Monday, 12 May 2014

A visit to Peenemünde

Approaching the Historical-Technical Museum at the Power Plant in Peenemünde with full-scale V-2 rocket. Chris Gainor Photos

I enjoy visiting the launching sites and control and training centres associated with space travel, wherever they are. Like many people, I have visited the Kennedy Space Center and other NASA sites around the United States, and I have also been to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the desert wastes of Kazakhstan.

In April I was finally able to visit the world's original space facility, at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast of Germany, where the German military developed the V-1 and V-2 "revenge weapons" of World War II. The V-1 was the "doodle bug" cruise missile, and the V-2 was the first long-range ballistic missile that was the forerunner of today's space launch vehicles.

A visit to Peenemünde is guaranteed to be different from any other space-related destination because of its dark association with Germany's Nazi regime. It is located close to the German border with Poland on the Baltic island of Usedom, which is known for its resorts along its beaches. 

German space enthusiasts began experimenting with rockets in the 1920s, and when the German army got involved in rocket research in 1932 just before Adolf Hitler took power, they tested rockets near Berlin. In 1936, the German army's team of rocket engineers headed by Wernher von Braun transferred their work to the seaside location of Peenemünde, displacing a sleepy fishing village.

There on October 3, 1942, a V-2 rocket became the first human-made object to escape Earth's atmosphere and fly into space, albeit briefly. Nearby air force experts were creating the V-1, and the area quickly became covered with test stands for the new weapons and gigantic production facilities for the V-2 rocket. The top leaders of the Nazi regime, with the exception of Hitler, came to Peenemünde to see the new wonder weapons in person, and slave labour began to be used to produce the rockets.

V-2 rocket motor in Peenemünde museum.

But the growing facility also began to attract the interest of the Allies, and on the night of August 17, 1943, massive waves of British RAF bombers did serious damage to Peenemünde. Most of the top people survived, but the feared SS or Schutzstaffel paramilitary force under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler used the raid as an excuse to wrest production of the  V-2 from the army. The SS won control, and production was transferred to an underground production facility in the Harz Mountains using labour from the notorious Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. 

Von Braun and leading engineers remained at Peenemünde until near the end of the war in 1945, when they left to ultimately surrender to American forces in  the Bavarian Alps. Peenemünde itself came under the control of Russian forces, and the facility became a base for the East German air force and navy that closed not long after reunification of East and West Germany in 1991.  

While von Braun became a popular personality in Cold War America, the East German regime looked down on his Nazi links, as many more would also do after his death in 1977, so the damaged remains of the Peenemünde rocket facilities were neglected during the existence of East Germany. A plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first successful V-2 flight in 1992 after reunification was halted due to what one writer called a "veritable wave of indignation." 

But finally in 2000 a "Historical Technical Museum" was opened inside the rocket facility's  power plant, which had remained in operation during the Cold War. It was the stark museum in the darkened power plant that I visited in April.

Peenemünde is nearly four hours by rail from Berlin, and while it is possible to stay in the town next to the museum, there is a greater variety of accommodations in the resort town of Zinnowitz, which is a 15-minute rail ride away.

The power plant contains two permanent  exhibitions - one on the development of rockets at Peenemünde and another on the power plant itself. Temporary exhibitions are also mounted - at present there is an exhibition on the British operations against Peenemünde and other rocket facilities known as Operation Crossbow.

Most of the exhibits are presented in German only, but there is enough information in English for an interested person. The museum contains artifacts from the rockets and from the people who built them, alongside photographs and models of the launch facilities. Outside the museum there are full-scale models of the V-1 and V-2.

The museum presents the successes of the rockets alongside the pain and suffering they also inspired - both that felt by the people targeted by this weapon and those slave and concentration camp labourers who gave up their health and their lives while building these rockets. The museum, in the word used in its website, explores the "ambivalence" of the technical breakthroughs of Peenemünde.

A museum presenting such "ambivalence" is not the largest tourist draw, and this has caused financial problems for the museum at Peenemünde. Moreover, the test stands where the historic launches took place are off limits due to the fact that those areas have not been fully swept for leftover ordnance.

I visited on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the museum was nowhere near crowded, and neither were nearby private attractions, including a Soviet submarine.

Today the legacy of Peenemünde is looked at more critically than it was during the Cold War. A number of schools in West Germany, for example, were named after Wernher von Braun. Just a few weeks before my visit, von Braun's name was removed from the last German school to bear his name. Today the von Braun name is honoured only in his former American home of Huntsville, Alabama, and a lonely sign on the outskirts of Peenemünde notes its twin city relationship with Huntsville. 

My visit to Peenemünde was a fascinating and thought-provoking experience. Humanity's reach into space was opened in the service of its darkest regime, leaving a trail of "ambivalence" in its wake.

Inside the Peenemünde Power Plant.

1 comment:

  1. Von Braun is a fascinating, brilliant character. In a perfect world, he would have raged against the horror and injustice of the system he worked within. Perhaps there were engineers, technicians and others who did, but they are lost to history. I suspect we may have to take him as he was. A flawed, brilliant guide to space.

    His story begs the question, though. How will future historian judge us and our times for the horrors and injustices we live with?