Wernher von Braun: Moral Consequences of Engineering

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Throughout his life, Wernher von Braun made extensive contributions to the development and evolution of aeronautical travel and rocket development. He was a major German rocket scientist and space architect who rose to prominence as one of the leading engineers of rocket-based technology and ballistic missiles throughout World War II (WWII). As a native German, he worked for and aided the Nazi war machine throughout his career until the war ended and he immigrated to the United States with his team. From there, he made extensive contributions to space travel and his work resulted in the United States being the first nation to land a human being on the moon. While his legacy rests within the realm of space travel, his earlier contributions to the development of high-grade weapons have prompted serious discourse regarding the ethical considerations of engineering products that are intended to kill massive amounts of people.

Surely, most of the work that Braun conducted during his earlier years was directly utilized for the development of weapons to use against the Allies during WWII. Indeed, Braun’s participation within the Nazi party associated his work with a period of ethnic genocide, despite the fact that Braun reluctantly recalled the Nazi participation as “a bitter pill to swallow.”  In recalling his participation within the Nazi war machine may be biased in terms of hindsight that the war was lost, Braun’s ambitions were higher than bombing the Metropolis of London. The main workforce behind the development and production of Braun’s ingenuity was still slave labor within concentration camps.  Braun’s later endeavors into space travel and such also gave testament that his aspirations were for scientific achievement as well. Ultimately, while Braun’s work reflected an attitude in which ‘an eye for an eye’ was acceptable decorum for war, his lamentations toward the Nazi state of rule was indeed a testament to his overall sympathetic attitude.

Braun’s early years suggested that he always had a keen interest in flight, rockets and propulsion. Since he was young, he was constantly in trouble for playing with toy rockets in crowded streets in Germany. By the time he attended the Technical University of Berlin in the 1920’s, he did not excel in math and physics but did still have a strong interest in applying it to rocket engineering.  Braun’s work in liquid fueled propulsion began “when von Braun began to work at Kummersdorf.”  As he gained state funding in the mid 1930’s, he was primarily focused on solving three main complex engineering tasks: automatic ignition, rocket weight and design.  His first A-1 Model in 1933 worked accordingly for getting off the ground but had little military value at this point. It was not until the late 1930’s and the onslaught of WWII that Braun’s work began to have tangible value to Hitler.

While the failures and theoretical work of the 30’s did not show much progress, the mass production of missiles during the war was extremely important. Hitler’s pressure to build functional weapons was a major catalyst for increased funding and Braun’s expansion to over two hundred engineers working under him.  However, when demonstrating a failed crash attempt of his A-4 rocket to Hitler in 1941, Hitler lost some interest and threatened to cut funding if he did not produce results.

It was the A-5 model that Braun developed successfully that produced the mass production that Hitler wanted. Despite struggling in 1941 and 1942 to mass produce the A-4, the newly designed A-5 rocket was capable of mass destruction with increased accuracy.  This new rocket was successfully produced largely due to the resourcefulness of Braun. Braun remarked that in his quest to build lighter, military style rockets, “[I followed] Solidly in Nebel's footsteps, I grabbed the telephone directory and got in touch with welding experts, instrumentation firms, valve factories, and pyrotechnical laboratories.”  His innovation of the auto pilot missiles as well as a light weight design and ignition finally produced a missile that Hitler could use to bomb London with precision and accuracy.  However, in developing technology with slave camp labor and using it to terrorize civilians across borders, ethical considerations troubled Braun throughout the war period.

Despite only meeting Hitler four times, Braun learned first-hand that his contributions towards a military state were not the best application of his work. In fact, Braun remarked while sitting in jail after being suspected of treason that “the men in power- and they often hold power because of machines developed by us engineers and scientists-never know when a friend may become enemy.”  Braun also heavily objected to the use of slave labor because this was responsible for the loss of millions of lives too. Braun’s contribution to the war effort surely did not affect his ethics with regards to killing civilians. Because casualties were a natural part of war, Braun argued that while “I have very deep and sincere regrets for the victims of the V-2 rockets, there were victims on both sides.”  Ultimately, the death of civilians due to his rockets was not the main issue for him simply because both parties were facing terror and life- threatening danger constantly. Braun’s own research facilities were targeted and attacked on numerous occasions by France and England. 

However, the war did result in Braun changing his emphasis to space travel as opposed to rocket production for military purposes. Indeed, Braun contested that he joined the Nazi party and conducted research because he was under the duress of a state that funded his research to begin with. Besides, when looking at the big picture, even Braun’s “revolutionary V-2 was a failure as a strategic or tactical weapon, and even as a significant instrument of terror.”  Braun’s relationship with Hitler was not even very positive because Hitler demanded immediate military application of products that were still in further development. In memoirs written years later, Braun recalled in his impressions of Hitler that “here was another Napoleon, another colossal figure who had upset the world....He was a godless man who thought himself the only god, the only authority he needed.”  Clearly, while there was a level of respect for Hitler, Braun did not share the same ideological fervor of a Germanic state of power. 

Ultimately, the war impacted Braun in the sense that while he did not deal with personal ethical issues of casualties, the production and means of production for his work was what troubled him. He did not want to use slave labor and wanted to focus on space travel, the same topic that landed him jailed in 1943 and prohibited from work for a brief period of time.  His only defense towards the extensiveness of his war time contributions was that while he wanted to focus on space travel, he was bounded by the Nazi party’s monetary support for his research.  Consequently, he quietly completed his work without focusing on the consequences of death for other victims besides those directly associated with his project. In facing immediate capture by either Russian or US troops, Braun chose to be captured by the United States because he believed the US had an “intense devotion to individual freedom and rights.”  Indeed, Braun went on to have a very successful career with NASA and helped push rocket propulsion all the way to the moon and back. 

Braun’s work was significant because it made several incredible contributions to the world of science. Without his A and V series rockets, ballistic and aerial accuracy would not have been achieved. Despite his early failures and theoretical work in the field, he persisted to use his resources to keep developing. It was not until WWII had begun that he was pressured to construct missiles for the use of mass terror and slaughter. His rockets contributed to the war effort in terms of aerial attacks on London and France that crippled the Allies for years to come. Despite this, Braun’s true allegiance rested in the further progress of science, not the Nazi party that funded his work. However, Braun’s ethical motivations were not fully resolved even after the war had ended.

Despite publically apologizing for the casualties of his weapons, Braun reiterated that that was the nature of war and it was a normal occurrence on both sides. The only regrets that he openly stated were that he focused on building weapons when he truly wanted to further space exploration. Indeed, those around him recalled that Braun lamented that slave labor was used to mass produce his weapons in Germany. This, along with his passive relationship with Hitler prompted him to carry on his work and try his best to interact on a limited basis with the aspirations of the Nazi party. Ultimately, Braun’s contributions were a double-edged sword in which his intentions might have been altruistic, but they nonetheless resulted in contributing to a war effort that committed heinous crimes.


NASA. "Biography of Wernher Von Braun." MSFC History Office. http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html (accessed September 28, 2011). 

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Neufeld, Michael. "Wernher von Braun, the SS, and Concentration Camp Labor: Questions of Moral, Political, and Criminal Responsibility." German Studies Review 25, no. 1 (2002): 57-78. 

Piszkiewicz, Dennis. The Nazi Rocketeers: Dreams of Space and Crimes of War. Mechanicsburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 2007. 

Ward, Bob. Dr. Space: the life of Wernher von Braun. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005.