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The strange resurrection of Wernher von Braun

After his death in 1977, he still got a glowing obituary in the New York Times peppered with anecdotes from the old days when his rockets used to hit London instead of the moon.

Flight pioneers with checkered pasts: Wernher von Braun, right, talking to Minnesota's own Charles Lindbergh in 1969.
Flight pioneers with checkered pasts: Wernher von Braun, right, talking to Minnesota's own Charles Lindbergh in 1969.
Lindbergh Picture Collection at Yale University

The other day I ran into Dr. Wernher von Braun – in a very strange and unlikely place. Unless you are a boomer or early Gen Xer you may not even have heard about him. And maybe it’s because he has turned into what George Orwell would call an “unperson.”

Dr. von Braun was the famous rocket scientist who masterminded America’s victory in the space race. Von Braun celebrated his very own V-Day on July 20, 1969, when the U.S. put a man on the moon and the Soviet Union didn’t. His earlier attempt at winning didn’t go so well because the Vengeance Weapon 2 (V-2) rockets he built for Hitler towards the end of WWII didn’t stop the Allied advance.

With von Braun it was all about timing, whether it was the moonshot right before the end of the decade – as JFK had asked for – or his swift change of allegiance from the Third Reich to the U.S. just before Stalin’s Red Army had caught up with him. Even his exit from this world seemed perfectly timed, as it happened when the most unappetizing parts of his CV were still classified information. After his death in 1977, he still got a glowing obituary in the New York Times peppered with anecdotes from the old days when his rockets used to hit London instead of the moon. Several years later the successful moonshot had drifted into the past and von Braun’s uglier skeletons into broad daylight. Many Americans voiced outrage that they owed the space race victory to a Nazi who, after all, hadn’t been so terribly reluctant to join Hitler’s political party and even the SS. Was it really that surprising? Or were all the pearl clutchers reacting like Captain Renault in Casablanca who first pockets his wins before he is “shocked, shocked” to find out that illegal gambling is going on in Rick’s Café Américain?

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The embarrassment clearly lasted through the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing since there isn’t a single frame with von Braun’s face in the 2019 documentary Apollo 11. Imagine my surprise when I was running into von Braun the other day while browsing the internet in preparation for a class on organized religion in the U.S. and Germany. Apparently, he has a growing fan base among American evangelicals who are heaping praise on him as a recovering sinner, born-again brother and, above all, groundbreaking creationist – despite the fact “creation” is no rocket science.

Henning Schroeder
Henning Schroeder
How did that happen? It turns out that von Braun did indeed join an evangelical church after moving to the U.S., but mostly to please his churchgoing superiors in Texas and Alabama. We don’t know if this move saved his soul, but it surely helped his career. As much as the thousands of slave laborers who died while building his V-2 rockets may have troubled von Braun’s conscience, the few public statements he made about his time in Nazi Germany sound like he felt vaguely sorry at most, but certainly not guilty, let alone born-again. Equally vague is what he said about the universe and whether a divine “designer” might have something to do with it. According to von Braun, it cannot be ruled it out – exactly what a secular scientist would say. Nonetheless, it’s enough for evangelical creationists to claim von Braun as one of their heroes. Which seems to confirm that the bar for membership in these religious circles is breathtakingly low, at least for certain celebrities. Far from being born-again, Donald Trump is instead double-boosted and happily enjoying the spoils of modern science. He publicly supports the religious right’s spiritual nonsense and medieval time travels without getting on board himself, yet he is one of them – no questions asked. Trump hasn’t worked for Hitler but would love Hitler’s generals to work for him because they are “so loyal.” His evangelical fan base has no problem with that. Adding von Braun to the list of famous converts they can brag about is only logical. Who’s next? Charles Lindbergh?

Henning Schroeder, PhD, is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.