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Von Braun’s Bargain

In response to:

Rocket Man from the January 17, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I have always enjoyed Freeman Dyson’s insightful and succinct reviews and “Rocket Man” [NYR, January 17] is no exception. He lost me in his final conclusion. Michael Neufeld aptly points out that von Braun made a Faustian bargain with a brutal and genocidal regime so that he might realize his dream of designing rockets for the exploration of space. What he became in effect was the architect of Hitler’s secret weapon—the V-2 rocket—an inaccurate missile that delivered a ton of explosives in an indiscriminate manner. These were manufactured by slave laborers who lived and died under appalling conditions at the Mittelwerk camp where von Braun was an SS officer, a position he held despite his aristocratic and scientific disdain of the members of the SS. However, he never stayed to pay his dues to Mephistopheles but was rewarded by being brought to the United States.

I was a medical student at the London Hospital, in 1944, when an early V-2 landed one afternoon in Petticoat Lane, a crowded and popular people’s market in London’s East End. There were hundreds of killed and injured and over two hundred were admitted to the hospital, where the severely injured were promptly triaged to the operating rooms but many lay for hours in the corridors and basement to receive treatment, mostly for nasty lacerations from flying glass. It was a scene I have never forgotten.

Professor Dyson’s role in the planning of the RAF raid on Dresden, admittedly a horrific incident, seems paltry compared to the calculated killing and brutal exploitation of the inmates of the forced labor camp where the V-2 was conceived and manufactured. Von Braun never publicly renounced his role in the Nazi regime, of whose sadism and brutality he seems to have been fully aware.

Surely confession and penitence must precede reconciliation? Amnesty yes, reconciliation maybe, but forgiveness no. Neither did we need to reward such a man with a presidential medal for his acts of redemption for unforgivable sins.

Bernard Lytton
Donald Guthrie Professor Emeritus of Surgery/Urology
Yale University School of Medicine
Director, Koerner Center for Emeritus Faculty, Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Freeman Dyson replies:

I am grateful to Bernard Lytton for expressing in poignant language a view of von Braun that is opposite to mine. When I wrote my review, I knew that my concluding judgment would arouse strong opposition. My purpose in writing was to give readers something to disagree with.

Moral judgments are necessarily personal. If I had stood among the dead and dying in Petticoat Lane in 1944, I might well have shared Bernard Lytton’s view of the matter. Instead of that, I was lucky enough to live through six years of war in southern England and never see a dead human. My view of the casualties of war was remote and impersonal.

I knew that bloody scenes like the Petticoat Lane massacre were a necessary consequence of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. I knew that von Braun’s V-2 campaign killed only one tenth of the number who died in England in the earlier German blitz of 1940–1941, and only one hundredth of the number who died in our bombing of German cities in 1943–1945. Compared with the total casualties of war, von Braun’s victims, including those who died in the Mittelwerk factory as well as those who died in London, were statistically negligible. Whatever von Braun knew about the terrible treatment of the prisoners at the Mittelwerk factory, he did not himself, so far as I know, administer or order that treatment. In my view, von Braun was morally no better and no worse than other patriotic soldiers who take part in the atrocious killings that are inherent in modern war. The only qualities of von Braun that were exceptional were his talent and his dedication to the exploration of space.

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