Werner Von Braun and My Father

May 31, 2010

 I was looking up Peenemunde on the Internet this morning. I was interested in finding the exact location of a place I have known existed for a very long time. It sits on a small island in the Baltic off the North Coast of what was once the German Democratic Republic; or as many knew it; East Germany.

 I was doing this on Memorial Day because on this day and November the 11th, Armistice Day, I do remember. The task of remembering is not without some challenges for me. I lost no-one in any war, police action, or peace keeping exercise, or whatever you like to call occasions when young people die for reasons that they may not altogether understand. I have little personal connection with any of this. Growing up in Post War England I knew that the War was the last thing anyone wanted to talk about. It was still with us in rationing (until 1953) bombed out buildings and damaged people. But all my family wanted to do was get on with life and get away from the horror.

 My Father was very annoyed by anything that told what he thought was a lie about the war. And there were many around. He did not like the cartoon portrayals of brave and rugged British tommies killing fleeing hideously stereotyped Nazis that I read in my copies of British schoolboy weeklies. He did not like the endless stream of jingoistic and nationalistic American and British movies that flooded the movie screens. He thought war was foolish and told me to beware of any nationalism that crept into my way of life.

 He was not a pacifist, and would have killed anyone who harmed my Mother or me and my brothers. And he was clear that the second war had to be fought. But he would not tolerate my brothers and me saying that the Germans, Japanese and Italians were all evil monsters. Even when we were old enough to be aware of the horrors of the concentration camps in Europe and Asia and found our credulity stretched he implied that we could not fully understand the enormity of this unless we had been there. Unless we had been Germans, unless we had been Jews, or Japanese or anyone who had to make choices in the face of an unrelenting tyranny. He did not care for Germans or any other race. But he did not believe in the moral superiority of any one race or nation over any other, and now neither do I.

 And later when I came to know what my own people had done to other races around the world, in distant lands and as close as Ireland, I found it easier to comprehend my own flawed nature. And even later when I discovered that the very Elementary School I attended in my village was named after an18th century General part of whose fame rested on his strategic distribution of disease laden blankets to Native Americans in the fond hope that they would die. Then I too became more and more averse to nationalism; anyone’s nationalism.

And so on this day in spring and November 11th I put out a flag and give a lot of thought to the millions of men and women who died mostly unnecessarily because some warped and genuinely evil men and their dubious nationalism got out of control. I feel a deep sadness, and almost a sense of fatalism when I read the rhetoric published in our own newspapers and blasted across the internet and broadcast media, and on this day whose purpose is now nearly almost forgotten by a large proportion of the population I feel doubly affected.

 It was in the last years of the second war that my parents, having already endured the blitz, were bombed out of two apartments in succession. In the first case by a V-1, or doodlebug, and in the second by a V-2. Both attacks did nothing to change my Fathers outlook. His only comment to me about the rocket attacks was regret that a fine pinstripe suit he had bought recently using many precious clothing ration coupons had been lost in the debris of one of them.

 Both rocket weapons were developed and tested at Peenemunde by teams of scientists and engineers headed by Werner Von Braun, who went on to do many things in a different country. My Father and Von Braun never met. I wonder if my Father would have asked him for a new suit.


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