I am not an apologist for Wernher von Braun. While he was an excellent manager and a smart engineer, he was also an opportunist and a shameless self-promoter. However, I feel it is simplistic to condemn him as a war criminal due to the atrocities at Dora and the Mittelwerk, where von Braun’s creation, the A-4 rocket—better known by its military designation V-2—was built during the last years of World War II. One would then have to consider the aircraft designers at Avro and Boeing to be directly responsible for the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo. (It is not my intent to suggest that they are.)
von Braun was a space pioneer who attempted to exploit the German army in order to finance the development of the first rocket to reach beyond the atmosphere. In doing so he found himself exploited by the Nazis, and by the time the V-2 reached the living hell known as the Mittelwerk the production of the rocket, and the means by which it was produced, were well beyond von Braun’s control. At that point he did the smartest thing one can do in a totalitarian regime: he kept his head down and his mouth shut. That he did not later own up to atrocities sparked by his creation was not, in my opinion, amoral or disingenuous. von Braun merely did not consider himself responsible.
Piszkiewicz, however, seems to. His book is full of unsubtle aspersions such as the following quote about von Braun: “Looking for motives in a man’s soul is like trying to see what is at the bottom of a deep and dark river. There are secrets crawling through the bottom ooze, but they are slippery and inclined to wiggle away with the current.” The image is that of a muck-feeding eel. Even the cover of this book is leading: for one, the subtitle conveys obvious bias. For another, the photograph shows von Braun striking an odd pose in a shoulder-and-arm cast after having broken both in a car accident. Piszkiewicz twice mentions this pose, calling it a “mysterious” and “awkward salute.” He seems to be saying it could almost be mistaken for a half-assed Nazi salute; perhaps this is meant to imply von Braun was a half-assed Nazi.
Piszkiewicz frequently speculates on von Braun’s motivations and generally attributes them to a belief in and support of Nazism. His sources rarely, if ever, support these claims. Though von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and an honourary officer in the SS, he is never cited as espousing Nazi views and only used his rank when necessary to protect his engineering team and their technological documents. Piszkiewicz has set out in search of the devil in Wernher von Braun and has come up short. Though the story he tells is an interesting one, his prose is often cut-and-dried, his similes are facile, and he calls ironic that which is merely poetic. Ultimately I only finished reading the book out of fairness for this review.
A much more balanced and informative account of the Peenemünde years is The Rocket and the Reich by Michael Neufeld, World War II curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Those interested in the day-to-day horror and brutality of the Mittelwerk from a survivor’s perspective should refer to Planet Dora by Jean Michel.