Criticism for German Town′s Honoring of Nazi Rocket Scientist | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.02.2008
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Criticism for German Town's Honoring of Nazi Rocket Scientist

Despite claims by the town's mayor that Klaus Riedel was a pioneer of German rocket science, others have criticized the town for naming its school after a man some claim was a Nazi weapons designer.

The V-2 rocket model at the Peenemünde historical launch site

The V-2 was the Nazis' great hope in the last months of the war

Schools tend to be named after people whose legacy, it can be claimed, is one which encourages its pupils to aspire to its patron's ideals. The number of St. Mary's, St. Joseph's and other canonized figures lending their names to schools suggest that many local authorities hope, mostly in vain, to turn out generations of little saints into the world. Others choose intellectuals or statesmen for similar reasons.

The people of Bernstadt auf dem Eigen, a small town in eastern Germany near the Czech and Polish border, have chosen a somewhat more controversial namesake for their secondary school. They want to rename it after the Nazi scientist who helped build the V-2 rockets launched against Allied targets during World War II.

Town officials have decided to give Klaus Riedel's name to its school to mark the centenary of his birth despite the central role he played in the Nazis' development of the V-2 rocket program and the fact that slave laborers were used to build his creations which fell mostly on Antwerp and London, killing thousands in the process.

Unsurprisingly, Bernstadt auf dem Eigen's decision has placed the town in the crosshairs of outraged citizens and politicians.

Concern over NPD patronage

Udo Voigt, third from right, Chairman of the German right wing party NPD, poses with followers and a party flag in front of the Brandenburg gate in Berlin

The NPD often rallies at sites with Nazi significance

"If the [far-right extremist party] NPD find out that there's a monument to one of the people behind the V-2 rocket, then I'd be extremely worried they're going to hold rallies all the time there," Astrid Günther-Schmidt, a Green party member of Saxony's state parliament in eastern Germany, said, adding that the naming of the school after the rocket pioneer was completely inappropriate.

The NPD, which has been compared to the Nazi party, enjoys significant support in Bernstadt's state of Saxony and won more than 9 percent of votes in the last regional election.

"[The local authorities] should make clear forced laborers made the V-2 under the most inhuman conditions, that there were mass executions there every week...and publicly attest to knowing this -- then explain why they chose the name," Günther-Schmidt said.

Historical estimates put the number of slave laborers who died during their work on the V-2 project at 20,000 with an additional estimate of 7,000 military and private persons killed by the rockets themselves during the last months of the war.

Riedel a pioneer of German science, says mayor

The town's mayor, Gunter Lange, rejected claims that Riedel was a Nazi and said he stood by the decision to rename the school after a man who he said deserved recognition for his contributions to rocket science.

People gather at the scene shortly after a V-2 rocket bomb fell on Smithfield market, in the Farringdon Road, London, March 8, 1945

The V-2 caused devastation across Europe, mostly in London

"The name Klaus Riedel has been a fixture in the town for many years," Lange told Reuters. "There's been a monument to him here since the 1990s. There's a crater on the moon named after him. And nobody has ever been bothered by it until now."

He conceded, however, that the choice of Riedel, who died in an automobile accident in 1944, was "problematic" and he would discuss it at the next meeting of the town council.

Riedel helped to develop the mobile launch pads for the V-2, the first ballistic missile and first man-made object to achieve sub-orbital spaceflight. He worked closely with Wernher von Braun, the father of German rocket technology, becoming his deputy and chief designer.

Historians skeptical of Riedel's claim of ignorance

It is his close working relationship with von Braun which convinces many historians that, far from being an innocent scientist, Riedel was well aware of what the Nazis were planning.

"These people bear a heavy burden of guilt," Johannes Weyer, an expert on sociological technology studies at Dortmund's Technical University, told Reuters. "You can't develop rockets for the Nazis and simultaneously be against them. Naming a school after someone who had a leading function on this rocket project raises serious moral issues."

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