Yves Beon, a slave labourer forced to build V1 and V2 rockets, tells Stella Hughes about his bid to discredit his former German masters who went on to run the Nasa space project
A memoir by Yves Beon, a 71-year-old retired shipping merchant from Brittany, is about to challenge one of the United States' most powerful myths - the glorious record of a national space programme that reaches to the stars and put man on the moon.
Next month Beon launches the American edition of his book, a raw account of death and survival in the Dora concentration camp. He will visit the US to spread the message that the fathers of the US space programme were German scientists who used camp inmates as slave labour to build V1 and V2 missiles.
In the 20 months before it was liberated, an estimated 20,000 prisoners drafted in from nearby Buchenwald perished in atrocious conditions at the underground Mittelbau-Dora camp, the only SS camp formed explicitly for weapons production. "At the end of the war, both the East and the West tracked down the German scientists, engineers and technicians - the creators of the rockets - not to punish them, but to use them," writes Beon in the American edition of Planet Dora.
Dora is a warning, he argues from his Paris home, because it is about the risks of failing to consider science's consequences. "You cannot wait until you are at war to consider the consequences of scientific developments. Governments now have a terrible responsibility because they must stop everything which is bad or could become bad. It's up to the state to tell scientists, 'You've discovered that, but forget it!''' Beon took up his battle late in life, publishing the French edition of his book when he retired in 1985. "I was a very quiet man before the book and then it was as if the sky fell on my head. I got involved in all sorts of things and translated a few US books connected with the subject, including Michael Neufeld's The Rocket and the Reich and Linda Hunt's Secret Agenda," he says.
Hunt, a journalist, revealed in Secret Agenda how at least 1,600 scientific and research specialists were brought to the US and went to work for universities and defence contractors under a wartime intelligence project to use German know-how - called Operation Paperclip - which was supposed to run only for a limited period and not supposed to protect Nazi war criminals.
Nazi science was also used for the "Dachau-like" experiments on US soldiers which Hunt details. But, says Beon, while the US is now uncovering a postwar history of unethical experimentation on humans, there is still a failure to make a connection between ballistic missiles and space rockets.
The V2's technical director, SS officer Wernher von Braun, led the Saturn booster programme for Nasa. From Dora, where a third of inmates died of disease, exhaustion or were brutally killed, von Braun visited Buchenwald to select more inmates to work on the ballistic missile.
Arthur Rudolph, production manager at Dora and Nazi party member as early as 1931, became manager of the Saturn V launch vehicle. He finally fled back to Germany rather than face a denaturalisation hearing in the US in 1984.
Michael Neufeld, curator of world war two history at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, has written that Rudolph "was not just the manager of slave labour but also an advocate of it". Another former SS member, Kurt Debus, was director of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The whitewashing of the Nazi issue continued long after the official end of Operation Paperclip.
In his introduction to Planet Dora, Neufeld explains how an East German expose of von Braun's SS record and links to Dora in the early 1960s were ignored by the US press. "Only the efforts of French and Belgian Dora survivors in the late 1960s and 1970s brought this suppressed history back to light,'' he writes.
Beon is discovering how different the perspective can be across the Atlantic. "The American edition of Planet Dora uses the word Nazis throughout - I only used Germans because that is who I was fighting. The US entered the war to fight the Nazis,'' he says. "On the jacket, they call the book a memoir of the Holocaust. Here, that means the mass murder of Jews - perhaps it's broader in the US." At Dora, there were no Jews as such, says Beon, who was imprisoned for activities in the French Resistance. But the biggest gulf is that between Beon's view of Dora scientists and the American view of the same men. "Our Dora prisoners' association has fought constantly but it's difficult because von Braun is a hero in the US - I went to Cape Canaveral: there, he's the Lord. It's very hard to get Americans to see that von Braun and other experts had brains but were not decent people."
Beon only became aware of what had really happened some years after the camps were liberated. "When I saw the US, Britain, France and other countries had decided to build missiles, I knew it didn't come out of the blue. I was immediately sure those countries had pinched German scientists to start their programmes." But being sure they were used did not prepare him for the reality. "One day, I saw von Braun was a big shot in America, in charge of missiles. It was a shock."
Beon's first action was to write to Paris Match in the naive hope he could expose von Braun. "Someone at the paper received me and explained, 'You are nobody. Von Braun is really somebody. If we say anything against him, US firms will stop advertising. Sorry. Goodbye'."
That was the start of Beon's efforts to reassert the suppressed history of Dora. The Dora prisoners' association had been a matter of regular reunions. Now it had another aim. Beon took charge of campaigning to expose his former tormenters in North America. "I found that these people were very influential in the US. They were old, retired but still had friends.'' Beon also found that the US Jewish lobby, so ready to mobilise on Holocaust issues, was not interested in a camp where there were no Jews. Neufeld and the Smithsonian Institution gave him encouragement and support. Raising a response in US universities proved harder. "What I want people there to understand is that although those Germans had really good brains, they used their brains the wrong way'', he explains.
To stop brains being used the wrong way, "governments will have to put on pressure by cutting funds. You need to educate people to look beyond the immediate reasons given for some research in order to consider the long-term consequences',' argues Beon.
Beon would like to see a British edition of Planet Dora but realises that a sympathetic hearing is far from certain. "Dora survivors are not liked in England because of the V2s which hit London in 1944. People think we are responsible for that. I tell them, you are very lucky the rockets were assembled by us, because if they'd been made by Germans, they would have been much better quality and the results would have been much worse. What we were responsible for was the poor quality of the missiles. I wouldn't say it was real sabotage but things like the soldering were awful.'' Why the title, Planet Dora? "When we were in concentration camps, it was a different planet, so you can't compare it with what happens on earth. By placing Dora beyond normal experience, Beon can conclude that humans are "not really good or bad. But if we say this could happen again, then we are concluding that people are bad'', he argues.