German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era by Monique Laney (review)
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German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era. By Monique Laney. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. xv, 302. $35.00 cloth)

Early in her discussion of the reception of the German rocket scientists who arrived in Huntsville, Alabama, following World War II, Monique Laney introduces a German term, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, defined here as an understanding of history that includes a personal and communal reckoning with the moral implications of past injustices (pp. 6–7). Drawn from extensive interviews with the German scientists, their families, and their new neighbors in the Rocket City, German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie is Laney’s attempt at Vergangenheitsbewältigung. She describes how many Huntsvillians joined with the “rocketeers” to construct a new, shared narrative about the past that overlooked the Germans’ connection to the crimes of the Nazi regime, as well as the city’s own history of racial inequality and persecution. [End Page 275]

Laney begins with Operation Paperclip, the effort to bring German rocket scientists and engineers to the United States after World War II. Thanks to the demand for military technology and the expertise of Werner von Braun and his colleagues, the Germans avoided the denazification process and strict limitations set on other German refugees, eventually becoming citizens and settling in Huntsville at Redstone Arsenal and, later, Marshall Space Flight Center. They found city leaders welcoming, desperate for economic development and ready to accept the new arrivals as “our Germans,” disassociated from the history of the Nazi regime. Laney is careful to balance this story with the experience of Huntsville’s Jewish and African American residents, two groups traditionally marginalized in southern communities.

At the heart of Laney’s analysis is the constructed narrative, popular among white Huntsvillians and the German arrivals, that explained how the rocketeers came to the United States untainted by Nazism, revitalized the city, and spearheaded the American space program. While generally true, this understanding ignored a more complex history in which the German scientists relied on enslaved labor to develop rockets while in Germany, and in which the citizens of Huntsville maintained a social structure built on racial prejudice. This history, which credited the von Braun team with contributing to the city’s modernization and its comparatively subdued acceptance of the goals of the civil rights movement, ignored the work of African Americans to challenge racism, the complicity of city leaders with past and present inequalities, and the fact that the Germans themselves benefited from a society that considered them to be “white.”

The popular narrative was challenged in 1984, when the scientist Arthur Rudolph came under suspicion for his role in overseeing production at the Dora slave labor camp and, in response, renounced his citizenship. These events, combined with a growing historical literature on the V-2 program, forced Huntsvillians to revisit the rocketeers’ pasts. Laney describes a variety of responses, from outright denial and defensiveness to a sense of dread that former neighbors or relatives [End Page 276] were more intimately involved in the crimes of the Nazis than was previously understood. She also shows how the conversation about Rudolph’s guilt highlighted continuing feelings of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice that had been largely silent in the story of Huntsville’s transformation. Laney argues that after the Rudolph case, the city’s residents finally began to have an honest discussion about its once-favorite sons, one that will only be complete when residents fully understand the way that racial prejudice not only shaped the lives of German scientists but also the very community that they came to help.

From the beginning, Laney notes her familial connection to the story of Huntsville and its German rocketeers. While some might find such personal interest in a subject problematic, Laney’s relationship to the scientists and her own German background gave her insight into the constructed narrative that surrounded the rocketeers while allowing her to question that narrative more critically. Moreover, she is careful to note the limitations of oral history and to balance her extensive interviews with archival sources. On the surface, German Rocketeers in...