Key Point: Although German rockets and jets were very advanced, many of their other areas of technology were unimpressive. America did built some of its weapons based on what it learned from the Nazis, but overall the haul was disappointing.
Before the guns fell silent in 1945, the Allies had already drawn up plans for gathering as much German technology as they could take. The German war machine had caused untold destruction across the continent, and German technology was reputed to be cutting age. Weapons like the V-2 missile, the Me 262 jet fighter, and the Type XXI submarine seemed like wonder-weapons, enabling Germany to punch well above its weight during the war.
Taking Nazi Technology, a new book from Douglas O’Reagan details what the Americans found when they began looting Nazi Germany, and why they were disappointed in their haul. At a time when the United States has become deeply insecure about its technological leadership, the story has important lessons for policymakers.
The idea of German military and technological supremacy was widely held in the United States before and during the war. German industry had an almost mythic quality, even as objective indicators of technological prowess increasingly began to favor the United States in the early twentieth century. The evident sophistication of the V-2 and the Me 262, along with rhetoric about the effectiveness of other “super-weapons,” also led Americans to believe that the Germans had harnessed technological innovation on a large scale.
But the United States had no standing intelligence infrastructure to capture and exploit German technology. Much was developed on the fly, often with inexperienced and inappropriately trained intelligence “professionals.” When the United States finally attacked the problem of appropriating German technology, it did so in a haphazard fashion, with a bewildering array of different agencies and acronyms. Operation Paperclip, focusing on what would eventually be termed aerospace technology, is relatively well-known. The Field Information Agency, Technical (FIAT) became a major bureaucratic driver, tasked with facilitating the investigation and acquisition of German technology.
The United States wasn’t alone in seeking “intellectual reparations.” The Soviet Union famously evacuated a huge proportion of eastern Germany’s industry to the USSR, along with large communities of scientists and engineers. The British and the French also got in on the game, the former with an eye to maintaining its international position, with the latter focused on restoring the damage caused by the war.
This meant that Germany was full of scientists, engineers, businessmen, and military officers searching for something, anything of value. As it soon became clear, paper and microfilm wasn’t enough; the scientists and engineers themselves held their value in their heads. And this often led to grabbing folks just to keep them away from another country. For the United States and (to a lesser extent) the United Kingdom, this was mutually agreeable; post-war Germany was deeply impoverished, and opportunity beckoned abroad. For Germans who found themselves spirited to the interior of the Soviet Union, the story was less happy.
O’Reagan argues that the United States saw some real technological gains, just not to the extent that anyone had expected. German rocket programs were quite advanced, and the United States benefitted from the expertise of German rocket scientists and engineers. The United States also learned much from Germany’s jet engine industry, both with respect to the engines themselves and on German testing procedures. The German chemical industry, very advanced for the time, also held some value for the United States, as the Germans had invested heavily in developing synthetic oil and rubber technology. Individual U.S. firms also learned a great deal about how their German counterparts operated, which gave them an edge in post-war economic competition.
What to do with the appropriated technology naturally became controversial. In the United States, at least, a public-private partnership ensued. U.S. firms would send their own personnel to Europe to investigate their German counterparts and try to learn as much as they could. The U.S. government supported this effort, in part out of an ideological belief in big business and government should work together to facilitate technical and scientific progress. Many Americans also believed that, since the war had been a public effort, the distribution of spoils should take on a public character. This often ran contrary to the efforts of individual firms, who sought to benefit themselves at the expense of competitors.
Overall, however, many Americans were disappointed by what they found in Germany. Machine tooling, assembly line procedure, and similar areas in which U.S. engineers had expected to find major advances turned out to be duds. Why weren’t the Germans as dominant in technology as the Americans had expected? O’Reagan offers a few reasons. The noxious, anti-semitic nature of the German regime drove many scientists and engineers away, including large numbers of Jews who resettled in Britain and the United States. The nature of the regime also made it difficult for German engineers and scientists to stay up-to-date on foreign innovations, as they found themselves dis-invited from conferences and shunned by potential collaborators. Finally, while the immense German investment in military capabilities drove some innovation, it also drew funding away from basic research and civilian applications.
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The frustrating attempt to draw intellectual reparations from Germany after World War II holds some lessons for the United States today. First, the appropriation of foreign technology is harder than it seems. This lesson has been learned and re-learned over the years by companies and countries attempting to steal technology, and it remains true today. Americans should take some comfort in this when thinking about Chinese intellectual property theft. Second, scientific enterprise is fundamentally international, with scientists and engineers benefitting from the knowledge and experience of their colleagues. There is no national, autarkic strategy for successful technological innovation. Americans should keep this in mind when they think about the health of their research universities, which thrive on foreign students.
O’Reagan argues that one of the enduring legacies of the effort to seize Nazi technology was a growing confidence in the supremacy of American technology. This led, in the postwar years, to a vast system of export controls designed to prevent the most advanced U.S. innovations from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. This perception of U.S. technological supremacy still characterizes U.S. technology policy today, in light of growing concerns about China’s IP theft.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This first appeared in 2019.
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