Tell me if you’ve seen this movie before: a charming secret agent has to save the world from a cackling mad scientist with a German accent and his mystical doomsday device that seems to have fallen into the wrong hands (probably Russian).
The “Herr Doktor” trope as it’s called, where Nazi scientists create Wunderwaffen with destructive capabilities beyond anything in the Allied arsenal, plays a prominent role in action-film mythology. Is it just Hollywood storytelling, though, or is it based on reality? Was Nazi Germany really more technologically advanced than the allies?
Well, it depends on how you define “technologically advanced.” Let’s take a dive into Nazi tech, and you can decide for yourself.
At the very least, Hollywood’s affinity for the mad German scientist is tapping into a real fear that existed at the end of World War II: the Nazi government at least claimed to have a vast collection of these Wunderwaffen, and the Western Allies (the Americans, British and French—yes, they were friends, believe it or not) were worried the Soviets would get to them and their genius inventors first.
How justified was this fear? Quite justified… if you believe Nazi propaganda. By 1942, the German Blitzkrieg had stalled out. The United States had entered the war, and the German Wehrmacht along with their allies like Italy and Romania were getting pushed out of Russia by the endless hordes of Russian infantry. Morale among German soldiers and the civilians back home was dropping fast.
It would have been hard for the Nazi regime to convince anyone they could win based purely on numbers. Over the course of the war, Germany fielded some 13.6 million soldiers. Russia alone fielded nearly three times that at 34.5 million, not to mention the American, British and Canadian troops ready to open up the Western front.
The Nazis knew their only hope was technological superiority. More importantly, they knew it was the only way to convince their people they still had a chance. So the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, the Nazis’ propaganda office, spun some incredible stories of these super weapons, or Wunderwaffen, that were about to save the German war effort.
The majority of these Wunderwaffen, even if designs existed, were more sci-fi fairy tales than anything that could be practically produced for the German military. My favorite example is the Sonnengewehr, or “sun gun,” that would use a kind of orbital mirror to focus sunlight on a city or military base and fry it like a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass.
A German physicist named Hermann Oberth came up with the idea in 1929, but the Wehrmacht decided to run with it during the war. They dreamt up a metallic sodium reflector with an area of 9 square kilometers. (That’s about 3 and a half square miles, or more than twice the size of Central Park… or the Berlin Tiergarten to be a bit more topically consistent.) They theorized that this mirror could orbit as part of a space station 8,200 kilometers (5,100 miles) above the surface and concentrate enough energy to destroy a city.
Of course, this was pure fiction. When they were interrogated by US officials, the German scientists claimed that it would take 50 to 100 years to complete such a project, hardly in time to save the Third Reich. Even now, 76 years later when space stations actually exist, the idea seems impractical and beyond the capabilities of modern space programs.
Not all the Wunderwaffen stayed in the realm of fantasy, though. Some at least made it to the prototype phase and surpassed similar weapons in the Allied arsenal. An example is the Kugelpanzer. If your German’s rusty, panzer means “tank,” while kugel means “ball” or “globe.”
As the name suggests, the tech is some kind of armored vehicle shaped like a sphere and powered by a small engine. At just 1.5 meters in diameter, about the height of your average fourth grader, it had room for just one man. Experts assume it was built for reconnaissance purposes, but no records have ever been discovered. Plus, only one was ever found, captured by Soviet troops from the Japanese army.
These bizarre Wunderwaffen, along with the fact that much of the documentation was destroyed by the retreating Wehrmacht, have added to the mystique surrounding Nazi technology. Add in the “foo fighter” legends spread by Allied pilots who claimed to spot inexplicable, unidentified flying objects over the European theater, and you can understand why many thought the Nazis were more technologically advanced than the Allies.
In most cases, though, these weird prototypes were little more than last ditch efforts by the Nazi regime to save a war they were rapidly losing—and to convince their own people they had more tricks up their sleeves. It’s like when you’re beating your buddy at Call of Duty, so he just throws the controller at you instead.
That said, the Nazis did have the technological upperhand in a few cases. By far the best example is the infamous V2 rocket, the first long-range guided ballistic missile in history. It was invented primarily by Wernher von Braun who’d discovered many of the applicable principles as early as 1934.
Research continued into the war, and mass production began in 1942. However, operational use of the rockets didn’t begin until September 1944, by which time the Allies had retaken Paris and were knocking at the Third Reich’s eastern and western borders.
The Wehrmacht launched the first few V2 rockets on Paris, and then turned their sights on London and later Belgium. The new weapon was essentially invulnerable. It was too fast and flew too high for anti-aircraft guns to hit it, and since it traveled at over 3,500 kilometers per hour (2,000 miles per hour, or three times the speed of sound), no one could even hear it before it hit.
This served the Nazis’ purposes, who had designed the weapon specifically for revenge. In fact, the German name for the rocket, Vergeltungswaffe, literally means “retribution weapon.” Hitler wanted to get back at the Allies for their bombing campaigns against German cities by inflicting as much fear and panic into Allied populations as possible while simultaneously boosting the morale of his own people.
The V2 rocket certainly accomplished that and probably did more for the legends of German technological superiority than anything else. A rocket that could cross the sea and inflict so much destruction had never been seen before, and rumors that a more powerful successor would save the Third Reich continued up until the last days of the war, even as Allied forces surrounded Berlin.
The success of the V2 rocket created fears among the Western Allied powers that the Russians would have access to Nazi scientific secrets if they reached Berlin first—and vice versa. As a result, both armies rushed to the German capital to scoop up as many German scientists as they could.
Because of the incredible brutality that had existed on the eastern front, a lot of German scientists feared retaliation at the hands of the Russians, and fled to the west, favoring capture by American or British troops. In many cases, the US government agreed not to deport the scientists back to the East if they moved to the US and worked for the American military.
A number of these scientists, including Wernher von Braun himself, went on to make considerable contributions to the intercontinental ballistic missiles that became the first line of defense in the American and Soviet Cold War arsenals. The rockets sitting in silos and in submarines around the world and even the rockets that take modern astronauts into space owe their existence to their Nazi V2 predecessor.
Nevertheless, despite the psychological effects, the Nazis used their V2 rockets to little practical success. Production of the weapons was actually more deadly than their strikes. Altogether, the Wehrmacht launched 3,172 of the missiles but only killed around 9,000 people, mostly in Antwerp and London. Meanwhile, an estimated 12 to 25 thousand forced laborers, many from concentration camps, died making them.
In fact, it was mainly production limitations that contributed to the Nazis’ failure to take advantage of what was arguably their most promising Wunderwaffe. The V2s required an alcohol-based fuel that was made from potatoes, and by the end of the war, Germany hardly had enough food to feed its population, much less fuel rockets.
There were also major chemical shortages, and factories could no longer produce the explosives originally carried by the missiles. Instead, the Wehrmacht filled them with concrete, hoping to just smash as much as they could.
These production problems weren’t limited to the V2 and help us better answer the question of Nazi technological superiority. From bizarre spherical vehicles to basic infantry rifles, Nazi Germany ran into a serious resource problem. Even if their scientists came up with some game-changing tank, they didn’t have the oil reserves to fuel them, the materials to build them, or the manufacturing infrastructure and workforce to assemble them. At least not to the extent the Allies did.
Just consider the fact that the Wehrmacht fielded about 2.75 million horses and mules over the course of World War II, more than twice as many Canadian soldiers served in the entire war. Meanwhile, the US military was totally mechanized and did not have to use horses in any serious capacity in the European theater.
It wasn’t just oil and metal, either. The Nazis’ anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism cost them considerable human capital. Before the war even began, large numbers of Jewish scientists and others persecuted by the Nazi regime escaped to the US and UK.
From 1933, when Hitler banned “non-Aryans” from public jobs, to 1944, over 130,000 Jewish refugees, more than the population of Cambridge (England or Massachusetts, take your pick), fled to the US. Many of them, like Nobel-prize winners Albert Einstein and Hans Bethe, went on to revolutionize science and technology, causing a 31% uptick in new US patents.
With this amount of ingenuity coming out of Germany, it’s easy to see why the myths of Nazi technology caught on. Once called the land of Dichter und Denker, or poets and thinkers, Germany did start out the 20th Century as a breeding ground for brilliant scientists and their discoveries. However, the Nazis themselves put an end to that, forcing out many of the very scientists that had laid the foundation of their technological superiority.
Nothing is greater evidence of this than the Nazis’ failed nuclear weapons program. Despite the fact that German scientists discovered nuclear fission in 1938, they were never able to create a usable weapon. Meanwhile, the Allied Manhattan project and its scientists, including refugees from the Nazi regime like Leo Szilard and Hans Bethe, developed the atomic bomb by 1945.
So was Nazi Germany more technologically advanced than the Allies? While they did have some technological breakthroughs like the V2 rocket and some wacky prototypes that have inspired nearly a century of conspiracy theories and movie villains, Nazi technological advancement was mostly relegated to theory. Their practical production and implementation of new tech was limited, due to both a shortage of important resources like oil and food, as well as a shortage of human capital inflicted by their own prejudiced hand.
“Herr Doktor,” TVTropes.org: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HerrDoktor
“Science: Sun Gun,” Time archives: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,852344-1,00.html
“Nazi Germany’s Kugelpanzer Is Definitely The Weirdest Tank In History,” The National Interest: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/nazi-germanys-kugelpanzer-definitely-weirdest-tank-history-124056
“What Were the Mysterious ‘Foo Fighters’ Sighted by WWII Night Flyers?” Air & Space: https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/what-were-mysterious-foo-fighters-sighted-ww2-night-flyers-180959847/
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“Jewish émigrés who fled Nazi Germany revolutionized U.S. science and technology, Stanford economist says,” Stanford News: https://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/august/german-jewish-inventors-081114.html
“Scientist Refugees and the Manhattan Project,” Atomic Heritage Foundation: https://www.atomicheritage.org/article/scientist-refugees-and-manhattan-project