New sci-fi film, Iron Sky, plays on an old legend that the Nazis had plans to explore space. David Robinson tells the tale of Wernher von Braun, who later helped put men on the moon and was a member of the German Society for Space travel. He also speaks with scientists and experts, investigating a murky world of rockets, rumours, and flying saucers, to try and find evidence to support this fanciful version of history.
by David Robinson
A new sci-fi film plays on an old legend that the Nazis had plans to explore space. David Robinson probes a murky world of rockets, rumours, and flying saucers, to try and find evidence to support this fanciful version of history.
A group of astronauts land on the moon, only to discover they are not alone. To their horror, they discover a troop of Nazis who fled Earth at the end of the Second World War and hope to return one day to revive the Third Reich. The plot of Robert Heinlein’s 1947 sci-fi novel Rocket Ship Galileo is, of course, fictional but it would have struck a chord with a readership that was still coming to terms with the horrors of the war and the scale of Nazi barbarity.
It plays on rumours that began shortly after the war – amid revelations about advanced weaponry and secret experiments – that the Nazi regime had plans to conquer outer space as well as parts of planet Earth. This premise has provided works of science fiction, encompassing everything from comics to computer games to episodes of Star Trek, with a chilling motif ever since.
The latest example is Iron Sky, a Finnish sci-fi spoof, which opens in cinemas on the 10th of May. The flurry of interest the movie has already generated is testament to the enduring appeal of its eccentric subject matter. The plot – in common with Heinlein’s novel – imagines a troop of Nazis fled to the moon at the end of the war. On this occasion, via a fleet of saucer-shaped spaceships from a secret base in Antarctica. “In 1945, the Nazis went to the moon,” the tagline announces. “In 2018, they are coming back.”
The film’s producers swotted up on starry-eyed conspiracy theories to come up with such a gloriously far-fetched storyline. “There’s some amazing stuff out there,” says Iron Sky director Timo Vuorensola. “Many people still believe the Nazis had some kind of space program. It’s amazing how widespread this view is, even today.”
A host of books and articles, wielding all manner of wild and wacky statements as fact, have helped propagate the Nazi space legend over the years, allowing it to enter the fringes of public consciousness. Today, the internet allows these theories to be recycled and disseminated ad infinitum.
The book Morning of the Magicians, for example, co-authored by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (1964) links a mysterious group named the Vril Society with Nazi space ambitions. Meanwhile, Nazi International: The Nazis’ Postwar Plan to Control the Worlds of Science, Finance, Space, and Conflict by American writer Joseph Farrell (2009) claims that the Nazis developed technologies that stretched the boundaries of physics.
“The Nazis might well have developed spaceships, there is material that supports this,” says Joshua Shapiro, who runs a website in the US that covers conspiracy-oriented subject mater. He is not alone in this unusual view. Entering ‘Nazi space program’ into Google returns close to 3-million results and a whole galaxy of theories and conjecture.
Almost seven decades since the end of the Second World War and speculation persists that the Nazis had plans to explore space. The Third Reich’s collapse was, after all, just over a decade before the launch of Sputnik. Beyond crackpot conspiracy theories and wild stories about the moon is there any verifiable evidence to support this fanciful version of history?
There certainly wasn’t an official Nazi space program. The Nazi high-command was, unsurprisingly, entirely consumed with trying to win the war. But away from the Third Reich’s corridors of power were engineers driven by dreams of exploring the stars, who experimented with ideas that were decades ahead of their time, and it’s here where the real roots of the Nazi space legend can be found.
The story begins in the late 1920s, amid the turmoil of the Weimar Republic. A group of space-obsessed scientists formed the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) – the Society for Space Travel. The group’s leading light was Hermann Oberth, one of the founding fathers of modern astronautics. Its ranks also included Wernher von Braun, a charismatic young rocket engineer. He is described by a colleague as having space dust in his eyes since childhood. The group’s pioneering experiments with crude liquid-fuelled rockets opened a whole new world of possibilities. But after the Nazis seized power in 1933, civilian rocket tests were banned. The VfR’s best engineers had to work exclusively for the military: the sole focus became weapons of war. Von Braun joined the Nazi Party and the SS to advance his career prospects.
At Peenemünde in north-eastern Germany, von Braun presided over the development of the infamous V-2 ballistic missile that rained down on London and Antwerp near the end of the war killing thousands of people. But he still dreamed of space. In 1944, von Braun was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for blabbing, in an off-guard moment, that the real aim of his rocket program was space flight.
The Nazis grasp of rocket propulsion technology was vastly superior to the Allies, and at the end of the war their best engineers were wanted by the US and the Soviets. Von Braun, and scores of other German scientists, moved to the US via a then secret program, Operation Paperclip. The expediencies of the Cold War meant that any links with Nazi war crimes – such as the death camps used to build the V-2 missiles – were quietly swept under the carpet.
Von Braun became a patriotic American citizen. The establishment of Nasa in the 1950s finally allowed him to focus unhindered on space exploration; he became director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama. It was von Braun who designed the 190-million horsepower Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. He died eight years later, his lifelong ambition fulfilled.
“Wernher von Braun was the most influential rocket engineer and space flight advocate of the twentieth century,” says biographer Michael Neufeld. “It’s hard to imagine we would have put a man on the moon when we did without him.”
It’s easy to see how those of a conspiracy-minded bent, by muddling a few facts, might have twisted von Braun’s remarkable story into evidence that the Nazis had plans to conquer space. But this alone surely can’t explain the persistence of the Nazi space legend. (The Nazi regime, after all, repeatedly attempted to hinder von Braun’s space ambitions rather than support them.)
However, another less well known Second World War subplot more directly links the Nazis with plans to put a rocket into space.
Back in 1942, as the war’s momentum shifted towards the Allies, the Nazi leadership looked at ways to regain the initiative. Adolf Hitler wanted to bomb the United States. But the Nazis relied on slow piston-powered aeroplanes with a limited-range – and a round trip from Berlin to New York was more than 7,000 miles.
Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, weighed up his options. One possibility was to try to harness the latest rocket technology – and cross the Atlantic via some kind of prototype supersonic jet. But most of Germany’s rocket engineers were working on the V-2 missile project under Wernher von Braun. Göring’s options were limited. He turned to Eugen Sänger, an Austrian rocket engineer. “Sänger was a bit of a maverick,” says aviation writer David Myhra. “He was a brilliant mathematician, but he was a dreamer. He was obsessed with exploring the universe in rockets and space exploration.”
The plan that Sänger subsequently submitted was jaw-droppingly ambitious. In order to bridge the continents, he proposed sending a manned rocket-powered jet into the lower reaches of space. Sänger’s sub-orbital bomber – named the Silverbird – was to be launched on a sled attached to a two-mile monorail powered by a clutch of V-2 rockets at 1200mph. Thirty seconds after liftoff, the craft’s 100-tonne rocket motor would ignite. The Silverbird would hit an altitude of 80 miles above the Earth – the commonly accepted boundary between Earth and outer space is 62 miles above sea level – and, in Myhra’s words, skip across the atmosphere like a stone bouncing over a pond, before releasing its payload over the United States.
“By reaching sub-orbital altitude its fuel life would be significantly extended allowing it to – theoretically – bomb anywhere in the world,” says Myhra, who has written a book on the Silverbird.
But Sänger’s plan was so far out on the horizon of probability that Göring dismissed it. “The underlying concept was more-or-less sound but it was way ahead of its time. The costs involved would have been enormous,” Myhra adds. The Silverbird never got past the drawing board. But it stands as an example of the Nazi leadership considering a plan – albeit briefly – to put a manned craft into space.
Yet it is another project – or to be more precise, alleged project – that has fuelled the Nazi space legend far more than even the outlandish Silverbird plan. And it sounds even more bizarre: the Nazi flying saucer. A host of writers and researchers have, over the years, claimed the Nazis developed disc-shaped craft during the war – which allegedly defied gravity via mysterious advanced technologies. Recent examples include the book The Hunt for Zero Point by military journalist Nick Cook (2001) and the Discovery Channel documentary the Nazi UFO Conspiracy (2008). Both suggest a link between UFO sightings over the past half century and a secret Nazi flying saucer program during the Second World War.
In the context of the frenzied experimentation that took place during the Second World War, the idea that the Nazis might have looked into saucer-shaped prototypes is not quite as ludicrous as it sounds. Such craft, if they existed, had nothing to do with space travel. Allied bombing raids had targeted runways across the Third Reich. If the Nazis could construct a craft that could take off and land vertically, they would be at a considerable advantage. But not even a seat cushion exists today to verify their existence.
The phenomenon can be traced back to the early 1950s and a German engineer named Rudolf Schriever. In a series of newspaper interviews, he claimed to have designed a disc-shaped prototype at BMW’s facility in Prague during the war. The 15m-diameter craft, Schriever said, was powered by a circular plane of rotating turbine blades. A pilot named Otto Habermohl allegedly helped him with the design. But the prototype was destroyed by the Russian advance, Schriever claimed, and the plans were lost.
Berlin-based historian Ralf Bülow has carefully analysed the Nazi flying saucer claims. “Most people who have written books on the subject had no first-hand experience. They relied on secondary sources,” Dr. Bülow says.
“Rudolf Schriever is different because he claimed to have worked on disc-shaped craft during the war.”
The problem is that his story is full of holes. “Schriever claims he built the craft at BMW’s plant in Prague. But BMW did not have a facility in the area,” Dr. Bülow adds. “Moreover, its probable Otto Habermohl never existed. There is no such German surname. I fear he made the whole thing up.” Schriever died in 1953. But his story – popularly known as the Schriever-Habermohl project – lives on in various books and websites.
The flaws in Schriever’s tale undermine the enduring Nazi flying saucer claims. And they also undermine a key pillar in the Nazi-space legend. In fact, taking everything into account – including Sänger’s schemes and von Braun’s dreams – the evidence linking the Nazis with plans to explore space is pretty thin on the ground. Perhaps to look for the basis of the Nazi-space legend in real-life events is to miss the point?
In the 1950s, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung analysed the flying saucer phenomenon. He saw it within an ancient religious tradition: mankind looking to the heavens with a sense of anxiety and the hope of redemption. However, in a modern quasi-scientific context, Jung argued, strange and powerful forces from outer space replace vengeful Gods armed with bolts of lightning.
“Jung focused on the circular shape of flying saucers; the circle is an ancient symbol of wholeness,” says William Rowland, an expert in mythology at the University of Kent. “There’s a strong underlying mythical dimension.”
The Nazis, meanwhile, occupy a one-dimensional position in modern history. Nazis equal evil. There is an implicit assumption that a Nazi in any story will seek to dominate and destroy. The conjunction of ‘Nazis’ and ‘space’ therefore combines two monstrous concepts central to modern mythology.
But what makes this union so powerful is that it’s grounded in just about enough circumstantial evidence to make it tangible. “Legends are at their most powerful when they are built on verifiable truths, not wildly elaborate and spurious ideas,” Dr. Rowland adds. The Nazis had engineers who were obsessed with space, and led the world in rocket technology. Throw in the fact that the Nazi leadership had a well-documented interest in the occult, and the Third Reich’s dramatic iconography, and you have an arresting, visceral motif that intertwines the mysteries of the heavens with uniquely modern horrors.
Such a compelling mix will always lead some people to conclude deeper truths lie obscured and overlooked, even seven decades after the end of the war. “So many sources claim that the Nazis had saucer-shaped craft powered by some form of anti-gravity technology that there must be something to it,” says Joshua Shapiro, who runs the conspiracy-oriented website. “And if they did have its entirely possible that they could have taken these craft to the moon. I believe that all these things are possible.”
It’s likely that the Nazi-space legend will continue to be part of popular culture, in all its varied forms, for many years to come.