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WTOP’s Wernher von Braun Screwup Demonstrates a Peril of Local Reporting

Wernher von Braun, right, and Major General John Bruce Medaris discuss the Redstone guided missile in 1956. Photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran via the Library of Congress.

The tweets are brutal in their cluelessness: On Tuesday, WTOP credited an Alexandria man crucial to the Apollo 11 launch as a “brilliant German-American rocket engineer.” Then, a correction: “We have updated this story to explicitly state that Wernher von Braun was a Nazi.” And finally, “After careful consideration, WTOP has decided to remove the article from our website. This story did not meet WTOP’s standards and should not have appeared on any of our platforms.”

You can still read Dick Uliano’s star-crossed article about Wernher von Braun on the Wayback Machine. Uliano does include passing references to the scientist’s Nazi past in the story (one of the people interviewed says von Braun was “was instrumental” to the regime’s rocket program) but spends far more time on people who praise him.

Von Braun is a figure who defies easy narratives. Michael Neufeld, a senior curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s space history department, has written extensively about von Braun—including a well-regarded biography—and German rocketry during the Second World War. Von Braun, Neufeld tells Washingtonian, made a “Faustian bargain,” a deal he didn’t recognize until late in the war. (Here’s a quick version of his research on von Braun.)

There are plenty of entries on the dark side of the ledger: Von Braun was a right-wing nationalist before the war and eventually joined the SS. The plant where he worked on the V-2 rockets that terrorized London, Antwerp, and other free cities was operated with labor from concentration camp prisoners as well as Russian and French POWs. As Neufeld wrote in a 2002 academic article, von Braun probably couldn’t have had much influence on the appalling treatment of prisoners, but “there is no evidence that it was a priority for him, certainly not in comparison to keeping rocket development on track.”

Von Braun ended up on the wrong side of the Third Reich toward the end of the war and was even imprisoned for a time. Once he was welcomed into the US, von Braun and the US government both took the line that the only way to work in Germany at that time was to join the Nazi party, and that he was basically apolitical. His strongest motivation was a lifelong desire to go to space, and he put off joining the party until it became not-especially optional for someone in his position.

The real question about von Braun’s complicity, Neufeld says, is what he knew about concentration camp labor and what legal and moral liability he should have borne. What we do know for sure, Neufeld points out, is that at no point did von Braun ever take personal responsibility for being part of the ghastly system that ushered his dreams along. By the time his Nazism, and the government efforts that brought him and other German scientists to the States became widely criticized in the US, von Braun was dead. Perhaps he was a war criminal who got away with it. Perhaps, and this is the sunniest scenario for him, he was an amoral opportunist. As Neufeld wrote, it’s impossible to “eliminate the ambiguity of his case.”

Oh right, this was supposed to be a story about WTOP. As has been the case the last couple times I’ve gotten in touch, no one at WTOP has replied to me. I asked what the station has learned from the incident; until I hear back I can only offer a theory about what went wrong. It goes like this.

The impulse that animated Uliano’s story is familiar to anyone who’s worked in local journalism: whenever possible, localize a national story. It’s the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and a key contributor to the program lived in, and is buried in, Alexandria. Assignment made.

DCist has cleverly parodied this trope with stories about Michael Cohen (“American University Alum Captures National Attention On Capitol Hill“) and Robert Mueller (“Notoriously Tight-Lipped Georgetown Resident Tells Everyone To Read His Work, Leave Him Alone“). “Florida Man” and “Area Man” headlines are close relatives. The impulse to localize can be well-intentioned, but intentions alone cannot, as former Dupont Circle resident Teddy Roosevelt once said, “have much weight in passing historical judgement upon a man whose wrong-headedness and distorted way of looking at things produced, or helped to produce, such incalculable evil.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.