A big portrait of Wernher von Braun at a Berlin exhibition isn't intended to lionize a hero of space technology. Rather, it's to expose his feet of clay.
Von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party and its elite SS. He built V2 rockets as weapons of mass terror, using slave laborers who were unlikely to survive.There is no known public expression of his remorse, the exhibit says.
The same Wernher von Braun was named one of the "100 most important Americans of the 20th century" by Life magazine in 1990 for building the rockets that put U.S. astronauts on the moon.
Titled "I only worked for technology," the exhibit profiles von Braun and other Germans who made important scientific contributions to Adolf Hitler's war effort. Most of them escaped punishment.
The Museum for Transport and Technology, which attracts 300,000 visitors a year, put on the display as a reminder of little-known or forgotten wartime activities of Germans who were big post-war successes. It is the museum's way of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the downfall of the Third Reich.
Von Braun, who died in 1977 at age 64, was taken with about 120 other German rocket scientists to the United States after World War II. Competing with German scientists whom the Soviets took back as prisoners, he was the leading force in U.S. space weaponry and exploration.
"But at what price?" asks the catalogue for the exhibit, which opened April 5 and runs until Oct. 1. "Can there be any justification for using men who worked with full conviction for a criminal system?"
Although U.S. officials knew about von Braun's wartime work, he and other Germans with expertise in rocketry were quickly accepted into essential U.S. defense projects in the Cold War era.
Museum Director Guenther Gottmann said the United States and the Soviet Union hid the backgrounds of their German rocket scientists.
"It was as if they had only ever thought of going to the moon, and, most unfortunately, there was a short phase when the evil Nazis misused them," Gottmann said in an interview.
The catalogue reprints a letter, recently discovered by German historians, in which von Braun discusses using a French physicist from the Buchenwald concentration camp in the subterranean rocket factory called Mittelbau-Dora. To his credit, von Braun asks for "easier conditions" for the man.
About 20,000 of the 60,000 slave laborers at Mittelbau-Dora died. Most fell victim to the Nazi policy of "extermination by work."
The V2 rockets were inaccurate but terrorized civilians, causing some 5,000 deaths in Britain and Belgium.
High school teacher Klaus Kantiem, visiting the exhibit for ideas to pass on to his physics students, noted that most of the facts about von Braun and the others were known to Germans.
"But it's quite good to ask the question: Where is the border between good technology and something dangerous?" said Kantiem.
Among other notables mentioned in the exhibit is Heinrich Nordhoff, who built the Opel "Blitz" truck that was the military's workhorse. General Motors, Opel's post-war owner, dismissed Nordhoff because of his wartime work. He was then hired to run Volkswagen's big factory at Wolfsburg, and he made the VW Beetle into a huge success.