Mutable Matter on holiday – Part 2: reality collisions at Peenemünde

One of the advantages of having no (or a very dysfunctional) GPS car navigation system is that you discover things around your route on the map. In this case my eyes fell onto some red lettering saying ‘space and rocket museum’ in the Northwestern corner of Usedom. I knew that some of the German islands had had strategic military importance during numerous wars – but what was this space thing all about? Of course I had to go and find out…

The Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum is a bit of a distance away from the main route that leads through Usedom. Despite its comparatively remote location, it is served by a small local train, so it is reachable entirely by public transport if you are happy to change a few times. Quite a lot of people had made the effort on a sleepy Wednesday morning to walk through the extremely extensive exhibition and the surrounding buildings of the former rocket research and test base. I purchased a photo permit for my borrowed camera (my own had had an unfortunate encounter with a vat of buttermilk – the kind of freak accident that can only happen to an over-excited expat from provincial Germany) and entered the restored terrain. The area outside the museum actually looks rather like in the picture above – since the East German (GDR) military had withdrawn from Peenemünde, about half the town stands empty. Heavy machinery is enlisted in a permanent process of tearing down unpopular GDR architecture to make room for… currently mostly giant piles of rubble. It was difficult to imagine that the town occasionally serves as a site for major classical concerts, which take place in the former powerstation of the museum.

It was equally difficult to imagine that the town had been some kind of ‘cradle for space flight’ as the museum guide put it. To most people in and outside of Germany, Peenemünde is the infamous birthplace of the highly destructive ‘retaliation’ rocket V-2 – the first long range rocket ever – which caused large numbers of civilian deaths, particularly in my current hometown of London. The exhibition made clear that this episode was only part of a complex history, which seemed characterised by conflicting attitudes to scientific research. The exhibition began with the amplification of two themes: the negative mood in the German population surrounding the humiliaton brought about by the end of World War 1 and the longing for progress, escapism and positive utopias, in this case exemplified by the ‘rocket fever’ of the decade 1923-33. It was fascinating to see the intertwining of scientific research and science fiction.

An astonishing example of the close relationship was the work of Hermann Oberth. His PhD thesis ‘Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen’ (The rocket for planetary space), based on research he had been involved in since 1907, was rejected by his examiners as absurd, yet it ended up making history as a popular novel and formed the basis for the novel and Fritz Lang film ‘Frau im Mond’ (unfortunately, not yet available in the museum shop – not even the poster). Oberth himself advised this last big budget silent film. According to the ingeniously named German women astronomer blog ‘Uhura Uraniae’, the German film association (UFA) even funded Oberth’s rocket research, so that the rocket tests would co-incide with the premiere of the film.


Book covers – fact or fiction?

Alas, this did not happen – the rocket tests took place two years or so later – but the funding of scientific research to be used as a publicity stunt sounds pretty bizarre. The scientific text books and science fiction novels on display further emphasised parallels. On the basis of their titles and covers the two genres were indistinguishable. A German space society was founded, attracting both researchers and lay enthusiasts. After no events occurred to fuel the fever, the Germans increasingly turned away from this particular utopia to occupy themselves with Hitler’s promises. The rocket research, however, was quietly continued, primarily by the military, despite doubts about the technology’s effective usability for warfare.


Scrunched up rocket head in the exhibition foyer.

The exhibition continued to add further complexity to the life of the researchers at Peenemünde by giving insights into the life of the people who lived and worked on the site. Apart from scientists and engineers these included paid workers, forced labourers and other war prisoners, test pilots and other military personnel, and also concentration camp inmates. Working conditions for non-scientists and non-military personel were abysmal (cold, hunger, vermin, cramped living conditions. long hours) which led to the death of many workers and, as the narration points out, must have been known to the scientists on the project. Here, exhibited lists documented who worked and died at the site, and lockers, to be opened by the visitors, gave more personal insights into the life of the people at Peenemünde. The lockers covered a wide range of stories – from surviving prisoners and an Italian worker mutiny to famous Nazis such as Wernher von Braun and aviator and Luftwaffe (airforce) officer Hanna Reitsch.

Rubble ‘altar’ installation at Peenemünde

The next section documented the connection of Peenemünde’s research with space exploration, future warfare and future transportation, featuring images such as a rocket themed chess board to the Earth as a fragile blue orb. After the war, the scientists and engineers of Peenemünde seemed to be split by the winning nations and ended up in the US, the USSR, the UK and France, where they all contributed to research in the above areas, some more voluntarily than others. This further sharpened the question of research ethics. Later that day, coincidentally, German television showed a documentary about the life of Manfred von Ardenne who also worked on the project. In Germany, von Ardenne is often cited as a case of intolerable research ethics, as he exclusively focused on research funding, regardless of where it orgininated from and to what ends the research outcomes would be put. He was also known for his desire for financial gains and prestige. After the war, during which he supported Hitler (since the Führer supported his research), he instantly offered his services to the Soviet Union.

Other scientists were portrayed as people living in a bubble: ‘originally, the chief engineers had dreamt of a new means of transport which would accelerate travel around the globe and open the doors to outer space.’ In this context, the exhibition asked how far these scientists and engineers could actually maintain this ‘bubble’ and ignore what was going on around them. After all, they must have known what the rockets would be used for, that workers were dying every day and that the whole ‘war effort’ was actually pretty insane. The exhibition ended on an unusal set of questions for a German World War II exhibition: ‘We invite you to ponder the questions, posed to us by Peenemünde: what role does technology have in society? And what responsibility do scientists and engineers have towards fellow human beings and nature?’

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