On Stage Now: The Brilliant Nazi Scientist That America Embraced

A play about a Nazi (former Nazi?) who helped America to put a man on the moon.

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A YouTube screen capture of a man you may have never heard of.

“Well, he was a Nazi.” “Well, not exactly a Nazi.” “Well, yes, he did join the Nazi party but he didn’t engage in any of its political activities — there’s no evidence of that.” “Well, as Chief Rocket Engineer of the Third Reich, it behooved him to join the National Socialist Party, yes, but he didn’t, you know, actually subscribe to the Nazi philosophy.” “Well, yes, I do understand why someone would say that a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi, but isn’t guilt by association difficult to avoid when you’re talking about Nazis?” “Well, then he came to America, but he wasn’t a Nazi anymore because World War II was over and, well…”

Stop!

I swear I’ve had this running dialogue in my head since reading about The Winning Side, a new play by James Wallert now running Off-Broadway, produced by Epic Theatre Company. It concerns Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), who first served as Chief Rocket Engineer of the Third Reich but who then, following World War II, made his way over to America, which basically embraced him with hundreds of other scientists and engineers of the former Nazi Germany. To this day, von Braun is considered to be one of the fathers of America’s space program — unquestionably instrumental to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

Think about that. A Nazi (well, former Nazi?) helped America put a man on the moon.

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Things grow complicated from there. We know von Braun joined the National Socialist Party in 1937, but he swore on an affidavit to the US Army after the war that he joined in 1939. It seems like a small slip of the memory, but it fueled speculation, then as now, as to what the discrepancy was really about. Was von Braun forever, in his heart, a Nazi?

Richard Wagner was one of the greatest artists in music, opera and theater, a genius who was a rabid anti-Semite. Is it possible to separate his art from his life? Leni Riefenstahl was one of the greatest artists in photography and film, a genius who made propaganda films for Hitler. Is it possible to separate her art from her life? And is von Braun, then, a natural third name for this illustrious list? Was he a genius Nazi crucial to America’s “one small step for man” moment?

Directed by Ron Russell, The Winning Side runs through Oct. 28 at the Acorn Theatre (410 W. 42nd St). The cast features Sullivan Jones in the title role, and Melissa Friedman, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., and Devin E. Haqq as key characters.

Wallert, who is co-artistic director of Epic Theatre Ensemble, says he was inspired by the biography Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael J. Neufeld, Senior Curator at the National Air and Space Museum, at the Smithsonian Institution. (In 2015, Wallert won a Smithsonian Fellowship to research the play.) When not scripting his way through the deeply compromised ethics and morality of one of the world’s greatest rocket scientists, Wallert also has a substantial acting and directing resume.

This quote from Wallert in the press materials struck me as succinct:

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the American space program. The moon landing was presented as an awesome feat of American engineering genius and political will. It wasn’t until much later that I began to become aware of just how much moral compromise and human sacrifice was marshaled to propel America toward that ‘one small step.’

For tickets to The Winning Side, click here.

And now, 5 questions James Wallert has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

After an early staged reading of The Winning Side, I had a student ask me if I thought a playwright’s job is to fracture linear time in order to make sense of history. I admitted to the student that I had never considered that before, but the more I write, the more I think that’s a vital part of the job description.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I’m a big fan of questions. I think the most exciting artists pose really difficult questions and encourage their audiences to engage in a dialogue with the work. At my company, Epic Theatre Ensemble, we have post-show conversations after every performance so over the years we’ve really cultivated an audience that’s passionate about civic discourse. That said, I don’t love it when someone raises their hand under the pretense of asking a question at a talkback and then launches into a monologue about the play they wish they’d seen. My feeling about that is usually, “Great. You should probably go home and write that play and let the rest of us finish talking about this one.”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

As an actor who occasionally plays romantic scenes, from time to time I will get the question after student matinees, “Were you really kissing?” I never quite know how to answer that. There’s a good amount of kissing in The Winning Side and we’re doing a fair number of student matinees, so the ensemble and I should probably figure out a response before we open.

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You’ve written a play about a real historical figure, a scientist high up inside the Third Reich who came to the US and helped to put a man on the moon. On some level, Americans must have somehow forgiven von Braun. How did they do so?

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “…there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.” Toward the end of World War II, von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers surrendered to the Americans. For the next 10 years, there was a systematic effort by the US government to whitewash von Braun’s records of some of the more problematic parts of his Nazi past: his SS commission; the use of slave labor in his underground V2 production facility; the 20,000 prisoners killed in that factory. If all the facts were available to the American people in the 1960s, would we still have signed off on the Faustian bargain and embraced von Braun to help us fulfill President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon? I’m not sure. Now that we have a more complete understanding of the human costs that paved the way for the moon landing, I think it’s important for us, as Americans, to fully reckon with that, so in the future we’re better prepared to answer the question, “What are we willing to sacrifice to take the next giant leap for mankind?”

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Which aspect(s) of von Braun’s scientific mind still baffles you? What about his ethics, morals and politics?

I think the aspect of Von Braun’s scientific mind that I find most impressive was his ability as a science communicator and popularizer. He could take the extremely complicated physics and engineering concepts involved in space travel and explain them to a general audience in a way that was both clear and exciting. During the 1950s, after gaining his US citizenship, von Braun became America’s leading space advocate. He wrote feature articles for Collier’s Magazine about the viability and technical requirements of manned space flight, an orbiting space station, a lunar landing, and the exploration of other planets in our solar system. Von Braun was the technical director and narrator of three Walt Disney TV specials about space exploration, including Man in Space, which drew 42 million viewers and was the second highest rated TV show in US history. Like a lot of the best science popularizers (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Michio Kaku), he was successful because he had absolute authority as a technical expert but he also seemed to be sincerely invested in his audience’s understanding and engagement with the subject.

I think von Braun’s ethics were summed up succinctly and brilliantly by singer-songwriter-mathematician Tom Lehrer: “A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.” Von Braun accepted the resources of Hitler and the Third Reich to help him build his rockets and satisfy his ambition. As Michael J. Neufeld observes in Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, “When the cost turned out to be the enslavement and murder of thousands, something he did not want or suggest, he was unhappy, perhaps even appalled; but that did not divert him from his rocket projects or his ambitions.” When it became clear to him that the war was lost for Germany, he packed up his team, his technology and his ambitions and came to the US. “I wanted our outfit to fall into American hands,” von Braun said to The New Yorker in 1950. “My country had lost two wars in my young lifetime. The next time, I wanted to be on the winning side.”

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Does von Braun belongs in the same category as, say, Richard Wagner and Leni Riefenstahl — a geniuses at their work but sullied by their ties to Nazi Germany? Can you separate a person’s genius from their politics? Should we do so?

Those are two interesting examples to consider because I think we reflexively make a distinction between artists and scientists. When an artist is disgraced, there is a natural impulse to analyze a lifetime of art through the lens of the current scandal. We’re experiencing a lot of that re-examination and reflection today as reports of the abuses by Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., James Toback, Kevin Spacey, Casey Affleck, and others come to light. Often the conclusion is drawn that the movies, TV shows, or standup routines from the offending artists should be removed from public viewing and consumption.

We don’t generally subject the work of disgraced scientists to the same scrutiny. We’ll condemn the scientist for their transgressions, but we don’t throw away their research. Perhaps it’s because we see the fruits of the artist’s labor as subjective, personal creations whereas we believe the scientist makes discoveries of amoral and apolitical, objective truths. Maybe we even think the seeds of the awful behavior that led to the artist’s crimes lurk somewhere in the art itself, but an equation is just an equation no matter who first expressed it. Leni Riefenstahl made propaganda films with and for Hitler for the explicit purpose of promoting National Socialism, so I personally see her art and her politics as inseparable (and reprehensible). The views on von Braun range from opportunistic war criminal to single-minded explorer blinded by his ambition to get to space, with a few hero-worshipping holdouts — the civic auditorium in Huntsville, AL still bears his name.

von Braun’s impact as the most influential rocket engineer and space advocate of the 20th century is undeniable. Yet his name doesn’t appear in contemporary history books. He’s gone from being one of the most famous scientists on the planet to the possessor of a name that most younger folks haven’t heard. Last year, I surveyed 250 NYC public high school juniors in the US history classrooms, most of whom were familiar with Neil Armstrong, John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Walt Disney, Lyndon Johnson, and other key players in the space race. Not one knew who Wernher von Braun was. As we near the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it seems an appropriate moment to examine von Braun’s Nazi and NASA careers, not to glorify or show sympathy to him, but to ask the tough and uncomfortable questions about America’s complicity in his moral compromises.