The Complicated Legacy Of The V-2 Rocket And Its Designer

Despite its dark origins as a Nazi vengeance weapon, the V-2 continues to influence modern-day rocketry and space programs.

byDr. Charlie Hall|
Von Braun V-2 rocket NASA
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images/NASA/Aubrey Gemignan

In the final installment of his series of articles on the history of the V-2 rocket, historian Dr. Charlie Hall explores the legacy of the V-2 in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Be sure to read parts one and two in our series on the terrorizing Nazi weapon that failed to change the course of World War II, but drastically altered warfare and gave birth to mankind's access to space, and the man behind it.

In February 1970, at a ceremony attended by the governor of Alabama, a U.S. senator, various other local dignitaries, and his wife and three children, Wernher von Braun was honored with a plaque in the state of Huntsville. The plaque listed his achievements in both missile development and the U.S. space program and concluded by saying that “he will forever be respected and admired by his local fellow citizens.”

The plaque did not mention von Braun’s membership of the Nazi Party or the SS, his meetings with Adolf Hitler, his frequent visits to the Mittelwerk underground factory where V-2 rockets were built by slave laborers in appalling conditions, or the number of people killed in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in 1944-45 by the rockets he designed. When he died in 1977, von Braun was remembered not as a Nazi war criminal, but as an American hero with a favorable legacy that he had worked hard to cement.

Wernher von Braun (second from right) with his family and dignitaries at the unveiling of the plaque in Huntsville, Alabama, in February 1970. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

His first major invention — the V-2 rocket — had also experienced a transformation in the years since its first deployment. When it was unleashed against civilian targets in the autumn of 1944, many feared that it would bring a return to the terrible raids at the height of the Blitz, perhaps made worse by its supersonic arrival which rendered advance warning or countermeasures impossible. By the time the war ended less than a year later, that fear had largely turned to scorn. The V-2 was another half-baked Nazi scheme, a last-ditch attempt to reverse the course of the war. One which had come to nothing because of the rocket’s unreliability, inaccuracy and comparatively small one-ton payload (when set against the 3,900 tons dropped by the U.K. Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces on Dresden, for instance).

Now, the V-2 is seen as the forerunner of all subsequent ballistic missiles, the first foray into an era of ‘push-button warfare’, and the foundation stone of modern space programs. No museum of warfare, or space exploration, is complete without a V-2.

But the impact and legacies of the V-2 and its principal creator, von Braun, have changed considerably since the end of World War II, starting with the transformative years of the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race. Furthermore, some very pressing historical and moral questions still sit at the heart of this topic: How did Wernher von Braun ensure that he was remembered so positively? How did the V-2 become our most recognizable reference point for all modern rocketry? To what extent do we still live in a world shaped by a weapon first used almost 80 years ago?

At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a widespread concern among Americans — from the President to the man on the street — that the U.S. was lagging behind the Soviet Union in terms of science and technology and, by extension, weaponry as well. The newly elected President John F. Kennedy had used the supposed ‘missile gap’ as a stick with which to beat the outgoing Eisenhower administration, but it now had to show that the country would do much better under his leadership.

In May 1961, just a few months after his inauguration, Kennedy committed the U.S. “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” In another speech, given at Rice University in Texas a little over a year later, he told his audience that Americans had chosen to go to the Moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It was to be a test of American scientific and technological prowess.

President John F. Kennedy giving a speech at Rice University, on September 12, 1962. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

More than that though, it was a propaganda effort. The Soviet Union had already claimed key victories in the so-called space race — they had launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957 and put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, three weeks before the Americans accomplished the same thing. But in setting the target of the Moon, Kennedy and his allies at NASA were redefining the terms of the contest. They were claiming that all those previous achievements meant very little. The only goal that mattered was the Moon. The first country to plant its flag on the lunar surface would be proclaimed the victor of the space race and earn an unassailable spot in the history books.

Given that Kennedy made his Rice University speech less than a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most fraught moments of the Cold War, it was clear that victory in the space race was not just about scientific and engineering ability, it was also about ideological supremacy and military power. With this in mind, the mission to the Moon needed to be in safe hands. Wernher von Braun was entrusted with the development of the rocket that would propel the astronauts and their lunar module to the surface of the Moon.

While the final design — the Saturn V — shared only the most generalized resemblance to the V-2, it was evident that they shared critical DNA, and not only in the person of their designer. Von Braun was not even the only former Nazi who played a key role in the Moon landings. Kurt Debus, his colleague on the German V-2 project, was tasked with overseeing the Saturn V’s launch facilities and served as director of the Kennedy Space Center from 1962 to 1974.

Wernher von Braun (left) and Kurt Debus at the Kennedy Space Center, May 26, 1966. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and the U.S. claimed victory in the Space Race. Whatever the accuracy of that claim, given the Soviet Union’s prior achievements, the title stuck. It put an end to American feelings of inferiority and served as an important symbolic victory in the ongoing Cold War; a timely one given the deteriorating nature of the protracted U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Kennedy’s gamble had paid off.

The Moon landing also secured the national celebrity status of von Braun, who was granted several salutary epithets — the father of the American lunar program, the father of rocket science, and the father of space travel. These may have been somewhat undeserved but there was no denying that in just 25 years rocket technology had advanced from a fairly ineffectual bombardment weapon to the first successful lunar exploration vehicle, almost all of which had happened under Wernher von Braun’s watchful eye.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an Apollo 11 Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on the lunar surface. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

While the Moon landing may have cemented von Braun’s hero status in the United States, he had been working to cultivate it almost since he arrived. He had long presented himself as an avid space enthusiast who had only built rockets for Nazi Germany because he was a patriot and there was a war on — an explanation that he hoped the American public would buy. He deliberately avoided discussing any connection he may have had to the slave labor which built the V-2, but never hesitated to mention his own arrest by the Gestapo (apparently for making a somewhat defeatist joke while drunk at a party), allowing him to imply that he was a victim of the Nazis, rather than a supporter.

His scientific ability ensured that he did not have to answer any awkward questions at the end of the war; instead, part of his price for offering his services to the United States was that they would shield him from any uncomfortable investigations or accusations.

He didn’t get away with it completely though. While the U.S. military and political authorities were actively excited about recruiting von Braun — right up to the Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius Jr., who approved von Braun’s entry onto American soil — others raised concerns.

On October 1, 1945, a War Department press release informed the public that “certain outstanding German scientists and technicians are being brought to this country to ensure that we take full advantage of those significant developments which are deemed vital to our national security,” triggering critical remarks from many different sectors. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress, complained that more was apparently being done to help pro-Nazi scientists than the victims of Hitler left in displaced persons camps in Europe. Albert Einstein — himself a refugee from Nazi persecution, and once a hero of von Braun’s — wrote to President Truman, describing von Braun and his colleagues as “potentially dangerous carriers of racial and religious hatred,” and unfit to ever receive U.S. citizenship.

In the meantime, von Braun worked hard to develop a new public persona. Alongside his technical work for the Army and later for NASA, he also engaged in plenty of self-promotion. He wrote articles for popular magazines, always about the future potential of space travel and exploration, and diligently answered letters from curious American schoolchildren, advising them as to which subjects they needed to study if they wanted to become astronauts.

Between 1955 and 1957, he struck up a working relationship with Walt Disney and they collaborated on a series of three short films designed to popularize the idea of space travel, but with the added effect of making von Braun a minor celebrity.

Wernher von Braun (right) and Walt Disney, 1954. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

In 1960, a movie about von Braun’s life was released, I Aim at the Stars, in which he was portrayed by Curd Jürgens, and which presented a somewhat sanitized account of his time in Germany. Some fun was poked at von Braun in this film though. One American character adds, in reference to the title quote, “but sometimes I hit London.”

It is said that von Braun was not happy with the film at all. The satirist Tom Lehrer also targeted von Braun, performing a song about him on the NBC show That Was The Week That Was in 1964. The song included lyrics such as “Once the rockets are up / who cares where they come down? / that's not my department / says Wernher von Braun” and “call him a Nazi / he won’t even frown / Nazi-Schmazi / says Wernher von Braun”.

Later that same year, the director Stanley Kubrick used von Braun as inspiration for the character of Dr. Strangelove in his film of the same name, played by Peter Sellers — Strangelove is a German working for the Americans, and on multiple occasions, he gives a seemingly involuntarily Nazi salute and refers to the U.S. president as “Mein Führer.” While these instances might show that the public was aware of von Braun’s dark past, the fact that they were generally the subject of gentle mockery proves that it was not a major obstacle to his growing celebrity.

Poster for the 1960 movie I Aim at the Stars. Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

Wernher von Braun died in 1977, at the age of 65. Shortly before that, President Gerald Ford had awarded him the National Medal of Science in Engineering, though he had been too unwell to attend the ceremony at the White House. His rather premature death did protect him from the potential for a major scandal in 1984, when Arthur Rudolph, one of his closest associates, voluntarily returned to Germany rather than contest a denaturalization hearing over his complicity in Nazi war crimes. Von Braun may have been spared that unpleasantness, but the Rudolph case did trigger a re-evaluation of his pre-1945 past and uncovered some uncomfortable truths.

Nevertheless, his reputation as a giant of American science has remained largely untarnished, and his career is defined by his contributions to the U.S. space program far more than by his development of deadly weapons for the Third Reich, just as he would have wanted.

While the U.S.’ willingness to celebrate the achievements of notable immigrants is laudable, and its desire to keep its impressive record of space exploration free from controversy is understandable, it is perhaps a little surprising just how secure Wernher von Braun’s legacy remains to this day.

Looking back over the stories told across these three articles, one thing, in particular, becomes evident — we live in a world shaped by the V-2. It showed the potential of ‘push-button warfare’ wherein enormous destruction (especially with atomic warheads in mind) could be visited on targets anywhere around the world with terrifying ease.

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, many commentators were alarmed by his access to the ‘nuclear button.’ Even though he became commander-in-chief of all the U.S. armed forces, it was his control of missiles that generated the most concern by some.

This is not a uniquely American issue — every serious candidate for prime minister in the United Kingdom is usually asked, in the run-up to an election, whether they would ‘push the button’ if necessary. Missiles — and so by extension the V-2 — have set the terms for what we now consider the most concerning act of any major future war.

Space exploration and travel are now the subjects of greater enthusiasm and interest than they have been in years. Not only are governments worldwide once again investing serious funds into their space programs, but private companies and individuals are also joining the competition. One only has to look at the recent race between billionaires to be the first into space to see that excitement for outer space is alive and well on Planet Earth. Wernher von Braun might even recognize himself in some of these new space pioneers.

Just like Elon Musk, he too advocated for a human mission to Mars and believed that it might well become inhabited in the not-too-distant future. Whether they do so knowingly or not, all of these individuals bear aloft a torch that was once carried by von Braun and his colleagues.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at the International Astronautical Congress on September 29, 2017, in Adelaide, Australia. Musk detailed the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars. Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images

And while it may have been somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent developments in ballistic missiles and space vehicles that it spawned, the V-2 itself continues to captivate. At the Imperial War Museum in London, the brand new Second World War and Holocaust galleries are connected by a V-1 flying bomb, suspended between them. It serves to illustrate the link between the slave laborers who constructed it and the civilians who were targeted by it.

That link could just as easily have been a V-2 — and indeed it might have been a more appropriate choice, were it not for its unwieldy size.

Even fiction has embraced the V-2. Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 1973 masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow, is anchored by the search for a mysterious rocket in post-World War II Europe. More recently, the novelist Robert Harris’ 2020 work of historical fiction — V2 — which rapidly became a Sunday Times bestseller, centers around the V-2 bombardment of Britain. One of the principal characters is a morally conflicted German rocket scientist, the inspiration for whom it is not hard to guess.

All this is to say: the V-2 matters. Militarily, it changed the face of warfare. While ballistic missiles would have surely been developed regardless, the V-2 demonstrated their potential in a live conflict scenario. It set the tone for everything that came afterward.

Scientifically, it was a pioneer. It scored several firsts in terms of humanity’s reach for the stars and it laid the groundwork for all of our biggest achievements in space exploration.

Culturally, its influence and prominence have been greater than perhaps any other single modern weapon, apart from the atomic bomb. Moreover, its indelible connection with von Braun entangles it with one of history’s most interesting figures, whose talent for self-reinvention makes his true nature hard to pin down, however hard we might try.

From the first test flights at Peenemünde and attacks on London in the 1940s to the shadow of nuclear ICBMs and visions of future space travel which haunt and captivate us today, the trajectory of the V-2 has been long and its impact enormous.

Dr. Charlie Hall is Lecturer in Modern European Historat the University of Kent, UK. Charlie’s research centers on ideology, propaganda, and society in 20th-century Europe and Britain. His first book, British Exploitation of German Science and Technology, 1943-1949 (Routledge, 2019), explores how Britain made use of Nazi equipment and expertise after World War II.