Some Morose Thoughts about the Late Konrad Dannenberg

Last October I conducted what I believe was the last interview anybody did with Konrad Dannenberg, a senior member of Werner von Braunâ''s team who contributed significantly to the V2, Redstone, and Saturn programs. Dannenberg did not break any new ground in the conversation, but in light of an obituary that appeared in yesterdayâ''s New York Times, I feel I should offer one small correction, at risk of causing some pain.

The Times obit mentioned Dannenbergâ''s defense of his friend and close colleague Arthur Rudolph, who was general manager of the Saturn program that was responsible for putting the first men on the Moon. Later, it was revealed that Rudolph had been production supervisor for the notorious Mittelwerk plant in Nazi Germany, where the V2 was manufactured, and where hundreds of slave laborers were worked to death, sabotage was rife, and suspected ring leaders were sometimes hung from the rafters over the rocket assembly lines. When these facts came to light after the Moon landings, Rudolph had to leave the United States to escape prosecution as a war criminal, and was stripped of his U.S. citizenship.

Though Dannenberg was among those who petitioned President Ronald Reagan to restore Rudolphâ''s citizenship, the Times says that he was not personally a member of the Nazi Party. This is not what he told me. Defending Rudolph, he pointed out that membership was advantageous. And, â''Donâ''t forget that in the beginning Hitler did quite a bit of good for Germany.â'¿When I was in university Hitler came to power and he, of course, reawakened manufacturing in Germany. We had a very tough time, high inflation, in the 20s, and all these tough conditions. Then he called for a new government, like we have similar problems here now [in October 2008, in the United States].â''

So, did you join too, I asked?

â''I was a party member for that reason,â'' he said.

I parted ways from Dannenberg with the sad feeling that he had been living in a kind of bubble in Huntsville, Alabama, that his thoughts and feelings about the past were those of a German decades ago, but not those of todayâ''s Germans. In the 1950s and 1960s, whenever the subject of Nazism and Hitler came up, people invariably would mention the good things he didâ''the Autobahns, the railways running on time. As late as the 1980s, a friend of mine formulated a general law of conversing with pre-war Germans: one way or another, he found, a vintage-1930s German would always make three points:

1. They were crazy, crazy times

2. It wasnâ''t all bad--the Nazis did some good things too

3. Nobody could have known everything that was going on

Dannenberg didnâ''t quite get to Point 3 (perhaps because he had already conceded, before we got to talking about Nazism in general terms, that his work during World War II took him to Mittelwerk a number of times). But he did bring up the subject of Michael Neufeldâ''s von Braun biography, in which the great German rocketeer is portrayed as a man who had made a pact with the devil (Hitler). Dannenberg said, with an air of distaste, that Neufeld just wanted to sell books. Here I must disagree, at least in part. Neufeldâ''s book is a work of superb, meticulous scholarship, and certainly does not cater to any mob.

No doubt Dannenberg didnâ''t like the part about the pact with the devil, and frankly, Iâ''m not sure I do either. Werner von Braun, if I read him right, was a typical upper-class conservative of his day who disliked Hitler and the Nazis, to be sure, but also was a loyal and patriotic German who would have preferred for his country to prevail. He didnâ''t build rockets for Hitler because he was making a pact with the devil; he did it because he wanted Germany to win the war.

The real pact with the devil occurred when the U.S. government enlisted von Braunâ''s services without exercising proper critical supervision. Von Braun himself, though an honorary member of the Waffen SS, stood up to the Nazis, showing amazing courage on one occasion. But in allowing von Braun to put war criminal Rudolph in charge of the Saturn program, the United States allowed the grand Moon landing to be permanently tainted in the eyes of posterity.

NOTE: The Wall Street Journal, in a remembrance published on Monday, did not make the error about Dannenberg's party membership.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement