Peenemünde’s Legacy II

The missile’s psychological and material impact on the Allied war effort was equally unimpressive. Although no one should dismiss the terrible effects of individual V-2 hits, which at their worst killed hundreds of people, outside of East London and Antwerp the missile was little more than a nuisance. Only the onset of the V-1 campaign in June-July 1944 produced popular disquiet in Britain, and that was mastered by the end of the summer, when anti-aircraft defenses became efficient. One of the ironies of the Luftwaffe’s “buzz bomb” (which cost a fraction of a V-2) was that not only did its noisiness create more terror, the fact that it could be shot down diverted much more Allied effort into stopping it. Since there was no defense against the ballistic missile, and the numbers launched were much smaller (3,200, as against 22,400), the Allies expended considerably fewer resources on A-4 countermeasures, mostly for attacks on launch and production sites. In the last analysis, the V-1 was no “wonder weapon” either, but the disjuncture between total expenditure and results was not quite so large in that case. Yet it is clear that the Reich’s expenditure on both weapons—and on no less than four different anti-aircraft missiles—could have been much better directed elsewhere. By the estimate of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, V-weapons production in 1944–45 alone cost the Third Reich the equivalent of 24,000 fighters at a time when the annual aircraft production was only 36,000. In short, German missile development shortened the war, just as its advocates said it would, but in favor of the Allies.

Inaccuracy was one of the main reasons why German missiles were so ineffective. The V-2 could barely hit a giant city with any certainty, the V-1 was even worse, and Wasserfall and the other anti-aircraft missiles were never deployed because guidance problems, above all else, paralyzed their development. As V-weapons historian Dieter Hölsken has argued, World War II electronics and computers were too primitive for missile technology to be cost-effective. Thus the guided missile was not “too late” to change the course of the war, but rather was “too early” to have any significant effect on it—an important insight that also explains the central paradox of Peenemünde’s missiles: complete short-term ineffectiveness versus profound long-term importance.

But Hölsken underestimates a technology that stands even more clearly at the roots of that paradox: nuclear weapons. The ICBM and its twin, the SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile), were the truly revolutionary military offspring of Peenemünde—and Los Alamos. Although the exploration of space may in the long run be more important to the future of humankind, the early space race itself would have been impossible without massive investments in rocket technology by the major powers. Those investments made sense only because of the revolutionary strategic implications of the nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missile. By contrast, the conventionally armed ballistic missile has remained militarily ineffective, in spite of minor propaganda successes in the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, and anti-aircraft, cruise, and other missiles with high-explosive warheads, however important, have not had anywhere near the transformative impact of the nuclear missile.

Thus the missile came “too early” because Peenemünde developed the technology before it had either the warhead or the electronics to make it effective. But that fact raises a second important question about the German Army rocket program: Why did the Third Reich invest so heavily in a technology that, in retrospect, had no hope of changing the course of the war? Part of the answer is obvious: The Germans clearly did convince themselves that the ballistic missile could change the course of the war. The question then becomes: What arguments were adduced to prove the war-winning capability of the ballistic missile, and what historical conditions allowed those arguments to prevail?

In the early years of the German Army rocket program, one man was primarily responsible for promoting the technology as decisive: Karl Becker. Without him, it is scarcely imaginable that the program would have gotten off the ground in the early 1930s. Becker was convinced that the surprise introduction of a radical new weapon could produce a stunning psychological blow against an enemy. As an artillery expert, he was also aware that the rocket-powered ballistic missile promised to break through all the technological limits of conventional gunnery. He probably dismissed the failure of the Paris Gun in 1918, a project on which he had worked, as the natural outcome for a weapon that was just not revolutionary enough to produce the desired effect. That was ironic, because the A-4 ended by becoming another, much more spectacular, Paris Gun. It shelled enemy cities with little political or military effect and was, like its spiritual ancestor, the product of a blinkered technological enthusiasm that displayed little insight into the psychology of the enemy.

There were a number of reasons why Becker’s views gained so much support within the Army during the 1930s. The man himself was highly competent, and he surrounded himself with excellent technical officers like Dornberger. His political views and his enthusiasm for the Nazis also speeded his rapid rise to the top of Army Ordnance after 1933. The important role of artillery in the World War I trench stalemate gave officers of that branch an unusual prominence in the Army leadership of the Third Reich as well, which left Becker’s rocket project with an even stronger constituency. For historical reasons the German Army officer corps was also noteworthy for combining high tactical and technical competence with disastrously short-sighted strategic thinking—precisely Becker’s problem.

The rapid growth of the Army rocket program in the 1930s was fostered further by structural and political conditions that were inherent to the Third Reich and its armed forces. Although the Army’s autonomy was steadily eroded by the Nazi regime, and strong ideological affinities existed between the officer corps and Nazism in any case, until the early years of the war the Army did have some room to administer its own affairs and to implement some of the armaments projects it wished to pursue, notably the ballistic missile, which the service’s highest leadership had accepted as decisive. The rapidity of rearmament, the weakness of interservice coordination, and the “polycratic” character of the regime as a collection of competing bureaucratic empires further reinforced the Army’s ability to go it alone on the ballistic missile, if it so desired. The interservice rocket alliance with Göring’s politically potent Luftwaffe did, however, provide an essential boost to the program, enabling the construction of Peenemünde in 1936–37.

The real technical achievements of the rocket group assembled by Becker, Dornberger, and von Braun were a further necessary condition for the program’s growth; increased investment in turn assured that more technological successes would be possible. Especially noteworthy is the revolutionary breakthroughs in key technologies that von Braun’s engineers achieved between 1936 and 1941. By building up a massive, secret in-house development capability and by adding university and corporate research and development resources after the outbreak of the war in 1939, Peenemünde was able to prove that it could make the guided missile a reality.

The conflicting demands of the war and the accelerating decline of the Army’s power in the Reich, however, brought the further growth of the rocket program into doubt after late 1939. Under the leadership of Army Commander-in-Chief von Brauchitsch, an acquaintance of Dornberger, the senior service therefore had to exploit what was left of its autonomy and political clout to protect its pet project. Despite innumerable and demoralizing priority crises, the Army leadership by and large succeeded in minimizing politically induced delays to A-4 development, if not to the construction of Dornberger’s ill-advised Peenemünde Production Plant. But the approval and execution of missile mass production came to depend more and more on the new Armaments Ministry and, above all, on the whims of the Führer.

Fortunately for the program, Albert Speer was a Peenemünde enthusiast. Even more important, after August 1941, and especially after November 1942, Adolf Hitler became increasingly infatuated with the A-4’s potential for rescuing Germany from the catastrophic strategic situation he had created. Believing that terror could be answered only with terror and that the regime needed to exact “vengeance” for the strategic bombing of Germany, Hitler readily accepted the arguments of Dornberger and other advisers that the British populace would easily succumb to psychological pressure. Army assertions that there was an international missile race that Germany could ill afford to lose—something that Becker and Dornberger had argued since the early 1930s—gave Hitler yet another reason to approve A-4 production in late 1942. Once that decision was made, no further arguments were really needed to justify the rocket program. Barring an insurmountable technical problem, the development, production, and deployment of the ballistic missile would become a fact, however illogical and “early” that might be.

The Führer’s endorsement, in combination with the Army’s decline, greatly strengthened the role of the Armaments Ministry, but it also brought another power into the program: the SS. Heinrich Himmler, in his relentless empire-building, tried and eventually succeeded in grabbing large pieces of the rocket program. But not all the impetus came from the SS. Problems finding a production labor force in the face of severe manpower shortages also drew the program’s senior managers quite voluntarily into the exploitation of SS concentration camp labor. That fact raises a final key question about the rocket program: How “Nazi” was it or, less crudely put, how much influence did the ideology and practices of National Socialism have on Peenemünde and the program?

The most “Nazi” aspect of the Army rocket program was, in fact, the employment of slave labor in A-4 production, even though the decision to do so was a 1943 improvisation. The exploitation of concentration camp prisoners in the war economy was entirely typical of the Third Reich after 1942, and it was rooted in a Nazi racial hierarchy that many Germans took for granted. By contrast, nothing in the original conception of the program or its technology had identifiably National Socialist ideological roots; Becker’s and Dornberger’s military ideas originated in the thinking of the ultraconservative Weimar officer corps, and their technological enthusiasm for rocketry was bolstered by the spaceflight movement of that era. The rapid adoption of Peenemünde’s technology and even its engineering management structures by foreign powers after World War II also suggests that slave labor was the one uniquely “Nazi” aspect of the rocket program.

Yet looking at the problem in this way would be misleading. The leap at such an early date from small-scale rocket research to a massive program would not have occurred without National Socialism; Peenemünde grew and flourished under Hitler because of the very nature of his regime. As a result, the rocket program built an institution and a weapon that made little sense, given the Reich’s limited research resources and industrial capacity—a perfect symbol of the Nazis’ pursuit of irrational goals with rational, technocratic means.

The top leaders of the program also compromised themselves thoroughly with National Socialism in order to achieve their technical goals. Immediately after the seizure of power, Becker and his subordinates quite willingly used the new police state to suppress the amateur rocket groups, with the aim of creating, in modern military parlance, a super-secret “black program.” Another case was Wernher von Braun, who essentially made a pact with the devil in order to build large rockets. Although he became disillusioned toward the end of the regime, that did not alter his basic motivations; after the war he bore proudly the nominal reasons for his arrest—putting spaceflight before military missile work—but there is no evidence that he ever stuck his neck out for the concentration camp prisoners before his arrest, nor did he show any obvious pangs of conscience about their fate until the 1960s and 1970s, when protests by French prisoner survivors forced him to confront the issue more directly.

The German Army rocket program was thus greatly influenced by—and integrated into—the structures and practices of the Nazi regime, whatever its ideological and technological origins. The ease with which its military and civilian leadership became involved in mass slavery in order to achieve technical and military ends is certainly one of Peenemünde’s most troublesome legacies to the world. But a much more ambiguous legacy was the big rocket itself. The A-4V-2 was and is the grandfather of all modern guided missiles and space boosters. Some of its successors—the Redstone, the Saturn V, the R-7 Semyorka, and the Ariane—have put application satellites into space, scientific instruments on the planets, and humans on the face of our nearest celestial neighbor. At the same time, the A-4’s successors have threatened us for fifty years with nearly instantaneous nuclear destruction, and will continue to do so, despite the end of the Cold War. Starting from unlikely, even utopian origins in the Weimar spaceflight movement, and ending even more strangely with ineffective weapons and emaciated slaves, the German Army rocket program and its Peenemünde center without a doubt changed the face of the twentieth century.

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