Wernher von Braun’s “Rocket Team” and
America’s Military-Industrial Complex
Part I of Brian Crim's essay, “Vetting ‘Unrepentant Nazis’,” appears below.
To read the complete essay including footnotes, click here.
Dr. Brian E. Crim, Associate Professor of History, is the John M. Turner Chair in the Humanities at Lynchburg College. A former intelligence analyst with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, he has taught at Lynchburg since 2008. His areas of research include modern European history, the Holocaust, military history, and the role film and media play in interpreting historical memory.
Books by Brian Crim
Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914–1938 

Publisher: Lexington Books; (April, 2014)

Belying anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews shirking military service, German Jewish soldiers died on the battlefields of WW I alongside their gentile comrades, and almost half of the German Jewish soldiers were decorated for bravery. Crim explores how German World War I veterans from different social and political backgrounds contributed to anti-Semitic politics during the Weimar Republic.

"This is an indispensable study on the varieties of antisemitism among World War I veterans in Weimar Germany and the early years of the Third Reich; a valuable addition to the literature that should be read by all students of modern Germany, Jewish history, and antisemitism."
—Omer Bartov, Brown University

For information on ordering from Amazon, please click here.
Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State (Forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press)
Book Reviews by Brian Crim
Total War as Total Health: Race, Space and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (Review Essay of SS Thinking and the Holocaust)
“We Ourselves Are the War:” Understanding the Relationship between the First World War and the Holocaust (Review Essay of Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War)
The story of Wernher von Braun and his rocket team’s harrowing escape from the collapsing Third Reich into the warm embrace of a former enemy is one of the more exciting and significant moments from the final days of World War II.  As the Red Army approached the Peenemünde complex on the Baltic coast, the SS, who assumed control of the V-2 program in late 1944, evacuated personnel and material into the interior of the country.

Fearing the SS would rather liquidate him and his elite team of scientists and technicians than allow them to fall into enemy hands, von Braun and his inner circle disappeared into the Bavarian countryside and patiently awaited contact with American troops. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

More than the freighters full of equipment and caches of documents recovered from caves and hastily abandoned warehouses, the “German brains” who designed and built the V-2 rocket along with dozens of other weapons in various stages of development proved invaluable to America’s emerging military-industrial complex (MIC).  The program known as Project Paperclip concluded in September 1947, but its successor programs continued for decades. 

Between 1945 and 1962, approximately fifteen hundred German and Austrian scientists and technicians, along with their families, came to the U.S. for long-term “exploitation” and eventually employment in the military services, civilian agencies, and related defense industries.  Ninety percent of the so-called “Paperclippers” remained in the U.S. permanently. 

Most books written about “our Germans” in the space program and MIC celebrate the Paperclippers, von Braun especially, without noting their uncritical service to the Hitlerian state, and, in many cases, the scientists’ complicity in some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich.  While this “Huntsville School” of historiography has been challenged in recent years by investigative journalists and historians like myself who accessed thousands of declassified documents concerning the Paperclippers’ troubling backgrounds, the more intriguing legacy of Project Paperclip is the degree to which the assimilated Germans made the American MIC resemble the Third Reich’s.

This essay first examines early intelligence assessments of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team, specifically those challenging the notion the captured Germans were the “best and the brightest.”  Moreover, some early assessments were critical of German science’s relevancy for U.S. research and development. One could argue that detractors of Paperclip were on the wrong side of history by allowing ethical and moral considerations to override the obvious benefits of exploitation. 

However, nothing was obvious in the summer of 1945 and the most prescient reporting from this period on the Peenemünde rocket team identified with remarkable accuracy members’ arrogance, duplicity, and ideological toxicity.  German expertise came at a price, these initial reports remind us, one often ignored by the historiography.  The second part of the essay explores how von Braun’s rocket team influenced the American national security state by replicating Peenemünde stateside and championing a dual-use space program using Cold War rhetoric.

I. Vetting “Unrepentant Nazis”

Walter Jessel, a German Jew serving in the U.S. Army with the surprisingly junior rank of second lieutenant wrote an incredibly discerning military intelligence report based on his interrogation and observations of the rocket team.  Jessel was an exceptionally capable and experienced second lieutenant with special knowledge of his interrogation subjects.  Born in Frankfurt in 1913 to an assimilated German-Jewish family, Jessel witnessed the rise of National Socialism and reluctantly emigrated from Germany to Palestine in 1933 where he found work as a journalist. 

Jessel left for Palestine and emigrated to the U.S. in 1938.  Jessel eventually enlisted and served as an intelligence officer in Patton’s Third Army in the final stage of World War II. On June 8, 1945, Jessel was assigned to a small Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) detachment with the orders to “screen” members of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team detained outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen in upper Bavaria.  Jessel had explicit instructions from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) to sort out, in Jessel’s words, “Nazi hangers-on and enforcers from technical staff in order to bring the latter to the US.”

Jessel and his colleagues faced a difficult task distinguishing between esteemed scientists responsible for revolutionary military technology and those who were either expendable or so tainted by the regime’s criminality as to preclude contractual employment of any kind.  As forthright as Jessel’s military screening report reads, his diary entries from that week in June are even more frank: “The team consists of rocket enthusiasts, engineering college graduates, professors, all unrepentant Nazis aware of their bargaining power with the Americans.”  Jessel notes how Wehrmacht personnel attached to the team understood “that their chances of going to the U.S. are smaller than those of technicians.  To improve these chances, they sing.”

Jessel acquired an understanding of the culture of wartime science inside Nazi Germany, particularly the overriding ambition and amoral technocratic outlook of the rocket team living in the isolated enclave of Pennemünde.  After several days of interviews and research, Jessel arrived at this damning assessment of his subjects: 

They were enthusiastic technicians with the mission according to Goebbels of saving Germany. As a team, they were granted all the financial support, materials and personnel they required, within the means of the German war machine. Continuance of the work depended on continued conduct of the war.  At a time when the generals were dissatisfied with the party rule to the extent of attempting to overthrow it, Peenemünde was out of touch and sympathy with such developments – not for love of the party necessarily but because their work and the war were one.

Jessel identified the primary motivation of the rocket team, especially for von Braun - “the continuance of the work.” Those who were not open supporters of the regime’s noxious philosophy were, at the very least, completely indifferent to the devastation the rocket team wrought on Britain and the Netherlands.  Moreover, tens of thousands of slave laborers died building the V-2, although Jessel was likely unaware of the scale of such crimes in the underground tunnels at Nordhausen during the interrogations. The V-2 has the distinction of being the only weapon to have killed more people during its construction than its use.   

Jessel reserved his harshest assessment for General Walter Dornberger, the Wehrmacht general responsible for the V-2 project. Jessel believed he was incredibly arrogant and condescending.

Dornberger apparently lectured Jessel about the history of human progress, specifically how war fuels civilization and rocketry signaled the next great leap forward on par with the invention of the wheel.  “His group’s ambition was to develop a weapon with which to dominate the world,” Jessel writes.  “They are mercenaries who want to sell their weapon.  Their country is defeated; hence their only chance is to go on doing the same business for someone else.”

Dornberger courted the British as well, although they were more interested in imprisoning him for the V-2 than rewarding him with freedom and a lucrative contract.  Dornberger told British interrogators the V-2 could be a weapon, transport mail and passengers, or carry “atom bombs umpteen thousands of miles.”  “I do not know which direction development will proceed,” stated Dornberger.  “Upon that depends the selection of the people to be employed and the type of installation required.”

Von Braun never shied away from military uses for his technology, but Dornberger recognized better than Jessel how large the specter of the Soviet Union loomed over U.S. military thinking. Jessel was not unimpressed with Dornberger: “When you get off his obnoxious philosophy, [he] is better at explaining engineering developments to a layman than anyone I ever saw. He’ll charm his new U.S. bosses.”

Jessel’s skepticism was communicated up the chain of command, but it failed to sway decision makers anxious to retain the rocket team’s services. 

Jessel divided the rocket team into three groups: the “early developers of rocket ideas”, the technicians “from engineering schools and industry” and army personnel who were transferred to Peenemünde in 1941. “The second group is the largest, and ideologically the least sympathetic,” Jessel suggests. They were party members and attended “Nazified” technical schools which churned out inferior engineers dependent on the regime. Jessel acknowledges that “the number of Nazi fanatics is not very large” among the detainees, especially since they lost the war and were therefore denied credit for developing revolutionary technology. Nor is there any sense of sharing “Germany’s guilt and responsibility.” 

Jessel appears most troubled by the team’s mercenary mentality and stoking fears of the Soviet Union: “Almost to a man these people are convinced that war between the U.S. and Russia is around the corner. They shake their heads in amazement and some contempt at our political ignorance and are impatient at our slowness in recognizing the true savior of Western Civilization from Asia’s hordes. Which does not prevent them from playing with the idea of selling out to Asia’s hordes if such recognition is not soon extended.” The Soviet peril secured the scientists a meaningful future and cleansed a murky past.

V-2 scientist Herbert Wagner told his interrogators, “We had realized, long before anyone else, what a menace the Soviet Union was to Western civilization and culture.  And that is why we helped Hitler.”

The CIC interrogators believed the rocket team depended on Dornberger and von Braun for their livelihood and few scientists expressed confidence in “their own ability, technical or personal, to make their own way in Germany or elsewhere.” This fact, Jessel notes, provided von Braun and Dornberger total power over the group, and, by extension, the U.S. military.

The chief scientific adviser to Field Intelligence Agency – Technical (FIAT), Henry Robertson, resented someone like Dornberger who “is not a first-rate technician.”  “I am convinced that Dornberger is a most dangerous man,” Robertson opined, “and that he should in any case be shorn of all influence over and even prevented to have contact with his former Peenemünde subordinates.” Another official quipped it might be better to “trade him [Dornberger] to the Russians for a dish of caviar.” Not for the first time, scientific advisers were overruled by military officers interested in achieving the next breakthrough and garnering the lion’s share of military procurement.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences described German science as “an island of nonconformity in the Nazified body politic” which withdrew into the “traditional ivory tower [that] offered the only possibility of security” in an oppressive regime. Scientists who retreated into an ivory tower did not interest American military authorities and most Paperclippers furthered their own dreams by realizing the Third Reich’s. 

The view of German scientists as amoral technocrats hardly disqualified them from Paperclip. On the contrary, the more single-minded and reliant on patronage the scientists appeared to be the better they integrated into the emerging postwar national security state.  Individuals like Walter Jessel, a true voice in the wilderness, served as America’s conscience at a time when reason and ethical considerations mattered less than the potent mixture of fear and avarice.