Anyone interested in the history of space exploration will be familiar with the name of Wernher Von Braun and with the main points of his biography. They will know that Von Braun was a German aristocrat, SS officer, and scientist. They will know that he led the Nazi’s rocket development programme, designing the V-2 rockets which terrorized London towards the end of World War Two. They will also know that Von Braun and his team were spirited away to the United Sates at the end of the war, absolved of any wrong-doing, and established in a Texas research facility. Von Braun went on to make an irreplaceable contribution to the American space programme, including the design of the Saturn V rockets that propelled the Apollo moon landings.
What the amateur space historian might not know, and I certainly didn’t until I read John Higgs’ book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, is that in the mid-1950s, Von Braun made three films on space exploration for Disney Studios, episodes in their television series, Walt Disney’s Disneyland. According to Higgs, this was ‘an effort to increase public support for space research’ (which was to remain in the doldrums until the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik 1 satellite).
The first two episodes, ‘Man in Space’ and ‘Man and the Moon’, were aired in 1955. The third, ‘Mars and Beyond’, appeared in 1957. Walt Disney himself introduced ‘Man and Space’, and spoke of combining ‘the tools of our trade with the knowledge of the scientists to give a factual picture of the latest plans for man’s newest adventure’. An excerpt from ‘Man in Space’ can be viewed on YouTube, with von Braun appearing every inch the suave, aristocratic scientist.
Von Braun had been interested in rocket science and space travel since childhood. Although entitled to call himself a Freiherr, or Baron, he was no aristocratic dilettante. By the time World War Two broke out he knew more about the field than any man on Earth. He was also a member of the Nazi party and an SS Sturmbannführer, the equivalent of a major. It was, of course the only way to get on in Germany at that time, and the only way for von Braun to pursue his research. Still, when he became chief scientist at the Mittelwerk factory he must have known what he was getting into. This underground plant was where the V-2 rockets were produced. It had been excavated by slave labour and slave labour worked its production lines. Higgs describes it thus:
Over twenty thousand slaves died constructing the factory and the V-2. Mass slave hangings were common, and it was mandatory for all the workforce to witness them. Typically twelve workers would be arbitrarily selected and hung by their necks from a crane, their bodies left dangling for days. Starvation of slave workers was deliberate, and in the absence of drinking water they were expected to drink from puddles…Von Braun himself was personally involved in acquiring slave labour from concentration camps such as Buchenwald.
Why wasn’t Von Braun tried and executed for war crimes after the collapse of Third Reich? Because the Americans wanted to use his expertise to develop their own rocket programme. Records of his war-time activities were destroyed or suppressed, and Von Braun was shipped off to make a new life in the United States. And then Walt Disney came calling. I can’t imagine that Walt knew much about Wernher’s past, but even if he did, the main enemy now was the Soviet Union. The story goes that when the young von Braun met the Swiss physicist, Auguste Piccard, in 1930, he told him, ‘You know, I plan on travelling to the Moon at some time’. Though he didn’t make it there himself, he lived long enough to see twelve American astronauts get there in a rocket of his design.
Von Braun died an honoured and respected US citizen in June 1977. He never had a Disneyland ride named after him, but he did get a biopic, albeit not from Disney Studios. In the film I Aim at the Stars, he was played by Curt Jurgens. I’ve never seen the film but even when it was released back in 1960, it was viewed by many as a whitewash. Von Braun’s is an astonishing life story, and in its own way, a very American one. In the space of ten years, he had gone from being a senior SS officer to a children’s television presenter. By the time another ten years had elapsed, he had an office at NASA and was a leader of the Apollo programme. That’s quite a story arc.
[Photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]