THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF A DISSENTER
Hungary, National-Conservatism, the Western Progressive Elite and Their Marionettes
On the one side, there is a national government that has carried out renationalization projects, confronted the greedy foreign-owned energy companies, and presided over a rise in real wages and a fall in unemployment. This same government imposed a bank tax and implemented several other measures to help ordinary people — including a government-decreed cut in energy bills.
On the other side, there is an opposition alliance that supports further privatization, wants more policies to benefit global “investors,” is unashamedly pro-banker and pro-globalist and whose main alliance partner when last in government imposed swinging cuts in public spending, destroyed state-owned companies, and left millions of ordinary people worse off.
Now, according to “traditional politics,” one would think that the government in question was “socialist” or “leftist” and the opposition “conservative” or “rightist.” But, in fact, it is the other way around.
The Mr. Viktor Orbán-led Hungarian government, labeled, among many others, “national-conservative,” which has just been returned to power with around 45 percent of the vote, has undoubtedly done more for ordinary people than the “socialist-liberal” opposition did when in power between 2002-2010. Hungary shows us that one should be careful of “traditional labels” when it comes to politics in the era of neoliberalism and globalization today. For sometimes it is “conservative” parties who can — and do — offer ordinary people far more than “socialist” or “progressive” ones, or the ones which claim to be on the “left” or “center-left.”
Across the West in recent years we have seen so-called “left” or “center-left” parties support illegal NATO wars, implement privatization, austerity measures, and other “reforms” aimed at benefiting the infamous “one percent” — the Western Elite. When people in France voted Socialist in the 2012 presidential elections they probably did not think they would get a president who is even more of a hawk than the bomber of Libya, Nicolas Sarkozy, but that is exactly what they got. Neither could British voters, who voted for the Labor Party in 1997, have predicted that Tony Blair would lead the country into a succession of aggressive wars, or that under Labor the gap between rich and poor would continue to rise as it had under the Conservatives.
One must be fully aware of how “progressive,” supposedly “leftist,” parties in Europe and in the U.S. have been advocating pro-war, pro-globalist, pro-neoliberal policies in the service of the Liberal Elite in recent years. In order not to be fooled, it is important that we do not judge politicians or parties by the names they give themselves but by what they do.
While Hungary’s “right-wing,” “national-conservative” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was taking on the energy companies, his predecessor and current “left-liberal” opponent, former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, was calling for a return of a “rational,” i.e., foreign-capital-friendly, economic policy. “We must offer a deal to investors: tax cuts in exchange for investment,” Mr. Bajnai said. And while Hungary‘s Economy Minister Mr. Mihály Varga has warned that sanctions on Russia would not be in Hungary’s national interest, which they most certainly are not, Mr. Bajnai and other members of the “progressive,” “left-liberal” Unity Alliance, have blasted the government for failing to “stand up” for Ukraine and condemn Russia. The agenda of the Hungarian opposition is there for all to see.
The pro-Big Business globalists masquerading as “progressives” did not fool the Hungarian people: the opposition block only got around 25 percent of the votes.
The already predictable “international reaction” to the Hungarian election result is revealing too. There have been lots of tweets, articles, and other opinion-making from establishment commentators in the West expressing, among others, alarm over the rise of Jobbik, a radical nationalist, if not far-right, party, which received around 20 percent of the vote, up 4 percent from four years ago.
Yet, interestingly, the same band of establishment commentators who warn the “international community” about the dangers of Jobbik in Hungary, just a few weeks earlier supported a violent far-right, neo-Nazi-led coup against a democratically-elected government in neighboring Ukraine. The public was apparently not supposed to see the coming to power of western-supported racists, anti-Semites and homophobes in Ukraine as a problem. But the “deeply concerned” international community is expected to have sleepless nights over the support for Jobbik in Hungary, even though that party will not be part of the new government, just like it was not in the previous one either. The leaders of the far-right nationalists in Ukraine have, however, been immediately included and installed in the new “interim Ukrainian government” in Kiev, enthusiastically supported by the West.
So, why these double standards then? Because Jobbik is anti-EU, anti-NATO — but not anti-Russia, unlike radical ultranationalist groups in Ukraine. Putting it differently, the Western Elite base their views concerning ultranationalist parties not on an objective assessment of the groups concerned, and how extreme and neo-Nazi they actually are, but where they stand in relation to the Russian-led National-Conservative Alternative, and whether these groups can help the Western Elite achieve their geo-strategic objectives. The Western public is meant to hate Jobbik (which is against the Western Elite) with a vengeance, but it is meant to admire and support similarly or even more extreme and violent far-right groups (if they are for the Western Elite) wearing masks, torturing policemen, throwing Molotov cocktails, and forcibly toppling a democratically elected government.
It is for the same reason, of course, the Orbán-led Hungarian government receives almost exclusively negative or skewed coverage in the Western elitist media. Hungary's national-conservative government gets a bad press because it has become increasingly EU-skeptic, edged away from neo-liberalism, imposed taxes on foreign multinationals, and consequently pursued closer financial and economic ties and greater cooperation with other (non-Western) countries, including Russia, China, and India. In addition, it has stood up to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), paid back the loans the previous socialist government burdened the country with, and reoriented Hungary from a left-leaning political and socio-economic course to a national-conservative direction — much to the chagrin of the EUSA-led Western Elite.
Viktor Orbán’s policy is to stay in the EU, preferably be a “part of the West” — but to do what is best for Hungary. It is a stance that is clearly popular with the Hungarian voters, but not with Brussels or Washington. The Western Elite hate any government, which combines even a modicum of national-conservatism with economic populism, as Orbán’s government does. Big Business had it very easy in Hungary during the period 2002-2010 when the socialists were in power, selling off the country’s assets and taking an IMF loan the country did not need; now, global capital is not so happy with Budapest’s more independently-minded direction.
Meanwhile, we can expect the Western attacks on Hungary to continue. It is, after all, the treatment given to any country where an election does not go the way the “one percent" wants it.
Ukraine: Federalism Instead of Nationalism
May 5, 2014
Various politicians in the West have routinely characterized the potential solution to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, consistently put forward by the Russian Federation’s government, as the equivalent to the lunatic ravings of madmen. With the current “interim revolutionary government of Ukraine,” some would claim that Russia has no business making proposals about the kind of political system Ukraine ought to adopt. However, the European geopolitical reality is such that when any nation fails at peaceful and orderly self-government, its instability creates a general crisis for its neighbors.
Long-standing European practice has been to resolve such problems through a concerted effort of nation-states, particularly neighboring states. At times the resulting actions were unjust, violent interventions; at other times, they were peaceful, political measures agreed to by all parties involved after proper and adequate consideration and deliberation. Ukraine needs billions of dollars or euros while simultaneously demanding that Russia provide gas at below-market prices. If Ukraine requires such remedies while making demands on others, perhaps Russia — a neighboring country Ukraine owes many billions — should also be allowed to make some suggestions about the type of political improvements Ukraine might consider for bettering its condition.
It is folly to deny Russia’s interest and right to be concerned for its Ukrainian neighbor’s political stability and economic development. When Poland, the Baltic States, and even far away America can claim such a right, surely Russia may be entitled to do so as well. If a peaceful political solution is to be found, due consideration and deliberation behoove us to take all proposals seriously. Sadly, the European Union and the United States have refrained from serious political recommendations, preferring mere platitudes about freedom and democracy instead. President Obama’s recent speech only revealed his ignorance of contemporary European history when he erred in describing how Kosovo gained independence and was full of banalities about territorial integrity and democracy.
What is required here is serious political thought, not public relations slogans intended for the Western audience’s continued blindfolding. Let me turn then, in this spirit, to the relevant issues:
1. Federalism vs. the Unitary State
There are numerous positive and negative aspects to unitary statehood, of which the positive seems to outweigh the negative only under conditions of unitary nationality. A homogeneous nation, by which I mean a people united mainly by language, culture, religion, and shared history, does not require a federal political order. After all, federalism is an artifice, an “efficacy of political science,” neither natural nor organic nor historical. Federalism offers a possible remedy to the natural conflicts bound to arise in a heterogeneous political body, which covers a large expanse of territory and wherein local and general interests continuously collide. Factions and dissension along political lines can emerge even within a small homogeneous nation, but experience seems to demonstrate that differences in political thought and opinion are never as potentially explosive as differences in ethnicity, language, religion, and culture.
Germany can be one example demonstrating the difference between federalism and unitary statehood. The old German kingdoms and principalities were long divided by religious and cultural differences. The semi-autonomous nature of the German states within the Weimar Republic after World War I made possible the pursuit of general German interests while at the same time retaining local autonomy in key areas for each of the German states. In Germany, the institution of federalism following World War II led to the recovery of German liberty and prosperity, German national unity, and presently global economic power.
Suffice it to say that the point here is merely to underscore that federalism is never natural, organic, or historical. Federalism is a remedy applicable to political bodies, which are heterogeneous by nature or circumstance, but it is unnecessary where political bodies are mostly homogeneous. Is it then a good idea to treat the destructive faction now infecting Ukraine with the federalist remedy?
2. Nationalism and Federalism
In American political parlance, federalism goes hand in hand with nationalism. The “American system” is a vision made possible by a strong, effective federal government. This federal government performs its enumerated constitutional role with energy and dedication for the common good, leaving the States and the people the performance of those things not listed in the Constitution as federal powers and understood as the local good. American national pride is bound to the idea and practice of federalism. America’s 20th and 21st-century departures from federalism in favor of the unitary national government and administrative state rather than self-rule have led to many woes and always contributed to a feeling of national malaise.
For Americans, nationalism and federalism are interwoven: American nationalism would not be possible without American federalism. This fact may make it difficult for Americans to understand why Ukrainian nationalists (whether extreme or moderate) and Polish nationalists oppose federalism and favor the unitary nation-state with such vehemence. If, reasons the American mind, federalism allows for the respect for local rule and custom while also expanding general cooperation for the public good, how can this be detrimental to national pride or national welfare? Russian nationalists, who, like Americans, inhabit a federated republic, may be presumed to think likewise — thus their governments’ proposal: why not federalism for Ukraine?
The problem with federalism for Poles and Ukrainians is nationalism: for Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, nationalism is ethnic, racial, linguistic, and cultural. A nation, connected in a natural political body by these things, constitutes a state to govern the territory it inhabits. To create a federal government is to invite factionalism, which had never been there in the first place — or so the theory goes. Federalism, in this view, is the beginning of national disintegration. Polish nationalists fear, for example, that introducing federalism in Poland would lead in the short term to greater autonomy for the remaining German minority and, possibly in the long term, an ultimate secession and “return” to German rule, or the establishment of a “Silesian republic.” Given the Polish historical phobia stemming from several partitions and the German invasion in 1939, the mere possibility of regional autonomy under federalism’s guise is treated by Polish nationalists as outright treason.
Ukrainian nationalists likely reason in a similar fashion. If Ukraine were to adopt a federal system and grant greater autonomy to its various regions, what — asks the Ukrainian nationalist mind — would stop these regions from opting to secede in the future or coming under Russia’s influence? To the Ukrainian nationalist, federalism means either national partition and possibly the end of Ukraine as a political entity or its diminution.
3. The Nature of the Current Crisis: History and the Present
The problem for Ukraine is that, due to the repeated failure of democracy, coupled with the recent coup, elements of its heterogeneous population have concluded that they have been disenfranchised. The notion is nothing but abnormal that it was justified and democratic to foment an illegal coup d’etat against the president of the country, Viktor Yanukovych, who fairly and legally won 12 million (49%) votes in 2010. The Maidan coup was not a popular uprising favored by a clear majority of Ukrainians. Little wonder that the silent majority who supported Victor Yanukovych is no longer quiet and, rather than participate in another election, the results of which might against be overturned by Western interests, feel helpless, defenseless, with some desiring secession, autonomy, and union with Russia.
So, why and how did people, who are so polarized and divided, ever get to be citizens of one nation-state in the first place? If there is ever a peaceful solution to the crisis, this question must be addressed.
Under Stalin and Hitler, the areas constituting modern Poland and Ukraine were the victims of ethnic cleansing and forced repatriation. Hitler’s motives were clear: people of German descent could join the Reich, while “lesser races” were to become slaves or raw material. The Soviet reasons were more subtle but complicated: Stalin knew that it was necessary to smash nationally homogenous populations and forcibly mix nationalities so that no one would ever be “at home” — to protect the Soviet Union from national uprisings within its constituent parts.
Modern Poland’s borders were fashioned accordingly after the war: Poland’s western territories had belonged to Germany and been inhabited by Germans before World War II. The western part of modern Ukraine belonged to Poland and was inhabited by Poles. Historically, most of modern Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, which was later broken up and divided between Austria-Hungary and other states.
Stalin forcibly “shifted” Poland’s territory to the west by taking Germany’s eastern regions, removing the German population inhabiting them, then giving these areas to the new, postwar Communist People’s Republic of Poland. In “return,” Stalin incorporated the eastern part of historic Poland into the new Soviet Republic of Ukraine.
The native inhabitants of all of these territories were either murdered in ethnic cleansing during World War II or forcibly removed and replaced afterward. The repercussions of these actions are mainly being played out now.
The Ukraine divisions stem primarily from the fact that the country is an artifice created from remnants of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Second Polish Republic, and from some Russian territories. Although it is true, there is a danger in this line of thinking — for every European country can quickly be “proven” to be a “historical artifice” — but just as one must not use history to invent over-simplified excuses for conquest and partition, one certainly cannot ignore the facts when seeking to understand and remedy the consequences of history.
However, one other historical element to consider here is the notion of “World War II.” I have come to agree with the historical revisionists’ views: there was no such thing as “World War II” as a separate “entity.” There was a 20th-century war of ideologies, lasting, at least in my mind, 77 years from 1914 through 1991). The Ukrainian crisis only solidifies my view.
Rather than being “civilized and Western” Europeans, we are again dealing with old demons in Ukraine. These demons have very old and deep historical roots. Ask the Russians about World War II, and you will learn that to them, it is the “Great Patriotic War,” which started in 1941. They know little about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Poland’s invasion by Soviet forces on September 17th, 1939; they only know that Fascists took over Europe and then attacked the Soviet Union. According to this view, Soviet soldiers in Eastern Europe, like American soldiers in Western Europe, were liberators. According to popular Russian thinking, the Great Patriotic War liberated Eastern Europe from fascism and then defended the people from American imperialism during the Cold War.
I write this not because it is a true and accurate assessment of history but because it is the accepted view lodged firmly in millions of Russians and Ukrainians’ hearts and minds. The history of the war is not so clear-cut in Poland either. The brief Polish civil war of the 1920s was carried over and intensified in the 1940s when two separate armies emerged: the Polish People’s Army (the communists), fighting on Stalin’s side against both Hitler and the perceived “capitalists” and “aristocrats” exploiting Polish farmers and workers, and the National Army, fighting against both Germans and Russians while naively believing that the British would come to their aid any minute if only Poles fought in the Battle of Britain or Tobruk. The People’s Army was victorious (with the Red Army’s help, of course), the National Army continued fighting after 1945 in certain regions, and its members were murdered, jailed, or ultimately fled the country. Only now are Polish veterans of the National Army honored for their service against Hitler and Stalin.
Now, if you were a veteran of this terrible war, a decorated hero of the Soviet Union, who suddenly found himself living in post-communist Ukraine and getting a fraction of the veterans’ benefits allotted to Russian citizens, you would probably feel cheated. If you were a one-time Soviet citizen who worked all his life for a pension, which, since Ukrainian independence, is now a fraction of what Russians receive, you would feel cheated. If you were a Ukrainian citizen whose family was Jewish, Polish, or Russian massacred by Ukrainian nationalists under the controversial figure, if not terrorist, Stepan Bandera, you would no doubt be aghast that Americans financed the followers of Bandera who overthrew your elected government and installed Nazis who immediately began reintroducing nationalist laws. You would look at Crimea, where President Putin has guaranteed respect for all national groups, made Tatar, Ukrainian, and Russian official languages, and equalized Crimean pensions with Russian pensions, as a model to be followed. You may even realize that Crimeans are now part of the largest free trade zone on Earth with a 13% flat tax instead of a progressive tax regime in a bankrupt and corrupt country.
The Polish view of the 20th century War of Ideologies is different — as are the American, British, and German viewpoints. Germans sometimes pretend that the Nazis were an alien body that “took over Germany” rather than an outgrowth of German nationalism, paganism, and scientific socialism. The Poles paint themselves as a democracy victimized by both fascists and communists but omit their collaboration with the Nazis during the annexation of Czechoslovakia, brushing aside their own national socialist dictatorship, which came about after the overthrow of an inept but democratic government in 1926. The British and Americans see themselves as valiant liberators and opponents of a mass-murderer monster but ignore the fact they were themselves allies and facilitators of the most murderous regime in history and that their policies contributed to the destruction of Europe. They lament concentration camps but considered Japanese internment necessary and cast the British concentration camps in South Africa down the memory hole.
As long as the wars of the 20th century are taught in the various countries in such sanitized forms, with heroes and villains rather than as a tragic War of Ideologies contrasted with the more civilized eras of a bygone age, the peoples in different countries will feel themselves to be victims and never see how they may have been oppressors to others.
Peace requires that we realize that all of us are victims of the ideologies of the 20th century and of the governments and interests who remorselessly push for war. Happily, some nations have taken some critical steps in this direction. President Putin acknowledged Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre of Poles, long held to be the doing of the Nazis. Germany has by and large taken great strides in acknowledging its crimes and compensating its victims. Poland has reconciled with Germany and was on the path toward reconciling with Russia until the present Ukraine crisis.
It is lamentable, embarrassing, and depressing that the Polish and American governments have so callously abandoned the work of truth and reconciliation, allying themselves with Nazi supporters of a Ukrainian branch of the Waffen-SS, which murdered Poles by the thousands, all to undermine Ukrainian democracy in favor of installing a puppet government with questionable public support. It is alarming to think that all this is being done to isolate and punish Russia for its leading role in providing a “national-conservative alternative” to the Western Elite.
4. The Proposal for a Federated Ukraine
In light of the above, it seems reasonable to consider the proposal for the federalization of Ukraine as a potential method for deflating the crisis. The prime minister of Ukraine categorically opposes this method, hoping that the new elections — scheduled for May — could potentially calm the situation by introducing a fully legitimate government and president, chosen in a popular ballot.
I am, however, pessimistic. Ukraine has had a number of fair and free elections, but they seem to have produced nothing but an ever-deepening crisis. Ukraine appears to be awash with competing outside interests manipulating its politics, it has its share of domestic oligarchs who care little for the people, and the country shows no signs of having developed an authentic civil society during the past few decades. The coup in Kyiv, predictably, only elevated the already heightened tension in the country and is presently the precursor to what might erupt into civil war.
Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s claim that all of the secessionist demonstrators springing up in the east and south are merely paid Russian stooges is arrogant and demeaning to people who happen to be Russian and have the right to self-determination. But it is equally disingenuous and detracting to claim that the protestors in Kyiv were all paid Western stooges.
If all this were true, it would have to mean that Ukrainians as a people are incapable of self-government, and their country is only fiction. Are there no other people in that country besides fascist thugs and Russian agents? I cannot believe that. The Maidan demonstrators were a mix of fascist thugs and regular people naively egged on by manipulating sponsors.
The West continues to escalate tensions while its publicized “peaceful solution” to the crisis seems to hope for the best in the upcoming elections. Given the recent history of “democratic elections” in Ukraine, this is a somewhat naïve, if not insincere, hope. Given the vast divisions running through Ukraine, federalism is likely to be the only way to balance and pacify the competing ethnic, religious, and cultural factions and prevent civil war. Ukraine is a construct of extreme circumstances and cannot be perceived as a homogenous nation with deep roots and a deep yearning for liberal democracy. Federalization could diffuse tension and restore order while also giving greater freedom and autonomy to Ukraine’s distinctly different regions.
Ukrainian federalism would mean national disintegration only if the Ukrainian government in Kyiv continued demonstrating that it is incompetent and incapable of governing. If the Kyiv government cannot govern because Ukraine is indeed so splintered and divided as to be incapable of self-government, if the world continues observing Ukrainians beating one another on the streets and in parliament while oligarchs are vying for power and attempting to suck Europe, Russia, and America into a broader conflict to serve their own interests, then perhaps federalism will offer the only peaceful resolution indeed to the inevitable disintegration of Ukraine.
If there are true Ukrainian patriots in the country, genuinely committed to a permanently peaceful existence rather than continued fighting in the foreseeable future, they will want to have their own nation-state with its safety and security guaranteed by all. As long as people can freely vote in peaceful elections, as long as security, lawful order, and liberty are respected, as long as healthy economic development based on political stability is assured, why is “territorial integrity” a priority? This concept is the “integrity” of an artifice that makes its very own existence “unreal,” nebulous, and questionable.
Why not make peace and freedom, self-determination, and political stability the priorities instead? Of course, no political remedy will work unless there is a concerted effort by Russia, the U.S., and Europe to deflate the crisis rather than escalating it by playing off Ukrainians against one another and pursuing policies, which only serve narrow and short-term interests.
Ignorance, it seems, is the prelude to crisis and war. When Isaac Asimov once said that the 21st century would be guided by one idea, ”no more 20th centuries,” he was engaging in wishful thinking.
Time will tell for sure.
Essential Option: In Defense of Wernher von Braun
Rocket Pioneer, Space Visionary, Engineering Manager, German Idealist, American Realist
Few lives are as worthy of expounding on as the life of Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer who pioneered America’s entry into the Space Age yet morally compromised by his past complicity with the Nazi regime. A kind of Faustian shadow may be discerned in — or imposed on — the fascinating career of Wernher von Braun: a man so possessed of a vision, of intellectual hunger, that any accommodation may be justified in its pursuit.
His life is a symbol of the temptations of all engineers and scientists. Driven by a hunger for exploration, adventure, and fame, von Braun certainly was single-minded in his space ambitions, but like Goethe’s Dr. Faust, he made a bargain with the devil to carry out vast engineering projects, rationalizing them as being for the greater good of humanity.
However, all evidence suggests that he was not even aware he had made such a bargain until relatively late in the war. His conservative nationalist upbringing and inclination toward apolitical opportunism made it easy to work for the Nazi regime, which asked for little at first beyond keeping quiet. Gradually, through seduction and pressure, he was drawn deeper into the system. In the end, he had to accept the brutal exploitation of concentration camp laborers, and he had to play his part in administering that exploitation, implicating him in crimes against humanity. Like Goethe’s Faust, he divorced himself from personal responsibility. However, after he toured the Mittelwerk tunnels in late 1943, he could have had no illusions about what that meant for the prisoners. A few months later, his Gestapo arrest was the final straw; he finally and belatedly understood that he was “aiding an evil regime.”
Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun (March 23, 1912—June 16, 1977), engineer and spaceflight pioneer, developed a lifelong enthusiasm for astronomy and space. His childhood dream was to transport a man to the Moon and discover new worlds.
In 1931-1932, von Braun took part in experiments with liquid propellant rockets conducted under Rudolph Nebel’s leadership at the “Raketenflugplatz,” an abandoned ammunition dump in a Berlin suburb. Colonel Karl Becker and his young subordinates in the German army’s ordnance department, who had supplied at least partial funding for the experiments, quickly lost confidence in the publicity-loving Nebel and most of the rocketeers. Captain Walter Dornberger, who later assumed military command of the German rocket development center, however, was struck by von Braun’s “energy and shrewdness . . . and by his astonishing theoretical knowledge.”
Almost alone among the rocketeers, the 20-year old von Braun recognized that achieving the dream of spaceflight would require enormous sums of money that only a government could afford. As no government was likely to invest such sums in a purely scientific program, the development of rocket-propelled weapons would pave the way to space. He signed his first contract with army ordnance in November 1932. As part of the arrangement, he was encouraged to work on his doctorate, granted by the University of Berlin in 1934. Working behind a protective veil of military secrecy, von Braun and a handful of assistants built three series of rockets, A-1, A-2, and A-3.
By 1936, it was apparent that any further development of rocket weapons would still require much larger expenditures. Von Braun selected Peenemünde, a stretch of isolated beach on the Baltic coast, as the site for a facility dedicated to research, design, development, construction, and testing of reaction-propelled weapons for the German army and air force.
In 1937 Wernher von Braun joined the National Socialist German Workers Party, and in 1940 he became an officer in the Waffen-SS. During this time, he developed the A-4, or better known as the V-2, the rocket that was launched toward London in 1944, which led him to say: “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.”
On joining the National Socialist German Workers Party, he said: “My refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activities…”
The nature of von Braun’s commitment to the Nazi regime and the extent of his involvement with the slave labor system are complex issues. Postwar U.S. Army reports indicate that von Braun linked himself to Nazi organizations to enhance his career and advance his program’s political acceptability.
At its peak in 1943, the Peenemünde facility employed 1,950 scientists, engineers, and technicians, most of them dedicated to working on the V-1, a pilotless flying bomb developed for the Luftwaffe, and the A-4, or V-2, the world’s first large ballistic missile, developed by the von Braun team.
First successfully flown on October 3, 1942, the V-2 stood 46.1 feet high and weighed 28,000 pounds when fully fueled and ready for flight. A rocket engine burning fifty gallons of liquid oxygen and alcohol per second for sixty-eight critical seconds would drive the missile to a maximum altitude of sixty miles and drop one ton of high explosive on a target up to 220 miles away some five minutes after launch.
Initial plans called for Peenemünde to be a center for the production of operational V-2 weapons. Following a Royal Air Force bombing raid on 17–18 August 1943, rocket production was transferred to an underground factory near Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains. The extension of existing tunnels, equipment installation, and rocket manufacturing involved extensive use of slave labor. Between 1943 and 1945, some 60,000 slave laborers from all over occupied Europe were put to work in the tunnels. More concentration camp slave laborers were killed building the V-2 rockets than by its use as a weapon.
As the technical director in Peenemünde, von Braun had no administrative responsibility for the oversight of slave labor. However, he was not completely free of involvement with the brutal system: He accepted the use of forced labor at Peenemünde and was fully aware of the horrors of Nordhausen, where workers were starved, beaten, and executed. A contemporary document places him at a meeting at Nordhausen on May 1, 1944, in which the discussion focused on the expansion of the slave labor system.
The depth of von Braun’s commitment to the overarching dream of spaceflight was apparent to the Nazi leadership. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and charged with having placed his enthusiasm for space travel above the need to develop an effective weapon. Walter Dornberger effected von Braun’s release from prison after two-week confinement by arguing that the brilliant young engineer was indispensable to the success of the V-2 program.
In the early spring of 1945, von Braun and the other leaders of Peenemünde, threatened by advancing Soviet troops, began to ship documents, equipment, essential technicians, and their families to central Germany, where they surrendered to the U.S. Army. The leadership of U.S. Army ordnance, anxious to take advantage of the enormous German advances in rocket technology, offered employment contracts to von Braun and about 120 of his colleagues and subordinates. False employment records were fabricated to expunge von Braun’s Nazi affiliations from public records.
Before then, the real foundation of his career had not been space but rather the interest of nation-states in the revolutionary strategic potential of the ballistic missile. He had to offer not his space plans but rather his “indisputable genius” to manage big military-industrial engineering projects. As a nuts-and-bolts rocket technology designer, he was no better than many others, but he had few peers as a manager.
He had a vision of building a giant engineering organization for producing such a radical new technology. Without him, it is hard to imagine that the German army’s liquid-fuel rocket project would ever have succeeded in developing the V-2. Although the V-2 was a profound failure both strategically and militarily, that vehicle paved the way for the future intercontinental ballistic missile.
In America, Wernher von Braun managed to produce three more fundamental contributions as a U.S. immigrant and citizen by making spaceflight a reality to the public, leading the team that launched the first American satellite in 1958, and managing the development of the gigantic launch vehicles that sent humans to the Moon. The Saturn rockets were his masterworks; astonishingly, not one failed catastrophically in flight.
Initially, the members of the German team were housed at Fort Bliss, Texas, and set to work teaching, advising, and assisting General Electric engineers and army technicians who would reassemble and launch a series of captured V-2 rockets from the new missile test center near White Sands, New Mexico. A total of sixty-four of the rockets, most of them carrying scientific instruments, achieved altitudes of up to 133 miles. Special V-2s fitted with U.S.-developed WAC Corporal missiles as upper stages reached record altitudes of 244 miles.
In 1950, the U.S. Army transferred the group to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where von Braun became technical director, then chief of the Guided Missile Development Division. He worked hard to integrate his group into the developing American rocket program while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the German team. The Germans’ experience and expertise and von Braun’s leadership kept the team at the center of the American missile effort.
The early 1950s were slow years for the American rocket program. Funds were limited as von Braun and the Huntsville Germans set to work on the Redstone rocket (a natural extension of V-2 technology), the first large guided missile introduced into the U.S. Army arsenal.
Between 1950 and 1956, von Braun led the United States Army’s rocket development team, resulting in the Redstone rocket used for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests. He then developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket, which successfully launched the West’s first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958, signaling the birth of America’s space program.
Von Braun also emerged as the best-known American spokesman for spaceflight during these years. He was heavily involved in developing a series of articles on the subject for Collier’s magazine (1952-1953) and was the principal on-camera personality for three episodes of the “Disneyland” television show (1955-1956) devoted to spaceflight. He made numerous other television appearances, authored or co-authored popular books on the subject, and became a familiar figure to the readers of mass-circulation magazines such as Time and Look.
As the leading American authority on spaceflight, von Braun was involved in the early planning for a U.S. earth satellite. As early as 1955, he pointed out that, with a few relatively minor alterations, one of the modified Redstone rockets developed by the Huntsville team would be capable of sending a small, instrumented spacecraft into earth orbit. However, President Dwight Eisenhower, anxious to demonstrate America’s peaceful intentions in space, announced that the U.S. Navy’s Vanguard program would launch the first U.S. satellite. The Vanguard rocket was based on technology demonstrated in the Viking, a scientific research rocket, rather than on the Redstone or Jupiter missiles, designed to carry nuclear payloads.
The launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1, the world’s first earth satellite, on October 4, 1957, came as a stunning blow to American self-confidence. When U.S. secretary of defense Neil McElroy visited Huntsville the following day, von Braun pressed his case, promising to launch a U.S. satellite within ninety days. “When you get back to Washington and all hell breaks loose,” he told the secretary, “tell them we’ve got the hardware down here to put up a satellite any time.”
In November 1957, officials in Washington, D.C., instructed von Braun and his crew to “back up” the Project Vanguard team by preparing to launch a satellite of their own. Less than a month later, on December 6, 1957, the Vanguard rocket scheduled to launch the first U.S. satellite into orbit exploded on the launch pad.
On January 31, 1958, Explorer I roared into orbit on the nose of a modified Jupiter C, and von Braun had led the United States into space. He finally won, saved America — and he could have done it much earlier!
He was celebrated on the cover of Time magazine in 1958 as “MISSILEMAN VON BRAUN” and developed the idea of a Space Camp for children, training them in fields of science and space technologies as well as mental development. He also worked at Disney Studios as a technical director for television films about space exploration.
It would seem, then, that his intentions were well-meaning. Indeed, throughout his life, von Braun claimed to have remained committed to the ethical use of technology: “All of man’s scientific and engineering efforts will be in vain unless they are performed and utilized within a framework of ethical standards commensurate with the magnitude of the scope of the technological revolution. The more technology advances, the more fateful will be its impact on humanity.”
Wernher von Braun held a strong position regarding religion and science, stating that the two are not antagonists but sisters: “My experiences with science led me to God. They challenge science to prove the existence of God. But must we really light a candle to see the sun?” He justified handing over his research to the United States Army as a moral choice: “We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”
The Huntsville team continued to lead the American space program with other Explorer satellites and Pioneer space probes. Moreover, von Braun had begun planning a new generation of large rocket boosters. In July 1960, following a series of bureaucratic maneuvers, the U.S. Army turned the Redstone Arsenal rocket program over to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Von Braun was named the first director of NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), responsible for booster development.
The new organization played a vital role in the early NASA effort. Alan B. Shepard and Virgil I. Grissom, the first two American space voyagers, were boosted aloft on suborbital missions aboard Redstone launchers. Von Braun and his team helped plan the Apollo missions to the moon, and the Saturn boosters developed at the Marshall center were the key to that program’s success. Between October 1961 and July 1975, NASA sent thirty-two Saturn I, IB, and V rockets into space. They were the largest, heaviest, and most complex flying machines constructed to that date. The program ran its course without any failure severe enough to prevent even one rocket from performing its assigned task.
Von Braun’s dream to help humans set foot on the Moon became a reality on July 16, 1969. In 1975 he received the National Medal of Science for “his work in making the liquid-fuel rocket a practical launch vehicle and for individual contributions to a series of advanced space vehicles, culminating in the Saturn series that made the Apollo program possible.” Von Braun’s “baby” went on to influence missile technology in the United States, the USSR, France, Britain, and China, accelerating the arrival of the ICBM and the space launch vehicle by perhaps a decade. Nothing von Braun did in his life was ever as influential as that.
In March 1970, von Braun moved to Washington, D.C., where he became deputy associate administrator of NASA with responsibility for planning. Discouraged by the difficulties of developing a visionary plan for America’s future in space during the post-Apollo era of shrinking NASA budgets, he retired from the agency in 1972 to become vice president of engineering and development with Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland. Von Braun also devoted much time and energy to his duties as chairman of the board (1974-1977) of the National Space Institute, an organization designed to encourage popular support for an expanded space effort. He died at his home in Alexandria, Virginia.
For all of his successes, von Braun was never able to escape his own past entirely. “For most Americans,” noted a Washington Post obituary editorial on von Braun, “it has never been possible . . . to hear mention of the name Wernher von Braun, space pioneer, without thinking, uncomfortably, of Wernher von Braun, rocket builder by appointment to Adolf Hitler” (June 23, 1977). The Washington Star concurred, calling attention to the “Faustian shadow” of von Braun, “a man so possessed of a vision, of an intellectual hunger, that any accommodation may be justified in its pursuit” (June 20, 1977).
“The road to hell,” wrote Marx, “is paved with good intentions.” Indeed, he should have known. To separate science from the economic formations that support it would be a grave mistake. The marriage of science and technology to industry began in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the industrial revolution, entailing the breaking down of labor processes into its components. The consequences were horrific and dehumanizing. As newly discovered machines and inventions grew larger, manufacturing developed its foundations for large-scale industry, giving birth to a mechanical monster. An elite superior class of skilled and scientifically educated engineers, who designed the machines, would now reign over the laborers in alliance with the industrialists — a partnership not much different from that between religion and the feudal state that preceded it. Under this scheme, technological innovation meant better efficiency and extra immediate profit for the industrialist.
Simultaneously, as capitalism technologically matured, its philosophy was refined. The influence of Social Darwinism was fundamental to this. Natural scientists frequently ended up with, at best partial and at worst serious, misinterpretations of the world.
The Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand, whose book “Atlas Shrugged” was published in the 1950s, and by the 1990s, it became the second most popular book after the Bible in the United States, devised what she referred to as a new heroic code of morality — that of Objectivism. According to this code, man’s highest moral achievement is achieving his own happiness, and each man must live as an end in himself, following his own rational self-interest. The group most inspired by Rand was the entrepreneurs and scientists of Silicon Valley in California, who worked on biotechnology, computers, the Internet, and networking. Many of them named their companies and even their children after Rand and her novels. They saw themselves as Randian heroes, practicing the “virtues of selfishness.” Alongside Rand were economists, philosophers, artists, and politicians, who helped establish her code as the benchmark for a free and ethically progressive civilized West. However, herein lies Rand’s noble irony, for her code lends itself untroubled in legitimizing oppression and domination.
One may become suspicious of the ethics of Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” hero, John Galt, who invites his audience to change the world by pronouncing the following oath: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Technology and science, it seems, have come to embody the unforgiving and resentfully charged capitalist ego, whereby the noble claim that it is all for the “betterment of mankind” is cheaply repeated without any meaning whatsoever to justify more corporate greed, more consumption, and more exploitation.
Perhaps today, at the very epitome of notorious globalization, the Left is in the position to judge whether such a code is ethical or not and, in doing so, reject the noble irony of Wernher von Braun and Ayn Rand as examples to live by. Ever since the early 1980s, shortly after von Braun’s death, there has been a chiefly leftist attempt to charge him with Nazi crimes. It would be interesting to know, of course, whether these charges have ever been brought up, had von Braun been captured by the Soviets after the war, and if he had worked on the Soviet space programs and weapons instead of the American ones.
Wernher von Braun has been found guilty by the Left for two reasons:
1) He worked first in National Socialist Germany (against the Soviet Union, among others), then in the “capitalist and imperialist” United States of America (once more against the Soviet Union);
2) He was successful in both countries, a “real winner,” an admired and respected personality and manager.
For the above two reasons, von Braun has been singled out from a long line of famous German engineers and scientists, who held management positions in Nazi Germany, were members of the Nazi party, even the SA or SS (for example, Kurt Debus), and contributed to the American military effort and space programs against the Soviet Union.
His outstanding accomplishments make von Braun the most influential rocket engineer and spaceflight advocate of the twentieth century. Others — above all, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Robert Goddard — proved that spaceflight was technically feasible. Goddard went further, developing the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, but he was a poor engineer and one constitutionally unsuited to leading a larger group.
It fell to the second generation of rocket and space enthusiasts — chief among them being Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, the Soviet engineer and manager behind Sputnik — to realize the founders’ vision by serving their governments as engineering leaders in the development of ballistic missiles, then by selling those governments on the idea of spaceflight.
In terms of firsts, Korolev’s team launched the world’s first ICBM, the first satellite, the first object to escape the Earth, the first object to hit the Moon, the first man, and the first woman in space. All that was arguably due to the unimaginative and narrow-minded American leadership not grasping either the unique talent, skill, and experience of the scientists, engineers, and managers it had on hand or the enormous political, scientific, and military opportunities they presented. Furthermore, Korolev’s postwar accomplishments were also founded on German technology: by Stalin’s order, he started over in 1945–46 by copying the V-2.
Five hundred years from now, humans may remember little of the twentieth century except for the two World Wars, nuclear bomb, industrialized mass murder, totalitarian dictatorships, and vast technological advancements, such as the emergence of computer networks, the achievement of powered flight, or the first steps into space.
In those terms, at least, Wernher von Braun deserves to be remembered as one of the seminal engineers, scientists, and managers of the twentieth century. His life is, simultaneously, a symbol of the eternal and everlasting temptations of engineers and scientists: the temptation to work on new and complex systems in the name of duty to one’s nation, the temptation to work “for the devil,” i.e., science, and the temptation to work for fame and glory — in return for the resources to carry out the research closest to one’s heart.
In the same token, one could discuss the age-old but ever-recurring philosophical questions concerning “technical experts,” the engineers and scientists who have developed and worked on thermonuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, military equipment, and hardware of all sorts, directly or indirectly causing the death of millions of people. They all served their respective countries.
Wernher von Braun happened to be German and happened to live in the 20th century. Yes, no one can or should deny the slave labor used, among others, in Peenemünde and Nordhausen. Von Braun knew about it and did not, and could not, do anything to prevent it. This fact is precisely the age-old Faustian riddle between physicists (technicians) and philosophers (theologians). But it is disingenuous to blame the executioner (scientist) for the crimes of politicians responsible for the state and its laws.
However, the nature and scope of von Braun’s achievement are beyond question. He headed the team that developed the world’s first large ballistic missile and built the rockets that carried the first American satellite into orbit, the first Americans into space and the first human beings to the moon. He indeed was a twentieth-century Faust — but so were many others with far less ability and dedication. The government and the people of the United States realize that.
And it would be preferable, timely, and fair if the German government and people also had the courage to do the same.
Germans, such as Ernst Thälmann, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Wilhelm Pieck, Otto Grotewohl, Otto Arndt, Kurt Bürger, Erwin Kramer or Otto Winzer, all of them communist theoreticians, leaders, or party functionaries, can still have streets named after them in German cities and towns. But today, the German people are not allowed to remember one of their other sons whose talent and accomplishments they misused first, and who, against all odds and despite the terrible time and historical circumstances, could successfully achieve the goal he had set out for himself with great aspiration.