Is It Wrong to Admire Nazi Rocket Scientists?

23/07/2015 17:33 BST | Updated 23/07/2016 10:59 BST

"'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."

- Tom Lehrer, mathematician and songwriter

I have for a long time, perhaps to my shame, been an admirer of Dr. von Braun. The greatest developer of rockets in the twentieth century was also a leading Nazi scientist at whose hands lie 20,000 Jewish lives. It is arguable, and it has been argued, the extent to which he was responsible for these deaths. Many at the time made Faustian pacts, in the name of some ideal, and caused needless suffering. But there are those, judged by their practical achievements, like Wehrmacht generals Rommel and Guderian, not tainted by their association. It was Werner Heisenberg, the admired quantum physicist, who worked on the Nazi nuclear program, imagine the result if Hiroshima and Nagasaki became Moscow and London. Yet Dr. Heisenberg remains unscathed by his association.

Naturally you can admire the skill and leadership of Dr. von Braun, without him America might never have landed on Moon, and the conquest of space would have been left to the animal farm republic that was the Soviet Union. But it still bothers me, as it would any emotionally healthy person, how do I reconcile my love for the scientific achievements of a man whose work killed so many. The answer, I assume, lie in the methods and scientific validity of his work.

There is one story from the camps, a young boy, of eleven or twelve, tied down with a mechanised hammer that would strike his head every few seconds. Medicine has had a long and vicious battle over the usability of this data. But much opinion was summarised by the Chief Counsel for the prosecution at Nuremberg, Brigadier-General Telford Taylor, "a ghostly failure as well as a hideous crime ... Those experiments revealed nothing which civilized medicine can use."

The men of the V-2 however killed only as a means (through construction) as opposed to an end. Without the work of the Nazi rocket scientists we wouldn't have much of the space-based technology that we enjoy, such as communication satellites and weather analysis. Indeed much of their aim, and towards the end entirely their aim, was the peaceful exploration of space. They had inspired generations of children to put down self-interest and pursue the socially beneficial career of space travel.

The United States was under no burden of ethics when they, under Operation Paperclip, snatched and imported fifteen-hundred German scientists, technicians, and engineers. They were needed in the fight against Stalin and conveniently lost any Nazi pasts or mass-murderous tendencies. Of these included the rocket scientists of Hitler's V-2 program, and the human experimenters of the death camps. The United States couldn't live without the benefits of their work and made the pragmatic choice of the future benefits over the past decisions. And they had achieved so much, they inspired the world of tomorrow, the home of tomorrow, the city of tomorrow. They sold a dream, and maybe they sold me, I know they sold to millions of others.

I think we should look at each scientist on an individual basis, I remain in admiration of Dr. Wernher von Braun. He was brought up in a typically apolitical Prussian background and he likely never supported the National Socialists, but he never opposed them. Later in his life he admitted some guilt, but never took responsibility. Dr von Braun, like many other scientists of the Third Reich, remain contentious figures. For the interested reader I would suggest Operation Paperclip by Ms. Annie Jacobsen or Mr. Bob Ward's Dr Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun.

It's easy to admire those who stood against the Nazi regime but it's harder to admire those who were merely cogs in a totalitarian war machine.

Does anyone else have a secret admiration, or am I alone?