Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Letter from Germany: Reliving the Nightmare Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Shareen Blair Brysac

Hitler's rocket test site at Peenemünde is now a space-age theme park, drawing up to 2,000 visitors a day.

On the cloudless afternoon of October 3, 1942, a rocket burner ignited a mixture of potato schnapps and liquid oxygen to send a 13-ton, 46-foot-long V2 rocket. Originating from the German test site of Peenemünde, arcing over the Baltic, and continuing on course for 58 seconds until the engine cut off after placing the rocket in its trajectory. Five minutes later, upon reaching an altitude of over 50 miles, it splashed down into the sea. The launch of the V2 rocket, the world's first long-range ballistic missile, was one of the twentieth century's defining events, auguring both the space age and the high-tech killing of civilians.

A few miles from the Polish border in eastern Germany on the remote Baltic island of Usedom, Peenemünde sits amid dunes and a forest of pines and oaks, a 91/2- square-mile abandoned test site turned military theme park. For archaeologists, Peenemünde is a unique World War II industrial site, offering techno-artifacts like gyros and electrical components, and commonplace items such as rusty spoons, water canteens, and shards from wine bottles. There are also mass graves of slave laborers who toiled on rocket assembly lines. Historians, meanwhile, have plenty of documents to sift as well as the occasional witness to question about the dream, and nightmare, that is Peenemünde's legacy.

Shareen Blair Brysac is a contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY and the author of Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America