Review: German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie
by Jeff Foust
|“Reactions to suggestions that the rocket team might have been implicated in Nazi atrocities were often marked by indignation” by locals, she writes.|
Laney’s book is based on an extensive series of interviews she performed with people in Huntsville. They included first- and second-generation Germans but also others, such as the city’s small Jewish community and its larger, but often overlooked, African-American one. The interviews paint a picture of how the groups interacted—or didn’t interact—given their diverse backgrounds.
When the Germans arrived in Huntsville in 1950, five years after the end of World War II, there was only a little consternation and concern among the locals about hosting them. But most Huntsville residents soon accepted them because of the role they were playing in the economy—their arrival was tied to a resurgence of activity at Redstone Arsenal—and because they were “highly educated and culturally sophisticated,” offering something for locals to aspire to. The Germans, meanwhile, while welcomed by the community, had to cope with the process of “becoming American” to various degrees: embracing enthusiastically, or sometimes more reluctantly, their new country.
While the Germans and Huntsville’s white population bonded, the same is not true for the city’s African-American population. Blacks in Huntsville had little interaction with the Germans, and felt some animosity towards the Germans, who could go places in the still-segregated city that blacks could not. Germans, meanwhile, “managed to obscure the obvious parallels between the Nazi regime and the Jim Crow South,” she writes. (The issue of segregation in Huntsville, and the space program’s role in fighting it, is addressed in the recent book We Could Not Fail.)
|She introduces a concept from post-war Germany called Vergangenheitsbewältigung that she describes a reckoning or “constructive dialogue” with the past. The Germans in Huntsville, and the local community that adopted them, didn’t go through that process.|
Huntsville’s acceptance of the Germans, and the civic pride they provided during the Space Race, explains the local reaction when one of them, Arthur Rudolph, was accused of war crimes in the 1980s for his role overseeing slave laborers who produced the V-2. While Rudolph had moved to California years earlier, local leaders rallied to support him against the charges despite the weight of evidence against him. The city council passed a resolution calling on the federal government to restore his citizenship (Rudolph relinquished it as part of a deal with prosecutors, moving back to Germany), and other lobbied on his behalf long after Rudolph passed away in 1996. Jewish residents of Huntsville, by contrast, had little doubt of Rudolph’s guilt, and African-Americans knew little about the case.
Near the end of German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie, a local official, quoted in a New York Times article, says, “The Nazi question ‘just doesn’t come up… That was then, this is now.’” Laney argues that this question should come up more in Huntsville. She introduces a concept from post-war Germany called Vergangenheitsbewältigung that she describes a reckoning or “constructive dialogue” with the past. The Germans in Huntsville, and the local community that adopted them, didn’t go through that process. Such introspection and examination of the past, she argues, would be worthwhile today to help the community comes to terms not only with the Germans’ past, but also their own legacy of segregation.