- German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era by Monique Laney
Built largely around oral histories, German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie studies Huntsville, Alabama residents’ views of German rocketeers. Laney’s book discusses how and why the local white population developed such a positive view of their new German neighbors, even though World War II was relatively recent and some of these Germans had worked in visible and important roles in the Nazi war machine.
The book argues that the debates and struggles over rocketeers’ involvement with the Nazi regime reflect the struggles over how Americans see themselves vis–à–vis Nazi Germany. Drawing partial parallels between the racist histories of the United States and Germany, Laney ponders how Americans evaluate Nazi Germany’s history in light of the United States’ own past on issues concerning race.
Laney’s interviews with white Huntsvillians demonstrate their swift and widespread embracement of German newcomers. Rocketeers and their families formed an important part of their community’s rapid economic and cultural progress. Locals saw the arrival of the Germans as closely intertwined with their community’s transformation from a relatively obscure Alabama town into an important center of Space Age America. Additionally, Cold War politics assisted in rapidly transforming Germans from wartime enemies into respected allies in the fight against communism. This was particularly true of Germans who were engaged in building the rockets that defended both American freedom and prestige. [End Page 377]
Huntsville’s African Americans and the town’s small Jewish community did not share their white Christian neighbors’ positive, occasionally even celebratory, views of the Germans. For African Americans, the community’s eager bequeathing of the benefits of whiteness to previous enemies and even some suspected Nazis offered more proof of the intransigence of Huntsville’s racist culture. Not surprisingly, local Jews were not as eager to “let bygones be bygones” as their Gentile friends.
The so–called “Rudolph case” stands as the most poignant example of the community’s divided views on German rocketeers. After investigations implicated one of the community’s leading Germans, Arthur Rudolph, in the use of slave labor during World War II and suggested that Rudolph had been more committed to the Nazi cause and ideology than he had led others to believe, Rudolph agreed to give up his American citizenship and return to live his retirement in Germany. The book describes the depth of support that Rudolph enjoyed from Huntsville’s white population, while the town’s Jews and African Americans did not share the same desire to see Rudolph in the best light. Laney quite convincingly draws parallels between white Huntsvillians’ attitudes toward Germans and their parallels to the larger Huntsvillian and American dilemmas of race.
Laney’s book offers an interesting contribution to the historiography of race in post–World War II Alabama, the South, and the United States. The author is a skilled practitioner of oral history interviews, allowing her subjects to tell their stories but not letting them get away with self–serving comments. She points out the inherent contradictions and the cultural baggage that influences both the Germans’ and native–born Americans’ perceptions of the community and its attitudes about race, class, and community.
The core of the book is built around seventy–three oral history interviews, but Laney supports these accounts with solid introspection of recent historical literature on immigration, the modern South, and the German postwar experience. Her research is solid and thorough. [End Page 378]
The book has its slight flaws as well. Occasionally the narrative is a bit disjointed and repetitive. Much of the book is richer in data than in analysis. The text emanates an understandable aura of a dissertation. However, its analysis picks up toward the end, growing into solid discussions about history in the crosswinds of personal agendas and cultural biases. The analysis here is delivered with some flair, as...