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Young Wernher von Braun with Model V–2 Rocket. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the last two years of World War II, the German engineers created the world’s first ballistic missile. They also became participants in the Nazi dictatorship’s forced labor system. After the war, Wernher von Braun and his fellow engineers tried to separate themselves from forced labor. Memoirs and interviews described their superb technical achievements, idealized work at Peenemünde, and described it as technical, autonomous, and apolitical. They suppressed how they used forced labor at Peenemünde and initially ignored the use of concentration camp prisoners for V–2 production at Dora. After the story of Dora became better known, they claimed a status of victims of the Third Reich and blamed forced labor on Hitler, Himmler, and the SS.

However, historians in the last thirty years have discovered written evidence linking the engineers to forced labor. Faced with shortages of labor, Arthur Rudolph, the chief V–2 production engineer, in a memo of April 12, 1943, recommended that the missile program at Peenemünde adopt the exploitation of SS camp labor like that he saw at an aircraft factory. The first prisoners arrived at Peenemünde on June 17. Following the Royal Air Force bombing of the site, von Braun, technical director of the V–2 project, chaired a staff meeting on August 25 that recommended producing missiles underground with camp labor.

Slave laborers working alongside German civilians, photograph by Walter Frentz. Courtesy of La Coupole History and Remembrance Centre.

Rudolph became technical head of V–2 production at the underground Mittelwerk factory; he and von Braun requested that the SS provide more prisoners for V–2 production, most clearly in an August 15, 1944, memo in which von Braun described his trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp to select prison workers and arrange their transfer to Dora. Missile engineers at Peenemünde adapted the V–2 design for assembly by prison laborers. At Dora, Rudolph and other engineers, who had responsibility for the pace and quality of V–2 assembly, were implicated in prisoner abuse and hangings in reporting ”saboteurs“ to the SS for punishment, as a June 22, 1944 Mittelwerk memo mandated.

Despite the complicity of some engineers, the United States did not include the engineers in the 1947 Nordhausen trial or any other war crimes trials. As later US citizens, von Braun and Rudolph later earned awards for work on the Saturn V launch vehicle that took men to the moon. Other than occasional unverified allegations, Wernher von Braun escaped repercussions for his role in slave labor, but following an investigation by the US Department of Justice, in 1984 Rudolph voluntarily agreed to renounce his US citizenship and moved to Germany.

Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun with General Emil Leeb, head of Army Weapons Office, and Fritz Todt, Minister of Armaments and Munitions, and Other German Army Officers at Peenemünde. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Arthur Rudolph

Underground Construction of V–2s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.