PEENEMUENDE, Germany (Reuters) - Few Germans know the global space race started on a remote and sandy island off the Baltic coast, an unremarkable place with wide open skies and a carpet of pine trees.
But it was at the Peenemuende testing site in 1942 that a team of engineers under Wernher von Braun laid the foundations for sending man to the moon and the Cold War missile race. They were testing the world’s first long-range ballistic missiles for the Nazis.
Germans don’t celebrate the site because of the moral ambiguity at the heart of one of the last century’s most significant technological breakthroughs.
The rockets, called “Vengeance Weapon 2” or “V2s,” were designed to give Hitler military superiority with a stealthy weapon that could devastate enemy cities without putting a crew in danger.
“This place was both heaven and hell,” said Christian Muehldorfer-Vogt, director of an exhibition in the testing site’s power station, a monumental brown-brick building in the flat land on the island of Usedom which borders Poland.
V2s and their precursors, called V1s or “doodlebugs,” are believed to have killed some 15,000 people in Britain and Belgium in World War Two. About 20,000 slave laborers died building them.
For some, Peenemuende opened the chapter of space travel as the weapons tested there were prototypes of all later booster rockets. For others, it is where the most terrible weapons of the age were developed.
It was here that the charismatic von Braun, subsequently the brains behind the U.S. space programme, made his “pact with the devil,” as Muehldorfer-Vogt describes it, and cooperated with Hitler’s Nazis to pursue his dream of sending a man to the moon.
In many countries, the site would be a focus for national celebration but Peenemuende’s sober Historical Technical Information Centre battles even to secure public funding.
“In Germany, we cannot have the same attitude towards our technical history as in Britain or the United States because of the historical associations,” said Muehldorfer-Vogt, pointing to a fierce row over a school name to illustrate his point.
Plans to name the school in Saxony after Klaus Riedel, a top Peenemuende scientist, sparked outrage this year. Critics said it was wrong to celebrate a man who made weapons for the Nazis.
“That row illuminates the contradictions of our legacy,” said the director, who argues Peenemunde’s historical burden was one reason, alongside mammoth costs, for Germany to bind its modern space research into European projects.
Even a recent media buzz over space — sparked by Germany’s major role in the installation of Europe’s Columbus space laboratory at the International Space Station — overlooked the country’s early contribution.
“Public interest in the future of aerospace has grown recently but I see no clear trend looking back,” said Lutz Richter of the German Aerospace Centre, whose Web site barely mentions Peenemuende.
In 1992, former chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government had to scale back plans for a big celebration of the 50th anniversary of the V2 test after British outrage.
On the rough land outside the Peenemuende museum, a sleek, if sinister-looking, black-and-white V2 prototype points to the sky.
This was the weapon Hitler hoped would strike fear into the hearts of the enemy and boost flagging morale at home. First deployed in autumn 1944, it may not have changed the course of the war but it did have a devastating effect.
The element of surprise added to its psychological impact.
“At first no one knew what to make of them,” Betty Sansom, 79, who lived in London during the war, told Reuters by telephone. A V2 wiped out a petrol station near her home after she felt the explosion nearby and took cover under some vegetable racks.
“These things suddenly landed straight from the heavens with no radar traces and exploded. All we could conclude was the Germans had found something to put them in a different league.”
The development of guiding technology and liquid oxygen as a propellant were the leaps made at Peenemuende which laid the foundations for all subsequent rocket development, including Cold War missiles.
By March 1945, Germany had fired some 3,000 V2s on enemy cities mainly from the French coast, plus 22,000 of the more primitive V1s — unmanned planes which crashed to earth with a warhead when the engine ran out of fuel.
The exhibition at Peenemuende, opened in 2001 and attracting about 230,000 visitors a year, is painstakingly balanced.
Exhibits include a pile of rubble to represent the destruction the rockets wreaked, concentration camp workers’ clothes and Nazi propaganda celebrating the breakthrough.
It will soon unveil a 48-metre-long firing-off ramp outside.
The museum also dwells on the programme’s most controversial figure: von Braun, who was technical director from 1937 to 1945.
A member of Hitler’s elite SS, von Braun surrendered to the Americans in 1945. He was recruited under the secretive Operation Overcast and whisked to the United States to work on its space programme, which culminated in the 1969 moon landing.
Von Braun was a leading figure in the development of the Saturn V which propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.
Some critics say he only escaped serious scrutiny for his role in the Third Reich because of his importance to the United States. He died in 1977.
“He needed the SS for his idea. He wanted to get to the moon and saw no other way,” Hartmut Kuechen, who was head of the Peenemuende power station, says on a tape in the museum.
More than 40,000 prisoners from Mittelbau Dora concentration camp started producing V2 missiles in 1943 at an underground factory near Peenemuende. The inhumane conditions and hard physical work claimed the lives of about half of the laborers.
A British air raid in 1943 devastated the site which after the war was used as a military base in East Germany.
Editing by Clar niChonghaile and Sara Ledwith