. Wernher von Braun was its leader.

The passions of the late 1950s and 1960s were assertive and not reflective. This was mirrored in von Braun’s writings, which became commonplace in the scientific and popular press. These. dealt almost entirely with the prospects of new hardware in space and new missions for space vehicles. The more sensitive subject of science and its relation to political and foreign policy issues was almost never discussed. By contrast, the atomic scientists made such issues their central focus.

Suspicions concerning the historical role of the Peenemünde team were occasionally expressed in public dialogue in the late 1960s and 1970s, but they were seldom answered by the team itself. Their continued affiliation with the Army, and later NASA, dampened any thoughts of embroiling themselves in controversial questions. After the successful Apollo Lunar Program there was a feeling among several of von Braun’s close associates that he was a victim of lingering prejudice against Germans by not being considered for the top job at NASA. His resignation from NASA in 1972 was rumored to be a result of such prejudices but, in traditional low-key style, he and his colleagues shied away from discussion of such allegations. When we sought clarification on this point for our project, Stuhlinger, Reisig and von Tiesenhausen all confirmed that they felt prejudice was a factor. But all agreed that it was more than just prejudice. As Stublinger pointed out,[note 31]

At the time when the first American satellite was planned, 1955-57, there were people who thought that an American satellite should be built by native Americans, not naturalized immigrants — who even had been enemies less than ten years earlier. That attitude was probably the real reason why the Navy-supported Vanguard, and not the Army-supported Explorer, was America’s satellite project for the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year. However, in my talks with large numbers of people who knew von Braun, it is clear that the true reason was neither von Braun’s background as a builder of rockets for the German Army, nor a lingering prejudice against Germans in general, but “very simple human jealousy.” Von Braun’s popularity was extraordinary, not only with the public and the news media, but also, with Congress. For some within the high ranks of NASA, this was just too much to bear.

Reisig noted that “We found out that Americans like success but not too much success."[note 32]

In a strange historical irony, the leaders of these two great scientific and technical teams met their final demise in much the same way. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s career with government came to an end with a denial of his security clearance because of past political associations. However, professional jealousy was also a key part of this decision. In the Oppenheimer case, the principal source of opposition has been identified as Edward Teller, who, in the words of Peter Goodchild, saw Oppenheimer as “a man of rival power and opposite persuasion."[note 33] Likewise, von Braun’s fate was sealed by the same combination of past political associations and professional rivalry. Oppenheimer received strong expressions of support from his colleagues and stirred much public debate. With von Braun, there was a minimum of public discussion. Right up until 1984, when the US Department of Justice completed its investigation of Dr. Arthur Rudolph and he chose to leave the country rather than face trial, the Peenemünde team avoided public controversy.

The news of the Rudolph affair shook the German group. Virtually all had now retired and were free to express themselves on events in Germany. Some did, but most felt that their best interest could be served by remaining silent. Indeed, many long decades of silence about the political winds that had constantly buffeted them throughout their careers had crippled their capacity for public expression about these issues. It was as if by spending a lifetime in difficult circumstances where silence was the seeming solution, when public expression was demanded they had no capacity for it. At this point, they as a group, their ranks now thinned by death and debility, stood wounded and demoralized. Their great goal of leading the moon race, though accomplished, had been followed not by respect but by what they perceived as a sense of public rejection.

Los Alamos and Peenemünde: A Reflection

Now, nearly 50 [sic] years after the last great war, emotions have not yet cooled enough to look dispassionately upon events of that epoch. The exile of Dr. Rudolph and some lingering pressures to investigate other members of the Peenemünde group attest to this fact. It is not the purpose of this article to attempt to assess guilt or innocence of any individual, or to try to place a moral judgment on either team. It is to place them side by side and note the points of similarity and thc points of contrast. In so doing, I have sought to show that both were the product of the peculiar and seemingly pathological forces of their time. Nearly 13,000 individuals died as a result of the machines built by the men of Peenemünde. This death toll was dwarfed by the 340,000 individuals who ultimately died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the context of those times, such numbers became mere abstractions in a cultural ambience that had come to accept the atrocity of mass annihilation. Today, perhaps, we can look at these figures with some sense of perspective.[note 34]

We may conclude from this contrasting viewpoint of these two great technological teams that human evaluations are not based on absolute deeds, but upon the relationship of those deeds to a larger cultural and historical context. The Los Alamos team stands as an honored and esteemed group to which individuals still proudly claim affiliation. The Peenemünde team, to this day, prefers a low profile and elicits a curious public response. As the remaining members of both teams now live out their final days, they must examine their own consciences, ponder their own products and judge their own role in history. Their experience has taught those of us who would pass judgment that technology in service to war and its weapons brings, to those who prepare such weapons, honor or disgrace based not upon the lethal impact of their work but upon the moral judgments that are defined by the victors and endured by the vanquished.

Notes and References

1. Editorial, The Huntsville (Ala.) Times, January 27, 1989.

2. The videotaped interviews are available through the library of the University of Alabama in Huntsville or the library of the United States Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville. The author would like to thank the following individuals for their willingness to participate in this project: Konrad K. Dannenberg, Jim Fagan, Rudolph Hermann, Otto Hirschler, Dieter K. Huzel, Fritz K Müller, Willibald Prasthofer, Eberhard Rees, Wernher K. Rosinski, Gerhard Reisig, Ernst Stuhlinger, Georg von Tiesenhausen and Helmut Zoike. This is a revised and expanded edition of a paper presented at the 38th Annual Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, Brighton, United Kingdom, October 1987.

3. The nature and history of the early German rocket societies has been detailed in Frank H. Winter, Prelude to the Space Age: Thc Rocket Societies, 1924-1940 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983).

4. For a more detailed account of this historical matter, see Frederick Ordway, and Mitchell R. Sharpe, The Rocket Team (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), pp. 16-20.

5. As stated by Dr. Georg von Tiesenhausen in personal correspondence to the author, February 1989.

6. As stated by Dr. Gerhard Reisig in interview, February 1989.

7. These figure are reported. Alan D. Beyerchen, Scientists Under Hitler: Polities and the Physics Community in the Third Reich (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 200.

8. As stated by Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger in personal correspondence to the author clarifying points in the video interview, February 1989.

9. Ernst Stuhlinger, source cited above (note 8).

10. A. Beyerchen, Scientists Under Hitler, cited above (note 7), p. 201.

11. Richard Rhodes, Thc Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 113.

12. A. Beyerchen, Scientists Under Hitler, cited above, chaps. 5 and 6.

13. Philipp Lenard, Deutsche Physik, 4 vols. (Munich; J.F. Lehmanns, 1936).

14. E. Stuhlinger, source cited above (note 8).

15. G. Reisig, source cited above (note 6).

16. G. von Tisenhausen, source cited above (note 5).

17. F. Ordway and M. Sharpe, The Rocket Team, cited above (note 4), p. 242.

18. F. Ordway and M. Sharpe, The Rocket Team, cited above, pp. 121-124.

19. As stated by Helmut Zoike in the video interviews: “Our Future in Space: Messages from the Beginning” (Library, University of Alabama in Huntsville and the archives of the United States Space and Rocket Center).

20. This refers to General Dornberger’s talk on the evening of October 3, 1942, the date of the first successful A-4 launch, in which he stated that “We have invaded space with our rocket for the first time.” See F. Ordway and M. Sharpe, The Rocket Team, cited above, p. 42.

21. R. Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, cited above (note 11), p. 474.

22. F. Ordway and M. Sharpe, The Rocket Team, cited above, p. 69.

23. Donald A. Strickland, Scientists in Politics: The Atomic Scientists Movement, 1945-46 (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 34-35.

24. Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology (New York: Equinox Books, 1972), p. 902.

25. Peter Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (New York: Fromm International, 1985), p. 105.

26. P. Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer, cited above (note 25), pp. 63-4.

27. P. Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer, cited above, p. 63.

28. Joseph Rotblat, “Learning the Bomb Project,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 47, N. 7, 1985, p. 18.

29. R. Rhodes, Thc Making of the Atomic Bomb, cited above, p. 57.

30. F. Ordway and M. Sharpe, The Rocket Team, cited above, p. 362.

31. E. Stuhlinger, source cited above (note 8).

32. G. Reisig, source cited above (note 6).

33. P. Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer, cited above, p. 252, indicates the rivalry between Oppenheimer and Teller.

34. These figures were obtained from F. Ordway and M. Sharpe, The Rocket Team, cited above, pp. 734, 740. Various studies produce different numbers, but these seem to be approaching the norm of estimates.

About the author

Donald E. Tarter holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Tennessee, and is the author of numerous articles published in scholarly periodicals. Now retired, for years he taught at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, specializing on the social impact of technology. This essay is reprinted, with permission, from the anthology History of Technology (London: Mansell, 1992), vol. 14, edited by Graham Hollister-Short and Frank A.J.L. James. Publication of this essay was suggested by Dr. Robert H. Countess, who knew Donald Tarter when they both taught at the University of Alabama in Huntsville during the 1980s.