Like many people, I initially visited the German island of Usedom for its sandy beaches, fischbrotchen (a local fish sandwich) and quaint seaside towns, such as Heringsdorf. The small, remote resort was popular with the Prussian royalty, and later, East Germans. But between 1936 and 1945, the Nazis occupied one village for a darker purpose.
Frantic building work began on the world’s largest and most modern rearmament centre. About 12,000 people worked on the first-ever cruise missiles and fully functioning large-scale rockets at the site, which spanned an area of 25 sq km. The research and development carried out in Peenemünde was not only crucial to the course of the biggest war in history, but impacted the future of weapons of mass destruction, as well as space travel.
Today, all that remains of the complex is an old red-brick power station that houses the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum. When I visited, the solid, rectangular building with looming rusty chimneys and the model rockets scattered across the museum grounds created a chilling impression. But inside, the exhibits ‒ from old documents to hunks of broken and bent metal rudders, rocket tails and turbo pumps ‒ filled me with awe.
But while the programme’s leaders, such as Dornberger and von Braun, as well as key figures from the Nazi regime, such as Albert Speer, who was responsible for the military buildings at Peenemünde, believed that rockets would be vital to winning the war, one person remained sceptical: Hitler.
Peenemünde was not completely finished when Hitler declared war in 1939. Thus began a struggle for priority, personnel and materials, following the rocket programme’s initial unlimited funding. It was only after Dornberger and von Braun presented a film of the successful A-4 launch to Hitler that he finally granted the weapon full approval.
By then the situation was desperate, and a new layer of history disturbed the site. In June 1943, 2,500 concentration camp prisoners were forced to help with the planned series production of the rocket. Preserved name lists show that these slave labourers mainly came from occupied France, Belgium and Netherlands. They worked under terrible conditions on weapons that would wreak terror and devastation on their homelands.
In 1944, Hitler realised his miscalculation and expressed his regret at not having approved the project sooner to Dornberger: “I have had to apologise only to two men in my whole life. The first was Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. I did not listen to him when he told me again and again how important your research was. The second man is yourself.”
Perhaps, however, the most important legacy of Peenemünde is the reflections it raises about the impact of technology, and the role of scientists and engineers within a wider context. Museum curator Dr Philipp Aumann told me, “Progress and innovation are a key aspect of modern societies, and we as a society have an influence on what gets researched and developed.”
As I moved through the site, with its multiple layers of history and complexities, I found myself becoming more enmeshed in its contradictions and questions. Peenemünde reflects the darkest and most illuminating aspects of humanity, making it relevant for all of us today.
Peenemünde’s continued relevance has inspired international artists such as Catalonian painter Gregorio Iglesias Mayo and Mexican-American print artist Miguel A Aragón to interact with the site. Mayo, who painted a 121ft x 40ft canvas in the museum’s courtyard, which captures the human dimension in relation to technical apparatus on a grand scale, has stated that Peenemünde is a “place where once there had also been a concentration camp, a place of research, creation, intelligence, weakness, contrasts, frustration, helplessness and the fight for the most rudimentary things.”
As well as using visual art as a way to process history, the museum hosts concerts by The Baltic Sea Philharmonic in the former turbine hall of the power station. The site, which once threatened to tear Europe apart, now brings together leading musicians from the region’s 10 countries. In 2002, the museum was awarded the Coventry Cross of Nails for its efforts towards reconciliation and peace.
Now, every time I visit sunny Usedom, Peenemünde attracts me to its many shades of light and grey.