The first clues to the history of the village of Peenemünde, at the northern end of the island of Usedom, were the military signs amongst the trees on either side of the road that swept through the forest. Much of the countryside around the village remains restricted, as it has been since 1936 when the whole northern peninsula of the island was purchased by the Reich Air Ministry. Alongside the airfield, the German Army also established a research centre under the technical leadership of Wernher von Braun, whose mother had in fact recommended the site as “just the place for you and your friends”.
Von Braun was a rocket engineer, and the centre at Peenemünde was tasked with the development of the guided missiles and rockets that would, by the end of World War II, bring death and destruction to cities across Northern Europe. Altogether, the V1 rocket would be used some 22,000 times, and the later V2 on at least 3,000 occasions, including over a thousand aimed at London. An estimated 2,754 Londoners were killed in the rocket attacks, with a further 1,736 killed in Antwerp, Belgium, which had the dubious honour of being the Nazis most-targeted city with their new “miracle weapons” that were supposed to end the war in their favour. As it turned out, more people – mostly slave labourers – were killed in the production of these rockets than in their operation.
In spring sunshine we walked through the grounds of the research centre, past replicas of both the V1 and V2 rockets and other artefacts from the period. The centre is now a museum, although most of the original buildings and test sites have long been destroyed. Indeed, Peenemünde did not even survive the war as a production plant for the rockets, thanks to two Polish slave labourers who managed to smuggle out maps and sketches from the neighbouring Trassenheide camp in 1943, which passed through Polish and British intelligence, allowing the RAF to target the site. Peenemünde was evacuated, with underground production plants in the Harz Mountains becoming the main facility for the manufacture of missiles.
One looming relic of the time that remains is the power station, to which Silesian coal was brought up the Oder River to provide the heat to drive the turbines. The boilers and turbines were confiscated by the Red Army in 1945 and shipped back to the Soviet Union, but by 1951 the German Democratic Republic had the Peenemünde power station up and running again, and it would remain in operation until April 1st 1990, just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and just before the reunification of Germany.
It is a strange place. To explore the power station is fascinating, in the way that these old industrial sites often are, but the rest of Peenemünde leaves you with a slightly uneasy feeling. An old submarine sits in the harbour, next to ice cream stands and fish restaurants. The GDR Navy once had a base here, and the edge of town is ringed with socialist-era housing blocks whilst new holiday homes are built down at the water’s edge. And then there is the research centre itself, the disquieting knowledge of what was developed here, and the thorny issue of science and ethics and where our discoveries can lead us.
At the museum in Peenemünde they ask the question – “do rockets bring us closer to heaven, or to hell?” – a conflict that is perhaps represented in a single man. For Wernher von Braun, the talent and knowledge that led him to head the research centre where they developed missiles to help the Nazis try and win the war would eventually take him to the United States, to NASA and the Apollo missions and a man on the moon. From death and destruction to a moment that resonated and inspired people around the world. From Nazi Party member in 1937 to American citizen in 1955. A man who worked for both Adolf Hitler and for John F. Kennedy. Long before he arrived in Peenemünde, Von Braun had been given a telescope as his confirmation present and let the night sky fuel his imagination. It was his first step on the road that took him via Usedom to NASA Headquarters… quite a journey.
Another question the museum asks is about the responsibility engineers and scientists have in their pursuit of knowledge to their fellow human beings and to nature. What do we think of men who dreamed of reaching the moon and stars and yet found themselves building rockets that rained terror on civilian populations? I am not sure I left Peenemünde any closer to an answer.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig