Michael B. Petersen. Missiles for the Fatherland: Peenemünde, National Socialism, and the V-2 Missile. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 276 S. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88270-5.
Reviewed by Richard H. Beyler (History Department, Portland State University)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Heaven and Hell of the Missiles
Michael B. Petersen's account of missile development in Germany before and during World War II provides a fresh perspective on the historical literature on National Socialism and V-2 research. Missiles for the Fatherland offers a compelling description of the social processes that constituted a cohesive, productive community of rocketry experts, focusing on the Peenemünde research site. Although some of the Peenemünde researchers were convinced and active National Socialists, as Petersen demonstrates, ideological commitment was not the glue that held the community together. Rather, the deciding factor was a "quotidian enculturation" (p. 3) into a professional community. Peenemünde offered an atmosphere of excitement and achievement--to be sure, often under enormous pressure for high performance--alongside pleasant amenities. Peenemünde was a "paradise" for engineers that afforded them a "fantastic life," according to participants. Regardless of individuals' varying degrees of ideological enthusiasm, practical acceptance of the Nazi agenda for Germany was virtually unquestioned among the research site managers and helped determine the role of German scientists in the Holocaust.
The willing embrace of militarism and racialism among these researchers ultimately supported the heinous side of the engineers' paradise. Research there led to the exploitation of conscript workers and, eventually, hellish conditions for slave laborers at the underground Mittelwerk rocket factory at Dora-Mittelbau in Thuringia, which was constructed and put into operation after the British bombing raid on Peenemünde on August 17-18, 1943. As Petersen demonstrates, use of prison labor was not foisted upon the unknowing or unwilling civilians by interfering SS outsiders, but was rather an integral part of the development of the missile production process in the context of Nazi war plans. Petersen argues for a causal relationship between the solidarity of the Peenemünde professional community and that community's collaboration with the Nazi state. That is, the former did not impede the latter, but rather enabled it.
After a brief review of rocketry in the Weimar Republic, the core of Petersen's story begins with the consolidation of all missile research under the aegis of the German army by the mid-1930s. Subsequent imposition of rigorous standards for performance and testing brought about a culture of military discipline throughout the project that extended to civilian employees. The primary research center on the northern part of the Baltic island of Usedom, near the village of Peenemünde, became the physical embodiment of this controlled, disciplined regime. Of particular interest is Petersen's analysis of the everyday professional and social life at the research site for the engineers and managers who came to live and work there. Performance standards were excruciating and schedules were intense; nevertheless, participants repeatedly described an exciting and rewarding atmosphere in an almost resort-like setting. After the start of the war, delight in the work at hand created a further sense of privilege and pride among the researchers. Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun, for example, emerge here as demanding but astute managers who inspired widespread respect and even affection among their subordinates.
Petersen pays particular attention to the strict enforcement of secrecy in the life and work of Peenemünde. This aspect of the project coincided with the military's successful monopoly on missile research during the Nazi era, but was not a product of Nazi ideology per se. Peenemünde, Petersen suggests, was almost a secret society. Its members, workers, and managers both constructed and adhered to a strict code of rules that continually reinforced the special nature of the work there. Access to the research facility was tightly controlled, for instance, using a series of coveted, gradated security badges. Use of euphemisms and code words distinguished insiders from outsiders, heightening the cachet for those who understood the highly specialized jargon. Leaks about research in progress and the site carried severe punishments, including deportation to a concentration camp or even death.The security requirements also aided acquisition of resources--even scarce material could be requisitioned without detailed explanation. This ominous security regime, Petersen argues, heightened community solidarity and provided a sense of belonging and importance, especially for the managerial elite charged with oversight.
The same secrecy that created the crucial sense of solidarity and privilege for engineers and managers also conditioned the increasingly harsh exploitation of production workers. Foreign conscript labor was part of the design of Peenemünde from its early days, and these workers faced exploitation and harsh conditions. With the shift of production to the underground site, forced laborers replaced conscripts. Supplied by the SS concentration camps, these slave laborers were seen as no more than an expendable resource. Demands for project secrecy played a major role in this change, since the complete disposability of the latter group relieved managers from pressure to ensure worker discretion. At no point, Petersen finds, did the V-2 program leadership, on either the military or civilian side, ever object to or resist the use of conscript and slave labor. To be sure, gratuitous cruelty to prisoners was limited to a minority of the civilian managers--by regulation, punishment was left to the SS. Moreover, workers with valued skills, such as machine-tool operators, were usually treated with somewhat less harshness. These acts of seeming humanity, however, underline and convey the extent to which the V-2 project regarded its production workers as anything but human.
Petersen's book offers an interesting contrast to earlier studies of German missile research, which have highlighted the role of individual scientists. Such a work is Michael Neufeld's 2007 biography of Braun, a psychologically astute portrait of a singular individual. Although Petersen's more compact book also includes technical detail and acknowledges the importance of personalities in the research community, he concludes that the ways that individuals are acculturated in communities are crucial to our understanding of this period. Thus, in investigating the intersection between the search for material technology and the social engineering of the V-2, Missiles for the Fatherland enriches our understanding of the technical and social history of missile research, development, and production during the National Socialist era.
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Richard H. Beyler. Review of Petersen, Michael B., Missiles for the Fatherland: Peenemünde, National Socialism, and the V-2 Missile.
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