Book Review : The Allies in Competition for Nazi Scientific Brains

The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists by Tom Bower (Little, Brown: $19.95, 320 pages)

During the final days of World War II, a battalion of Nazi SS troops made a last stand at a place called Nordhausen, a picturesque valley in the Harz mountains where the Third Reich had established a subterranean assembly plant for the dreaded V2 rocket. As the advancing American Army fought its way into Nordhausen, the GIs discovered a trove of coveted Nazi weaponry:

“Dug deep into the heart of the mountains were giant tunnels with hundreds of abandoned V2 rockets in various stages of completion,” writes Tom Bower in “The Paperclip Conspiracy,” a history of the shameless Allied exploitation of what Eisenhower called “intellectual reparations"--that is, the scientific, technological and industrial expertise of Nazi Germany. “Twenty years’ brilliant research and innovation were laid out on the production line, waiting to be plundered.”

But the liberators of Nordhausen found something else, too: “As they swarmed through the complex of barracks at the mountain entrance, the front line tank group reeled in horror at the sight of emaciated men, many unable to stand, dressed in tattered, striped clothes,” Bower continues. “Strewn around like debris were hundreds of corpses, the bodies of those who had died in the past days, still awaiting cremation; and by the crematoria hundreds more were stacked like timber. ‘It was a fabric of moans and whimpers of delirium and outright madness,’ remembers Staff Sgt. Donald Schulz.”


Grim Revelations

“The Paperclip Conspiracy,” then, is a grim revelation of the moral horror behind the much-vaunted German scientific Establishment, but it is also an indictment of the Allies themselves, who engaged in a ruthless competition to seize Nazi weaponry and recruit Nazi personnel to build their postwar arsenals and spacecraft. While the victims of Nazi oppression languished in Displaced Persons camps in a ruined Europe, rival teams of Allied specialists in “weapons intelligence” were signing up Nazi scientists (and often rescuing them from confinement for suspected war crimes), sanitizing their dossiers and shipping them to America, to the Soviet Union, to France and Great Britain.

The most notorious example, of course, is Wernher von Braun, the former SS colonel and builder of Nazi terror weapons who was smuggled into the United States and put to work at the task of carrying American warheads and American space missions. “If pressed, Von Braun would openly admit that his skills, which had suddenly thrust fame and fortune onto American astronauts, had been honed amid the calculated murder and brutal butchery of Nazi atrocities,” Bower explains.

But, as Bower demonstrates in convincing detail, Von Braun was only one of thousands of German scientists, many of them Nazi Party members and SS officers, who were systematically imported to the United States so that we might exploit their technological genius in the arms race and space race. Operation Paperclip--so named because paper clips were attached to the intelligence dossiers of likely candidates for recruitment--was nothing less than an international conspiracy among determined men in the so-called military-industrial complex who were willing to circumvent or break the law in order to import and exploit Nazi technology and manpower.


Bower reveals that anyone who stood in the way--whether it was a principled war crimes investigator in occupied Europe or a man of conscience serving in the visa section of the State Department--was in danger of being muscled aside, discredited, or perhaps just ignored.

British Wish List

Bower’s meticulous tale of the rivalry among the Allies for Nazi secrets and Nazi scientists would be comical if it were not so tragic. Some anonymous British bureaucrat drew up a wish list of German booty that included 20 million pencils and 100 million sheets of carbon paper. More sophisticated plunderers followed on the heels of the Allied armies in a breathless race for a prized German bombsight, for instance, or a particularly intrepid experimental pilot. Nazi rocket scientists were treated like temperamental rock stars, and courted with offers of fat salaries, plush working conditions and favored immigration status. And if the promise of perks was not enough, the Allied talent scouts were not averse to kidnaping.

Hard Moral Choices


“Operation Paperclip” reads almost like a World War II thriller, but it’s also a work of investigative reporting that bristles with righteous indignation. Bower forces us to confront the hard moral choices that faced the Allies in the aftermath of World War II: Should Nazi scientists go to prison (or at least stay in Germany), at the risk of forfeiting a crucial technological resource in the postwar competition with the Soviet Union, or should they go to work for us? What is most troubling about Bower’s book, I fear, is that the moral question apparently never even occurred to the most influential masters of Operation Paperclip.

To them, the technology of mass murder was morally neutral: “I was furious that they had been so badly treated,” one American officer raged over the temporary jailing of captured Nazi weapons-makers. “They were scientists after all.”