Wernher von Braun

Wernher von BraunWernher von Braun (1912-1977) was one of the world’s top space scientists. With a PhD from the University of Berlin, Wernher von Braun was a leading German rocket engineer, developing the famed V-2 rocket during World War II. He migrated to the United States in 1945, becoming a naturalized US citizen in 1955. He directed US guided missile development for several years and then became Director of NASA.

Wernher von Braun was also a practicing Lutheran, active in church and Christian life. In the foreword to an anthology on creation and design in nature, he gave this testimony:

Manned space flight is an amazing achievement, but it has opened for mankind thus far only a tiny door for viewing the awesome reaches of space. An outlook through this peephole at the vast mysteries of the universe should only confirm our belief in the certainty of its Creator. I find it as difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science.

The above is an excerpt from Men of Science, Men of God by Henry M. Morris. Copyright 1982, 1985 by Henry M. Morris. Used by permission.

Wernher von Braun and Nazism

Some have asked why CSHF honors Wernher von Braun, considering his association with the Nationalische Sozialische Deutsche Arbeiters Partei (Nazis) before and during the Second World War. Concerning that membership, von Braun swore to this:

In 1939, I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time I was already Technical Director at the Army Rocket Center at Peenemünde (Baltic Sea). The technical work carried out there had, in the meantime, attracted more and more attention in higher levels. Thus, my refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activity.

Wernher von Braun did join the Nazi Party in 1939.

Michael J. Neufeld, historian for the Smithsonian Museum, says this of von Braun and his work at Peenemünde, center of German rocket science:

Von Braun, like other Peenemünders, was assigned to the local group in Karlshagen; there is no evidence that he did more than send in his monthly dues. But he is seen in some photographs with the party’s swastika pin in his lapel – it was politically useful to demonstrate his membership.

Wernher von Braun seems not to have questioned the regime around him, and cheerfully accepted the money and the leadership of rocket projects. That changed in 1944, and for one reason above all: the war was not going very well. Realizing this, von Braun blurted out, in an unguarded moment, that it was too bad that he was working on a missile, and not a spacecraft. That was suspicious enough. Add to it that Heinrich Himmler suspected von Braun of having Communist sympathies, that he was a qualified pilot, and he had access to an aircraft. The Gestapo arrested him. They detained him for two weeks without a formal charge until at last Reichsminster Albert Speer persuaded the Führer to release him.

In the springtime of 1945, with the Russians closing in, Wernher von Braun and his planning staff decided to surrender to the Americans. The US government expunged von Braun’s Nazi and related memberships from the war record, and he started “clean.”

The facts about his attitude before his surrender are nearly impossible to sort out. Wernher von Braun himself said either that he never saw the slave labor at the V-2 plant in Peenemünde, or once tried to protest against something he had seen, only to be told to mind his own business. Rumors—without independent corroboration—have him standing by and taking an attitude similar to Saul of Tarsus “holding the coats” at the stoning of Stephen before the Light on the Damascus Road struck him. If that is true, then it is a laboratory illustration of moral hazard. This particular hazard afflicts any scientist who does any scientific work for the government. This is particularly true of work on weapons, especially for a totalitarian government. Why Wernher von Braun did not simply step out, as Albert Einstein did, no man can say—unless it’s because Einstein was a (non-observant) Jew and von Braun a Lutheran.

For further details, see this entry in Wikipedia.

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