- The Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race
Wayne Biddle's intention in writing The Dark Side of the Moon—note the evocative title—is to correct the highly favorable image and reputation of Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) that is still accepted by many people. For several decades after 1945, much of the literature on von Braun intentionally covered up the dark side of his career or passed over it in favor of emphasizing his contributions to space flight. However, for more than twenty years now a number of scholars, using new sources, have examined his life critically. But Biddle goes further by assembling the negative material in one sustained endeavor to demonstrate that Wernher von Braun knowingly and voluntarily participated in crimes of the Third Reich. The United States government played the leading role in the cover up after 1945, aided eagerly by von Braun himself. Biddle makes the point that "it is reasonable to posit that no other public figure of the twentieth century was forgiven so much as Wernher von Braun, so that he should be allowed to pursue his dream. The [United States] army gave him a fresh identity by classifying for decades the most malevolent details of his pre-1945 life. He needed little else besides more of the incredible good luck that propelled him out of Hitler's Germany into General Eisenhower's America."
In an autobiographical note, Biddle recalls that as a youngster in the 1950s he, too, was fascinated with Wernher von Braun and space flight, but "the political atmosphere ten years later led me to wonder skeptically how a Nazi weapons builder could become an American hero." Biddle is determined to expose all of von Braun's efforts to hide or downplay his early commitment to National Socialism and to persuade people that he worked on the German weaponized rocket program only so that he could pursue his interest in space flight. It is von Braun's refusal to take any moral responsibility for his complicity in the evils of the Third Reich that Biddle finds most repugnant. In view of this, it is not surprising that the author often approaches the evidence in the spirit of a prosecuting attorney.
In the first two chapters, Biddle discusses the landed aristocratic environment in which Wernher von Braun grew up, in a family accustomed to social privilege, with entrée to the halls of power, and numerous cultural and professional advantages. Biddle's disdain for Junker society is evident throughout, exemplified in the following bit of hyperbole: "In this country a man gave his bride munitions, not roses, to prove his devotion." It was this milieu that instilled in the handsome young Wernher his gracious social manners and personal confidence, characteristics which, Biddle argues, along with his Junker pedigree, opened the way for his rapid rise and accounts in great part for advancements throughout much of his life. Of particular interest is the account of Wernher's father, the [End Page 432] very conservative Freiherr Magnus Alexander Maximilian von Braun, whose career in state service experienced numerous ups and downs. Magnus despised democracy and the Weimar republic and associated with like-minded people. One high point for him came in 1917 when, as assistant to the Minister of Interior, Karl Helfferich, he recommended the mediocre Georg Michaelis to succeed Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg as Chancellor and served as press secretary until Michaelis resigned in October 1917. In 1932 Franz von Papen appointed him Minister of Agriculture, but that too lasted for only a few months.
Biddle's depiction of the group of German rocketry enthusiasts in the 1920s is sprinkled with touches of irony and condescension. As he observes, "like aeronautics, rocketry in its early days possessed a romantic aura that attracted more than its share of visionaries and fools." These enthusiasts—for example, Hermann Oberth, Max Valier, Rudolf Nebel, Willy Ley—who called their place of experimentation the Raketenflug platz...