The two ends of the parabolic ballistic trajectory symbolize the opportunities and risks inherent in virtually every revolutionary technological development. The first successful launch of the Aggregat 4 rocket in Peenemünde on 3 October 1942 marked one of the most spectacular – but at the same time one of the most dangerous technological breakthroughs of the 20th century. The rocket reached an altitude of 84 km, breaching the barrier to space for the first time.
But from the start, the intended use of the missile
was the transport of a one-tonne warhead.
The German army had begun as early as 1932
with the development of liquid fuel rockets. The aggressive armament policies of the Nazi regime which followed ensured that financing was provided
for the establishment of the ultramodern Peenemünde testing facilities.
The enthusiasm of the rocket engineers over the successful launch of their technically highly complex device must be contrasted with the suffering of the victims. They are not only the thousands of people killed and wounded in rocket attacks, but also the thousands of concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war and slave laborers who were forced to work in Peenemünde and the mass production sites.
Preparations for mass production of missiles at Peenemünde came to an end on the night of 17 August 1943 by a massive air attack by the Royal Air Force. A new underground factory for rocket production was then set up in underground tunnels in Kohnstein mountain near Nordhausen. It was built by concentration camp prisoners. Production began in November 1943 with more than 40,000 prisoners from the specially built Mittelbau Dora concentration camp. The horrendous conditions,
in which prisoners were worked to death or succumbed to sickness, hunger and torture on the part of the SS guards, claimed more than 20,000 lives.
The rocket known as the "V2" - the second German "Vengeance Weapon" - was first deployed in Autumn 1944. It followed the “V1,” the Fieseler F1 103 buzz bomb which had been tested by the German air force in Peenemünde. The notion of “Vengeance” for allied bombing raids was actually a later invention of the Nazi propaganda ministry, designed to strengthen the population’s determination to continue the war.
The propaganda aspect of the weapon may have been nearly as important as its destructive powers.
By March 1945 some 22,000 “V1” and 3,000 “V2” missiles had been fired on cities in Britain, Belgium and France. In London, which was the main target of the bombardment, 8,000 people died in the V weapon attacks. But this did not bring about the desired turn in the course of the war.
A4 rocket technology provided the basis for all later rocket development. The victorious allies - the USA, USSR, Britain and France - were able to study the devices they found in 1945 as well as rocket parts and design plans. Many German experts were induced to work on their rocket development programs.
During the "Cold War" the US and USSR developed long-range missiles based on technology made in Peenemünde. Armed with nuclear warheads, they represented an entirely new kind of weapon - and a new element in the strategic equilibrium between the two superpowers. Inevitably this led to a missile race. On both sides the military and civilian developments were closely linked. The firepower made available
by the novel rocketry was mirrored and publicly demonstrated in the advances in civilian spaceflight. The most spectacular examples were the first satellite and the first man in space as well as the moon landing programme.
Rockets continue to play a major role in military policy. How many nuclear warheads currently exist on the planet? Who controls them? Are such missiles a danger to human existence or do they serve to keep the peace? How stable is the “equilibrium of mutual destruction”? How great is the risk of a nuclear war being started by accident? Who makes decisions about war and peace in a democracy?
The second section of the exhibition provides an overview of the historical events and the progress in rocket technology made after the Second World War. But it is primarily designed to raise questions - questions to which there are no easy answers.