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Brain Drain

February 2024
1min read

During the coverage of the thirtieth anniversary of the moon walk, the media also ran stories on the pioneering Soviet cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Yuri Gagarin. That reminded me of Herr Doktor Hans Kuepfenbender.

The original Zeiss Optical Works had been in Jena, Germany, which in 1945 became part of the Soviet zone of occupation. Renamed Zeiss Industries, the enterprise was re-established in Oberkochen in the American zone, in an area covered by my 516th Military Intelligence Detachment. Dr. Kuepfenbender was the Betriebsleiter , the head of the operation.

The Vogt industrial complex in the vicinity had closed, and the U.S. Military Government had requisitioned the firm’s Arbeitersiedlung , a worker’s housing area of more than one hundred single-family homes, to quarter German rocket scientists and technicians and their families awaiting “political” clearance—screening for past membership in the Nazi party—before being sent to the United States to work with Wernher von Braun. (We found that losing the war had engendered a nation-full of Germans who had been immer dagegen , always against Nazism. German cabaret comics had a field day with parodies on the subject: Ich war immer dagegen .)

My periodic meetings with Dr. Kuepfenbender revealed that the German “guests” at the housing complex had been disappearing regularly, with their families, apparently to Moscow. Since they were officially neither prisoners nor detainees, they were free to go. It would have been reasonable to assume that the unit (not mine) responsible for the scientists would have known of the defections. It did not.

But why would the Germans leave American jurisdiction for the totalitarian, oppressive Soviet Union?

Shortly after the end of the war, many German space and rocket scientists went, or were dragged, to the Soviet Union, where they worked on rocketry, were well paid, and were treated like members of the nomenklatura —with dachas, abundant food, wine, women, and song.

These scientists wrote to their colleagues who were under American “supervision,” describing their luxurious existence. At that time food allowances in the Allied areas had been as low as nine hundred and fifty calories per person per day, and many items were not even obtainable; indeed, practically the only thing unrationed for a German just then was a deep breath. So when scientists with expertise in specific fields were invited to join their colleagues in Russia, they regularly disappeared in the postwar parody of the Drang nach Osten .

From the spring of 1947, when I discovered what was going on, until August 1948, when I left Germany, I reported the situation weekly to my superiors, giving names and specialties, often in less than deferential military terminology, expletives not always deleted. (Reprimands were usually telephonic and merely cautionary.)

Why did we lose the services of the world’s best space scientists? This is my explanation for the debacle. After May 8, 1945, the principal mission of many military personnel left over from the war was going home. No one anticipated extraordinary situations like that of the Oberkochen scientists. The higher-ups at headquarters, nominally in charge of intelligence field operations, simply did not know what to do about a circumstance not specifically provided for in their manuals or directives.

And that is why Sputnik and then Gagarin got up there first.

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