HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA – Wernher von Braun was the rocket engineer who designed the Nazi’s dreaded V-2 missile that rained death on Allied cities in World War II, and later the visionary architect behind the Apollo program that put man on the moon.
But to his children, he was also something else: dad.
“As a child, he was just my father,” said his second daughter Margrit von Braun, who was born in Huntsville, Alabama, where for decades her father has been celebrated as a hero.
“As an adult looking back I always think, why didn’t we pay more attention or keep a diary or a journal or something?”
As the West and Soviet Union scrambled to claim the Third Reich’s best minds following the war, the U.S. was able to exfiltrate von Braun, who promised them not only unused V-2 rockets, but also troves of documents and about a hundred of his top scientists and engineers.
They were first brought to Texas in September 1945, initially without their families, then in 1950 to what was then the tiny farming town of Huntsville, where the army transformed a weapons arsenal into a center for missile development.
The Germans and their families integrated perfectly. Margrit was born in 1952, eight years before the missile center was transferred to the newly created NASA. Von Braun was named the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.
“I had a pretty normal childhood growing up,” Margrit told AFP, who has returned to her hometown to take part in celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.
The von Brauns lived in a part of town filled with other German families. They spoke both German and English at home, and Margrit remains bilingual.
But “I never really used the term German-American, I’ve always considered myself an American first,” she said.
She left Huntsville to pursue her studies and has lived for the past 42 years in Idaho, where she became a professor of environmental engineering at the state university.
She also co-founded TerraGraphics, a nonprofit that works to reduce the human health impact of environmental contamination in countries such as Nigeria.
“My own journey has been much more Earthbound when my father was obviously, you know, going beyond Earth, and interested in going to other planets,” she said.
But, she added, their paths were more connected than one might first think.
“When we first saw the Earth, as a separate, beautiful blue marble in the universe, that was also really the birth of the environmental movement in this country.”
Margrit still remembers her father’s reaction that fateful day half a century ago when his colossal Saturn V rocket launched from Florida: “Almost the next day, they were talking about going to Mars.”
“If he were here today, he would be shocked and disappointed that not only have we not been back to the moon in a long time, but that we haven’t proceeded to go to Mars.”
If von Braun was consumed by his dreams of expanding mankind’s reach into space, one subject was definitely verboten: the war.
The scientist worked for the Nazi regime, managing the V-2 program from Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea.
Toward the end of the war, Hitler targeted London and Antwerp with the world’s first guided long-range ballistic missile, killing several thousand civilians and soldiers.
Even more are thought to have perished building the weapon. Between 10,000 and 20,000 forced laborers brought in from the Dora concentration camp died toiling in inhumane conditions.
Von Braun joined the Nazi party in 1937 and was also an officer of the feared paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS).
Historians are divided over how to view his legacy: the most strident call him a war criminal, while others see a man who had little choice but to go along with the totalitarian government of the time.
Still others argue against reducing historical figures to heroes or villains for easy narratives.
“The things that happened during wartime are very difficult to unravel,” said Margrit. “You may be asked to do things, but it’s not like you can say no.”
“I don’t think people have the kinds of choices that we living in a democracy in America can relate to,” she added.
For these reasons, she doesn’t appreciate it when people write “the Nazi Wernher von Braun.”
“The Americans recruited rocket scientists, and the rocket scientists helped America get to the moon. So I would think that characterization is more correct,” she said, without betraying any signs of irritation.
So how would she respond to historian Michael Neufeld, who wrote a biography on her father and told AFP the people of Huntsville are living in “profound denial”?
“I think that’s a pretty harsh thing to say,” she said, adding she had not read Neufeld’s work.
“I think that group of people came here to do something good. And to move America into a positive direction. And that’s what Huntsville is proud of.”