As you guys know I’ve been reading about von Braun. Mostly I’ve been reading about Von Braun because I visited Huntsville for TVIW and got curious. Before that all I’d heard bout him, as a person, was, dropped in a conversation “I figure he was a true psychopath who didn’t care, so long as he got to space.”
After reading four biographies (two for, two against) I regret to tell you that I’m not sure that was true.
I come neither to bury Von Braun not to praise him. I doubt if he knew, in himself, if he was a villain or a hero. And I doubt he was a psychopath. The reason I doubt he was the later is that he didn’t take to a totalitarian regime like a duck to water. Instead he tried to compromise his soul a little at a time, a vestige of humanity and decency obviously holding him back.
If a man of his intelligence, not to mention charisma, had wanted, he could have been in the “high councils” of the oligarchs, but mostly he seemed to do the minimum necessary to a) not get killed and b) keep the rocket program going. And before you say the rocket program hurt the allies, he himself admitted “When a country is at war, a man wants his country to win, even if he hates the regime.” And before you poo poo that, remember that a country is not land or borders. It’s your family, your friends, the places you love. He also admitted he didn’t feel bad about bombing London because the allies had destroyed Berlin, a city he loved. All these responses are very human and very normal. Flawed, painful, morally tarnished, maybe, but human.
I’ll confess my bias up front. One of the “against” bios (the other just kept repeating “Nazi, so bad.” which is senseless) was specious enough to make me want to come to his defense. Among other things they quoted his words about milking the golden cow in a context that made it sound like it was about the US. It wasn’t. It wasn’t about Hitler’s Germany either. It was about the Weimar Republic, for whom Von Braun had started the rocket program.
Also, they narrated hearsay about the Americans not treating them well enough “overheard by his driver who didn’t talk about it for 60 years” and then talked to the Nation which might as well be the organ of CPUSA. I’m here to tell you that criticizing your host country is the first phase of every acculturation/immigration. I saw it with my fellow exchange students, who were here by choice and who suddenly talked about how much better it was back home. It’s a group bonding exercise in unstable circumstances. It means nothing. (No, I didn’t do it, but I’m fairly weird.)
These things predisposed me to “like” him, but the pro bios were also a little weird. I find it mendatious to say that the Von Braun attached to Mittelwerk — the labor camp attached to Dachau — must have been his brother. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but suggesting it as an excuse is a little goofy since Magnus Von Braun was also imported to the US.
And the “he was a loving father and a good neighbor” doesn’t cut it either. Because, you know, here’s the thing, Pratchett had it absolutely right when the torturer has a coffee mug with the saying “World’s Best Dad.”
So on the character of Von Braun I’m going to say “I don’t know” and in fact, I doubt he did.
The thing that none of the bios seem to take into account is the corrupting power of a tyrannical regime. This applies with boots on to things like Fascism and Communism but it applies to minor tyrannical regimes too, where behavior you consider unethical is required of you in order to get something you want/need.
Dave Freer commented on the Harvey Weinstein case here — Wiles —and said we writers do things like that too, though usually not sexual (and if you met the average writer you know why.) He is right. We’ll get back to that later, just keep in mind that like the Hugos are the Oscars for ugly people so is the book business Hollywood for ugly people. We’re not (usually, though I’ve had attempts, when I was much younger) required to put out, but we betray ourselves and sell our souls in myriad other ways.
Did Von Braun know that people were being worked to death to build his rockets? Impossible not to. Look, guys, seriously, I suspect even the uninvolved unconcerned Germans knew about the Holocaust. Could he/they do anything about it?
The movies make it seem like everyone rises up at once and overturns a dictatorial regime. That is not the way real revolutions work. Time and again, we’ve seen that it’s when a regime softens that it’s overturned. Before that, attempting an overturn is suicide and often death to all your family and friends too.
He’d started building rockets under Weimar. He’d come to the Nazis attention. After that, he’d continue building rockets and like it, and do what he had to do to keep himself and his family alive and well.
One of the biographies claims he tried to/got some prominent scientists out of concentration camps to “help” and live with them and eat what they ate in an attempt to save them. I haven’t tracked this down to verify, though at least one (French) professor claimed after the war that he was offered just such a position, in an attempt to better his lot. This professor refused because he didn’t want to aid the Nazi war effort.
In the same way Von Braun was arrested (and let out on probation) twice, for saying that rockets built by slave labor would be defective.
On the other hand, when he came to the states, he brought with him people who were unavoidably more guilty than him, obviously so. And tried to bring others who were too “dirty” to make it here.
Surely that’s proof he was a villain?
No. It’s proof that he was human. You hang around with a group of people long enough, you’re going to like some of them despite despising their opinions or actions. I didn’t feign my liking for a lot of my liberal or even outright communist colleagues and bosses in NYC. I can see where they went astray, I despise what they do, but I like them as people, and think some of them are salvageable.
And I’m very glad I’m not the ultimate judge of anyone’s soul, not even mine.
All I’m going to say about Von Braun’s character is that until you withstand his temptations and his fear, you don’t know what you’d do. It’s very easy for people who are free and at no risk of being killed summarily or having their whole family destroyed, to say “I’d stand above it all.” But very few people do. I find it helpful that in the New Testament the man who was chosen to lead the church, in the same circumstances denied the man he believed to be the son of G-d not once but three times. It’s a good demonstration of frail humanity faced with dictatorship and corruption.
You don’t know what you’d do in the circumstances.
I do, and it doesn’t make me proud.
Sure, I came out politically, when I could afford to, when there was indie and Baen. But before that, I not only swallowed a lot but said ambiguous “supporting” things when the discussion turned to keeping those undesirable libertarians/conservatives and their “hatred” out. Because otherwise I’d have lost my sole opportunity to make money with the skill it had taken me almost two decades to acquire, and babies needed shoes.
Looking back it feels a lot like the quote from A Man For All Seasons:
It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales, Richard?
And yet people do, for far less important reasons than getting man to space, or even winning a war so that your family estates aren’t plundered (and if you don’t think that matters you don’t understand attachment to the land) and your family sent forth, homeless and destitute.
Almost every writer, unless they’re dyed the deepest red, made the same compromises. It’s a bad thing, even in that scale. Like the actresses giving up their dubious virtue for a role, we give up a part of ourselves when we do that.
But when a system is corrupt and oligarchic there is no way to go around. And so we keep doing it.
Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. And I had the opportunity to escape. More or less what Von Braun did. I’m trying to make good on my second chance, impaired only by stupid health tricks.
But I wouldn’t stand in judgement. Like the people who escaped the USSR and who were party members, or “little pioneers” or like Pope Benedict being in the Hitler youth, if you stand in judgement of these people, you’ve never experienced even the nano-version of it I and other writers/actors/people in fields where gatekeepers are few and implacable have experienced.
I don’t know if Von Braun sold his soul for a shot at space; I don’t know if he sold it for safety for his family and himself. I know I sold mine for Wales, metaphorically speaking. I have no high mountain on which to stand, and my only redeeming realization must be this: that I realized a bad system makes good people bad.
One of the books went on about how evil Von Braun pushed for the Americans to “win” space when the USSR would have done just as well, since it was all for humanity.
Perhaps having experienced the corrupting effects of dictatorship and distorting ideology, he wanted space to be free. (Yes, I know, he wanted the US to have an orbiting station and bomb any country that misbehaved. Heinlein modified it and used it in Space Cadet. It would have gone very badly, particularly if the US gave it over to the UN. But I can also understand the appeal of the idea for someone who believed in the US.)
People who have sold their souls try to reclaim bits of it in the weirdest ways.
Let that serve as his epitaph. And our ladder to freedom and redemption for the rest of us. Do what you can, where and when we can, and may our efforts achieve more than our poor selves can manage.