TO understand the future we must often look to the past. Nasa certainly did. Not many folk spared a thought for Adolf Hitler when men first walked on the moon, yet it could be argued that mankind’s greatest technological achievement may never have happened without his putrid brand of ideological nationalistic insanity.
In 1969, it was still top secret just how heavily the Americans had relied upon Nazi rocket technology to pull off the Apollo lunar landings. The identities of hundreds of former Third Reich scientists – now US citizens – had to be protected. Yet, few secrets remain buried forever.
This was proven last month when an amateur treasure hunter in Oranienburg, northeast Germany, stumbled across a mysterious piece of metal in the ground. Its off-the-scale radioactive qualities quickly led to the authorities arriving and evacuating local residents – and it’s that wee contaminated lump that leads us to re-evaluate the disconcerting yet seismic legacy of Nazi advances in rocket science and nuclear research.
What pensioner Bernd Thälmann inadvertently uncovered with his trusty metal detector were the remnants of a secret 1940s Third Reich uranium enrichment facility. This discovery lends credibility to once-derided claims that Hitler ordered the detonation of three rudimentary nuclear test devices in the months prior to his last stand in Berlin. Trapped 50 feet underground, with the Russian Army circling his bunker, this much-diminished figure was heard to incessantly mutter about being saved by his “wunderwaffen” – superweapons.
Those fatally holed up with their demented Fuhrer dismissed his words as the ravings of a cornered madman, but it now seems the dictator’s hopes may not have solely been the product of his atypical grand delusion. The chance discovery of a Nazi uranium enrichment site perhaps justifies Hitler’s heavy session at the last chance saloon. It’s possible the tide of war could have been decisively turned to his advantage, even at that late stage.
According to historian Rainer Karlsch in his book Hitler’s Bomb, evidence for three Nazi nuclear tests is abundant within recently unclassified US National Archive documents, with a log book from German test pilot Hans Zinsser reading: “In early October 1944, I flew 12-15km from a nuclear test station near Ludwigslust (South of Lübeck). A cloud shaped like a mushroom with turbulent, billowing sections stood, without any seeming connections over the spot where the explosion took place. There were strong electrical disturbances and the impossibility to continue radio communication.”
According to other newly-released archival papers, the Italian journalist Luigi Romersa observed the same explosion while on the ground. He had been sent by dictator Benito Mussolini to watch the Nazis test a “new weapon” and ordered to report his impressions back to Il Duce.
Perhaps aptly, fission – the scientific basis of the atomic bomb – was first discovered in Nazi Germany, less than a year before the Second World War began. However, when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, their main raison d’être was to rid German culture of perceived “pollution”. The biggest impact was on science, with renowned Jewish academics such as Albert Einstein becoming the target of an intellectual purge. German science had been the envy of the world, but, paradoxically, the Nazi voices who wanted to safeguard this reputation complained about “contamination” by supposedly incomprehensible new ideas such as relativity and quantum theory.
As a result, many esteemed German scientists and thinkers such as Einstein fled to the West. This was a brain drain of epic proportions which would see the Nazis essentially cut their own throats – gifting the US with a ripe source of intellectualism eager to bring about the downfall of fascism in their homeland. In the deepest of ironies, if the Nazis hadn’t purged their country’s greatest minds, Germany would have undoubtedly become the world’s first nuclear superpower.
Robert Furman, the Chief of Foreign Intelligence for The Manhattan Project – the US-led undertaking which built the atomic bomb – described how American purloining of German scientific talent was “built on fear: fear that the enemy had the bomb, or would have it before we could develop it. These scientists knew this to be the case.”
The absorption of Germany’s intellectual elite – and numerous Nazi scientists – didn’t end with the war. Operation Paperclip was a secret program in which more than 1,600 Nazi-era scientists, engineers, and technicians were taken to the US for government employment – mainly in rocket science research. This group’s unrivalled knowledge of propulsion systems – research which had been funded to the tune of billions by the Third Reich – greatly shaped Nasa’s eventual success with the Gemini and Apollo space missions.
Perhaps we should view the moon landings not only as mankind’s greatest aspirational achievement but also a purification of one of the most toxic scientific legacies in human history.
Hitler was a monstrous aberration dedicated to global division, but for one brief moment on July 20, 1969, we all looked up at the moon and the walls came tumbling down – a species united in awe with renewed hope for the future.
The technology once envisioned as the personification of Nazi supremacy now stood as the ultimate example of achievement through unity. And, perhaps, the rocket’s aesthetic form somewhat illustrative of a single-finger salute to fascism.
Dark visions of the future
NAZI Germany developed a wealth of advanced weaponry, with some concepts so outlandish that their potential existence has fuelled decades of wild speculation and, now, inspires much debate among online conspiracy theorists.
Exaggeration of just how technologically adept the Nazis were is unnecessary however – their concepts of sonic cannons and x-ray guns were clearly far ahead of their time. But for the purposes of sanity, our following list of Nazi futurist visions will focus on what we know was real – leaving out the rumoured “anti-gravity bell”, the Ark of the Covenant and other occult-type shenanigans.
Solar power laser
Based on the theoretical work of German scientist Herman Oberth, it was suggested that a crew would live inside a concave mirror “sun gun” floating in the Earth’s atmosphere, aiming destructive beams of light at enemies. You may recall Mr Burns of the Simpsons once wielded a similar device over the residents of Springfield.
The Nazi “Silbervogel” project was a theoretical design for a sub-orbital aircraft that would have been able to fly 90 miles into space and bomb distant targets. This space shuttle-like invention only got as far as a mock-up, but the aesthetic undoubtedly foreshadowed and informed all of today’s rocket technology – and without it there would also be no Thunderbirds.
Known as the “London Gun,” the super-powered V3 cannon was a huge artillery piece that actually managed to fire a few shells at the UK capital from the French coast. This stationary bazooka was 140 meters long and could fire at targets over 100 miles away. Being the size of a city itself proved suicidal however, and it was quickly dispatched by Allied bombers.
The Arado E.555 and Horten HO 229 jet bombers were Germany’s prime candidates to carry nuclear payloads. They used similar wing designs and low radar profile to the infamous B-2 stealth bomber. A billionaire in Gotham city was also taking design notes for a highly experimental ‘Batwing’ aircraft.