Review of Monique Laney's “German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past During the Civil Rights Era”

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tags: book review, Monique Laney, German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie



Robert Huddleston, a combat pilot, served on the Army Air Forces Project Lustyat the end of the European conflict. In the 1950s he was employed at the White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG) in New Mexico and in the 1960s with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Washington. He never met Dr. Von Broun but came to know several of his German colleagues.

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,” read 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 US 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 60 thousand prisoners forced to dig the vast underground tunnels and work on the V2 rocket production lines, as many as 20 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 surfaced five years later in Huntsville, Alabama as employees of the U.S. Army. They, and thousands more, were brought to the US under Project Paperclip.

Well before the conflict in Europe ended efforts were underway to exploit Nazi advance 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, some Germans were brought into the U.S. as prisoners (POWs) thus circumventing visa requirements. Those who were certain to be barred from employment in the U.S. under Project Papercliphad their investigative reports altered. And war crimes investigators were denied access to the immigrants. This was necessary some officials would later insist in the interest of national security. Author Laney called this “Machiavellian logic and morality.” Loosely defined it means that where national security is concerned you do whatever is required. No small wonder, 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.In The Rocket And The Third Reich, one of author Laney's principle sources, historian Michel Neufeld noted that “a sample of twenty-eight prominent [members of the Von Braun rocket team] shows that thirteen or fourteen became [Nazi] party members and four, including von Braun were officers in the SS.” And 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. It was a “Jewish conspiracy” some suggested and the white citizens took the position that the Germans had “brought prosperity and fame” to the community and therefore we “should forgive and forget rocketeers' deeds under the Nazi regime.” The African -Americans accepted that their lives were unaffected.

Though Project Paperclipis covered in great detail, this was but the back-drop 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 Dixieas 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,” the author writes in her Introduction, “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.” Continuing, she points out that “This background is important because I will be using a concept unfamiliar to most non-German readers.” This is vergangenheitbewaltigung, which she describes as “the complicated process of relating to, negotiating, and struggling with the Nazi past.” She goes on to note that “while [Germans] tried to grapple with the Nazi past . . . the German population had to reconcile those official narratives with personal family histories, and the two seldom seem to mesh.” For Americans to understand this “it is important for the United States to come to terms with the fact that racism is 'integral to our history and identity as a nation.' ” There is, as African Americans pointed out even before we entered the war, (and before the Holocaust became public knowledge), “parallels between the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and blacks in the United States.” And when the Germans arrived in Huntsville in 1950 “they were not even citizens yet, had more privileges than the African Americans,” military veterans included.

“My study,” author Laney explains, “combines and extends the two [German and American] approaches to Vergangenheitsbewaltigung 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.”

Historian Monique Laney embarked upon her research (the book is an extension of her doctoral dissertation) with little knowledge of the post-WW II “exploitation” program. Her open-mindedness (a generational advantage) was bolstered by her remarkable background and extensive study of Project Paperclip. She came to “the heart of Dixie” and immediately recognized overt racism and the undeserved adoration afforded the immigrants from Hitler's Germany. She was determined to investigate and document what was and should not have been. The resultstands as an indictment of America's military and civilian leaders in the aftermath of World War II. The 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 rocketeersto the American people.

While library shelves are sagging from books covering the Second World War, room must be found for Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie. At the end of the conflict in Europe, misinformation and lies have been fed the American people to justify bringing Dr, Wernher von Braun and his rocket team to the United States and eventual U.S. citizenship. As historian Monique Laney points out, her study “reveals connections between immigration, race, ethnicity, science and technology, nation, history, and memory that affect Americans' identities and political thinking.” That's quite a challenge but she produces.

Without reservation, I recommend German Rocketeers as an outstanding contribution the history of the Second World War.




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