“If Hitler had the bomb, we’d all be speaking German,” observes a former British agent in describing the intense search for the top German nuclear and rocket scientists in the closing months of World War II. Driven by the fear that the Nazis might come up with a last-minute super weapon, and foreshadowing the beginning of the Cold War, competing Anglo-American and Soviet intelligence teams scoured underground tunnels and mountain hideaways for the best brains in Germany.
As documented in “Secrets of the Dead: The Hunt for Nazi Scientists,” television program airing Oct. 19 at 8 p.m on PBS stations in the United States, the search also found that 10,000 slave laborers had died while digging and building the underground factories for Germany’s advanced rockets and pioneer jet fighter planes.
Andrew Herskovits was 14 when he started working at one of these facilities — Mittelwerk, where the V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile, was constructed.
“In the tunnel, just being there was a terrible punishment because we were cold and hungry and tired all the time,” he testifies. “There were beatings for any minor infringement of discipline. The punishment for sabotage was death by hanging — of course, almost anything could be classified as sabotage.”
In charge of Mittelwerk was rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun. Conveniently ignoring that von Braun was a major in the SS who used slave labor, the United States claimed him as a top prize and put him in charge of the American rocket program.
Herskovits comments bitterly, “When I heard” that von Braun and fellow Nazi scientists “were feted and treated as national heroes in the United States, I was outraged and disgusted. Thousands and thousands of American soldiers died liberating Europe to defeat Hitler and these people were mainstays of Hitler’s reign of terror.”
Another top target of the Allied hunters was physicist Werner Heisenberg, who headed the German nuclear project and whose lab was in a cave beneath a massive castle.
Heisenberg had not come close to developing a functional atomic bomb, but in the course of his capture American agents seized two tons of uranium, which were quickly shipped to the United States.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.