- Parabolic Arc
- November 29, 2023
A Much Sadder Space Anniversary, Now Largely Forgotten…
Over at Aviation Week, Jeff Manber points out that this weekend marks several key space-related anniversaries:
- Galileo’s appearance before the Vatican to defend his heretical views about the Universe
- The first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, celebrated in Russia as Cosmonautics Day and worldwide as Yuri’s Night
- The first space shuttle mission precisely 20 years later
There’s also a much more tragic anniversary, one that is now largely forgotten and almost universally ignored within the space community. That would be the liberation of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp on April 11-12, 1945.
What the American the 104th Infantry Division found outside the central German of Nordhausen was hell on Earth. Beneath this bucolic setting of farmland, rolling hills and lush forests lay an enormous underground factory where slave laborers were literally worked to death producing weapons for Adolf Hitler’s monstrous Nazi regime:
In Nordhausen the Division found a large German concentration camp for political prisoners, discovering 5,000 corpses among the 6,000 inmates in various stages of decay. The corpses were scattered throughout the buildings and grounds of the large camp and all of them appeared to have been starved to such an extent that they were mere skeletons wrapped in skin. Most of the bodies apparently lay untouched since death had overtaken them, but some were stacked like cordwood under stairways. In almost all bunkers and buildings the living were found lying among the dead. In one corner was a pile of arms and legs.
All medical personnel that could be spared in the Division were rushed to the scene to give medical aid. Hundreds of the male citizens of the town were ordered to the camp, where under guard, they worked several days carrying litter cases and collecting corpses by hand. They dug mass graves on a prominent hill near the camp and carried the corpses through the town to the graves.”
An estimated 20,000 out of 60,000 prisoners died at Dora building the V-1 buzz bomb, the V-2 missile and other weapons in only 18 months. Those who survived were scarred for life.
Unlike the slave laborers, few of the scientists or technicians who worked on the V-2 suffered any ill effects. Few were held accountable for anything that happened. Instead, they were coveted by the Allies after the war. Wernher von Braun and more than 100 of his colleagues were brought to the United States, where they were instrumental in the Apollo lunar program. Others helped the Soviet Union develop its weapons arsenal.
The V-2 became the basis for most of the rocket technology that followed. These modern marvels have enabled us to launch satellites into orbit, humans to the moon, and spacecraft clear out of the Solar System. They also have kept us on the edge of a nuclear precipice for half a century.
These unpleasant dualities have made it nearly impossible for the space community to deal intelligently with Dora. There’s a deep vein of optimism and Utopian thought within the space community, a faith in the ability of technology and the space frontier to liberate the human race. Dora shakes that faith like a 7.0 earthquake.
Historian Michael J. Neufeld pointed out why in his highly-regarded books, “The Rocket and the Reich” and “Von Braun.” The images of walking skeletons greeting shocked American soldiers shows that advanced technology and tyranny can mesh quite nicely. The thought of the highly educated and refined Wernher von Braun, patriotic and loyal American, exploiting prisoners as a Nazi Party member and SS major is quite jarring. That rockets can help humanity freely communicate but also wipe out our entire civilization is not something one wants to drink a vodka toast to at midnight on Yuri’s Night.
And so, Dora is largely ignored. A horrific tragedy is largely forgotten; to the extent that it is remembered, people begin to draw the wrong conclusions from it. That includes otherwise smart people like space tourism pioneer Peter Diamandis, who founded the International Space University. Witness these mind boggling remarks that he made during an awards ceremony in 2006 held by the National Space Society (a group that von Braun helped to found):
If you look back at what von Braun did in Nazi Germany It was incredible what you can do with literally a dictatorship. Look at the numbers. 6,000 V-2s built. 6,000 missiles were built in Nazi Germany. The recurring cost was $13,000 a launch for those vehicles. You can bring the cost down with mass production. We’ll come back to what will drive …
[Multiple audience comments – including me – “SLAVE LABOR”]
Yea, and slave labor, Sorry.
But you know – again to you the rest of us would happily be slave labor for that mission. Can you erase that from the video tape?
But the fact of the matter is that mass production of rockets is possible if you have a real marketplace. And war is not a good one. Moving forward though …
Diamandis later apologized, but the fact that he made those remarks showed a remarkable ignorance on the part of one of the leaders of the modern space movement. If he was that uninformed, how many others have no knowledge of the tragedy that unfolded at Dora and the lessons it holds for us?
I visited Mittlebau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial about a month after Diamandis made his remarks. I viewed the exhibits, walked through the remains of the above-ground camp, and joined a guided tour of the damp, chilly tunnels where slaves once labored so long ago.
It was a sobering and depressing visit, but one that I am grateful to have finally made. It left me with a feeling that the space community has never fully dealt with what happened in that hell 65 years ago. And a sense that we need to do more.
I propose an annual wreath-laying ceremony on April 11 as a memorial to the 60,000 who suffered there and the 20,000 who perished. This solemn occasion should include prominent members of the space community.
Education is key. Curriculum on space history should be reviewed and improved where appropriate. Thanks to recent scholarship by Neufeld and others, we now have much clearer and nuanced understanding of the German rocket program, Dora and where responsibility for this tragedy lies. This is a complex subject; it’s time that we treated as such. Scholarships in space and humanities could also be established in cooperation with the Dora Memorial, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other groups.
We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future. By doing these things, the space community can say in a loud, clear voice, “Never again!” We can say to the ghosts of Dora, “You did not die in vain.”