My Hero Was a Nazi

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Like most of my generation, I was obsessed with manned space exploration. Walt Disney was largely responsible. Every month in the 1950s the Wonderful World of Disney treated the American TV audience to the “Man in Space.” My diet was Chinese takeout and Wernher Von Braun.

As technical director and host, Disney had cast the German aerospace expert who was a leading figure in the development of rocket technology during World War II. A member of the Nazi party and a commissioned SS Sturmbannführer, Von Braun was among the American spoils of war. Taken prisoner by the American troops before the Russians could reach him, he was heralded as the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century, the cornerstone of NASA and its mission to put men on the moon. Without him it is probable U.S. space efforts would have taken longer or never existed.

On the show, which served as propaganda for earning popular support for the space initiative, Disney declined to mention Von Braun’s responsibility in designing and supervising the Nazis’ V-2 combat rocket that destroyed so much of England. Nor did it broadcast that he was responsible for the slave labor that helped the Nazis assemble the rockets. But he and his team were indeed the brains behind the weaponry until, realizing the war was lost, they escaped into American occupied territory. Von Braun worked on the U.S. Army’s intermediate range ballistic missile program before he was made director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and became chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo to the Moon. Without him and his Saturn V rocket that helped the first men land on the Moon in July 1969, the world might be a different place.

I vividly recall those Disney programs, listening to my hero—America’s hero—and his soothingly accented voice talking about a new peaceful tomorrow, and I wonder how the balance of good and evil is measured. Von Braun’s contribution cannot be underestimated, but at what cost is conscience versus science?

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Design / Designer as Entrepreneur program, and writes frequently for EYE and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 190 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal, is in the Art Directors Hall of Fame and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →