book cover imageGerman Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past During the Civil Rights Era
by Monique Laney.
Yale University Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $35.

On April 11, 1945, just short of a month before VE-day and the end of the conflict in Europe, a unit of the U.S. Third Armored Division captured the city of Nordhausen in central Germany. Although the taking of Nordhausen, as reported in the Division’s wartime report, did not constitute the heaviest fighting, that city will forever remain in the memories of the American soldiers as a place of horror: “Hundreds of corpses lay sprawled over the acres of the Boelcke Kaerne, an abandoned Wehrmacht training base,” reads the Division’s history, Spearhead in the West: 1941–1945. “Hundreds more,” went the report, “filled the great barracks. They lay in contorted heaps, half stripped, mouths gaping in the dirt and straw; or they were piled naked, like cordwood, in the corners and under the stairways.” In 1975, Hugh I. Cary, New York’s governor, spoke of his personal experience: “Thirty years ago as an officer of the U.S. Army, I stood with other American soldiers before the gates of Nordhausen and witnessed the nightmarish horror of slave camps and crematoriums. I inhaled the stench of death and barbaric, calculated cruelty …”

These were slave-laborers, initially procured from the Buchenwald concentration camp, and brought from the nearby underground V2 rocket factory by their SS guards when no longer able to work. When war crimes investigators moved in, they estimated that of some sixty thousand prisoners forced to dig the vast underground tunnels and work on the V2 rocket production lines, as many as twenty thousand perished from hard labor, beatings, hunger, disease, and executions. Though thousands of German workers were involved, none remained when the Americans arrived including the scientists, engineers, technicians, and managers in charge of production. Some, however, surfaced five years later in Huntsville, Alabama as employees of the U.S. Army. They, and thousands more, were brought to the U.S. under Project Paperclip.

Well before the conflict in Europe ended efforts were underway to exploit Nazi advanced military technology and technologists. Closely behind American combat units, specially organized teams moved quickly to collect coveted military assets including technical documents. Later, the exploitation program was extended to the Germans who had developed and/or produced what the victors now coveted—but some, perhaps most, would be banned from the U.S. if their past were laid bare.

Determined to exploit Nazi expertise, U.S. officials brought some into the U.S. as prisoners of war, circumventing visa requirements. Those who were certain to be barred from employment in the U.S. had their investigative reports altered. And war crimes investigators were denied access to these immigrants. Necessary, some officials would later insist, in the interests of national security. Laney calls this approach “Machiavellian logic and morality”—where national security is concerned you do whatever seems required. No small wonder that Operation Paperclip came to include Germans whose contributions to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich would invite prosecutions in Germany under rules laid down by the occupying powers.

One of Laney’s principal sources is The Rocket and the Reich by historian Michel Neufeld. Neufeld notes that in 1984, Arthur Rudolf, a “prominent member” and highly honored U.S. Army and NASA official, relinquished his American citizenship and left the country to avoid deportation proceedings alleging he was a war criminal. An entire chapter of The Rocketeers is devoted to the Rudolf case and its impact on the Huntsville community. His fellow rocketeers worried as to who might be next, while the white citizens of Huntsville took the position that the Germans had “brought prosperity and fame” to the community; therefore Americans “should forgive and forget rocketeers’ deeds under the Nazi regime.”

Though Project Paperclip is covered in great detail, this was but the backdrop to understanding how the Germans, led by America’s future space-age hero, Dr. Wernher von Braun, were assimilated into the Huntsville community in the heart of Dixie as well as throughout the country. “This study,” declares the author, “reveals connections between immigration, race, ethnicity, science and technology, nation, history, and memory that affect Americans’ identities and political thinking.” She goes on to say, “It shows the ways in which national decisions have both erased and magnified the rocket specialists’ participation in German weapons development with the help of concentration camp labor …”

“As the daughter of a German mother and an American father,” writes the author, “I was raised in both Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Frankfort, Germany. I was educated primarily in Germany [becoming fluent in German] but earned a Ph.D in the United States. Since my father married a daughter of one of the German rocket experts in Huntsville in his second marriage, I also have a family connection to the subjects of this research.” She emphasizes this background “because I will be using a concept unfamiliar to most non-German readers,” Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which she describes as “the complicated process of relating to, negotiating, and struggling with the Nazi past.” The term includes in particular the way “the German population had to reconcile … official narratives with personal family histories, and the two seldom seemed to mesh.” The term can be usefully applied in the United States as well, not least in addressing the integral place of racism in American history and national identity. She notes that when the Germans arrived in Huntsville in 1950 “they were not even citizens, yet had more privileges than the African Americans,” military veterans included.

Laney attempts in her study to extend both German and American approaches to Vergangenheitsbewältigung by “exploring how the Germans in Huntsville negotiated their lives in Hitler’s Third Reich in the U.S. context and how their white, Jewish, and African American neighbors made sense of the Germans’ past in context of the U.S. legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” She embarked upon her research with little knowledge of the postwar “exploitation” program, but in “the heart of Dixie” she recognized overt racism and the undeserved adoration afforded the immigrants from Hitler’s Germany.

The result of her investigation stands as an indictment of America’s military and civilian leaders in the aftermath of World War II. These Germans were placed above America’s black citizens “in the interests of national security” and America’s leaders, military and civilian, shamelessly tolerated, even supported, the injustice while misrepresenting the German rocketeers to the American people. Library shelves are sagging from books covering the Second World War, but room must be found for Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie.  

Robert Huddleston, a combat pilot, served on the Army Air Force’s Project Lusty at the end of the European conflict. In the 1950s he was employed at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico and in the 1960s with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington. He did not meet Dr. Von Braun but came to know several of his German colleagues.