War on Archeology


1. Digging under fire

2. Dig Iraq?

3. Archeology - political tool

4. Rocket museum


The Nazis pioneered rocketry -- and the political perversion of archeology.

















Black and white image of V2 rocket launch.
On October 3, 1942 the first V2 was launched from Peenemunde. Breaking the sound barrier, it reached an altitude of 60 miles. It was the first launch of a ballistic missile and the first rocket to reach the fringes of space. NASA.







Wernher von Braun holding a model of the V-2 rocket in the early 1950's. After helping the Nazis blast London, von Braun moved to the U.S. space project. NASA.


The archeology of rocketry
Hitler stands in car saluting troops.  Himmler stands in front of car.
Hitler salutes SS troops on parade in Nuremberg while SS leader Heinrich Himmler watches. Himmler was in charge of finding "archeological evidence" for the Aryan "race."

In the 1930s, German rocket scientists used to shoot off their wares near Berlin. But the rockets made a racket, and had this habit of falling onto local villages. After Adolf Hitler's Nazi party won the 1933 election, his desire to use rockets as weapons necessitated a more secluded test site. In 1936, operations were moved to the remote village of Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea.

There, the Germans built an extensive network of factories, labs, test sites and a giant plant to generate electricity and liquid oxygen for fuel. Nazis being Nazis, they later built concentration camps for the slave laborers who would assemble the fearsome new weapons.

A bunker entrance, big enough to drive a truck through, with a rocket  trolley and some round objects seen outside.
The entrance to a V2 factory at Dora. Also called Mittelbau, about 40,000 slave laborers worked on V2s at this offshoot of the Buchenwald camp. Dora was built after the British air force destroyed Peenemunde. Courtesy Edward Victor.

Peenemunde developed two unmanned weapons, both used to attack Britain as punishment. ("V" stands for "Vergeltungswaffe," or "vengeance weapon," and their use started long after Germany had any chance of winning the war.)

The V1 was a sub-sonic, jet-powered missile dubbed the "buzz bomb." The V2 was the first ballistic missile, first launched on Oct. 3, 1942. By war's end, Germany produced 662 V2 rockets; most were fired at Britain and Belgium.

Vengeance in the air
In 1990, 54 years after it was founded, Peenemunde has become a "military theme park." That's the description of journalist Shareen Brysac, who described the site in Archaeology magazine (see "Reliving the Nightmare..." in the bibliography).

With more than nine square miles of ruins - including craters from the August, 1943, raid by Britain's Royal Air Force - the site has fuel tanks, wrecked launch stands, and ominous warnings about live munitions. Peenemunde draws 2,000 visitors a day.

Although the Soviets wrecked the place after taking control in 1945, little has been restored. Most excavation occurred during the Soviet occupation of East Germany. The Soviets and their communist lackeys, Brysac says, "wanted to prove that people in the West German government were war criminals." There certainly were links: One director of the operation, Heinrich Luebke, was later president of the Federal Republic of Germany, as West Germany was known before reunification.

Divided mission
The museum itself lives a hybrid life - part memorial to the science of rocketry - part memorial to the horrible tasks of Peenemunde. "Peenemunde is a political site," says Brysac. When it opened just after German reunification, it was designed to be a space museum, and was called "Peenemunde, the birthplace of space travel." The place was, she says, "a paean to Wernher von Braun and the start of the space age. It was a total whitewash."

Man in suit holding model rocket. von Braun was the German rocketeer who, after serving Nazi aggression, became a luminary of the U.S. rocket and space programs.

Although movies shown at the museum in the mid-1990s described a quest to reach the moon, Brysac says, "They were launching rockets and bombs at England, they were going to launch them at New York. Hitler was not interested in going to the moon."

Slave-built rockets
There was also the little embarrassment of slave labor. German records show that 32,475 slave laborers worked at the two concentration camps whose remains remain visible at Peenemunde.

The outcry over the bogus portrayal sparked major revisions of the displays, she says, which now show what happened when a V2 struck London. And while the original museum ignored slave labor, Brysac says a movie now being screened upstairs includes interviews with former slaves.

But you'd better know German: the movie lacks subtitles.

Now that the museum hews closer to reality, it seems a helpful reminder. "The Germans have this thing about Gedenkstaette [a memorial usually located at the site of a tragedy]," Brysac says. "When the Jewish museum went up in Berlin, there was a big outcry... Many Germans felt that putting objects in a museum was not a good answer, they felt you should see the places where these horrible things occurred. At [the death camps at] Dachau or Buchenwald, you can see the actual places.... If you've been to Buchenwald, you will never forget it."

Still convinced archeology isn't political? Then check the bibliography.



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