Taking Nazi Technology
Taking technology is easy; integrating it is hard. Sustained, on-the-ground contact with German scientists yielded the best results. The Allied powers (mis)understood this to various degrees.
When most people hear “taking Nazi technology,” their first and perhaps only association is Operation Paperclip, featuring Werner von Braun, his V-2 rocket, and the subsequent Saturn V that took men to the moon. But Taking Nazi Technology is a book about the sweeping efforts of the Americans, British, French, and Soviets to seize technology that went well beyond rocketry to cover the whole of the Industrial base, from automotives to chemicals to textiles. Although this is a less sexy topic, it gives O’Reagan space to analyze what it means to “take” technology.
As it turns out, taking technology is easy (kind of); integrating it is hard. Just as stealing answers to a calculus exam does not yield an understanding of calculus, so the Allied nations’ seizing of German documents, industrial equipment, and even people was often not correlated with success. What did work was sustained, on the ground contact with German scientists, including visiting factories and embedding trainees into German research centers. The Allied powers (mis)understood this to various degrees, and their approaches to technology appropriation differed based on resources available and ideology.
O’Reagan finds it was the French who best understood science and technology as profoundly embedded in society and were therefore the most successful in benefiting from Nazi technology. Granted, their industrial capacity and technological baseline were lower than the other Allied powers, so there was more to be gained. The French approach differed in that it was more benevolent to Germany, adopting a Marshall plan ideology of sorts. They kept German laboratories intact and didn’t grab scientists en masse, noting that the “milieu around a scientist, including personal contacts, is so essential that a top scientist or technician displaced in another country… is practically rendered sterile (pg 90).” France was primed to go this route in a way other countries were not, as it had practice collaborating with the Germans; investments in Franco-German scientific institutes and business relationships came more naturally.
Regardless of whether the French uniquely understood the interconnectedness of a technology ecosystem, they didn’t have the resources to pursue any other policy. They were aware of their inability to exert total control over their occupied areas, box out infringing Allied powers, import and integrate scientists, and write thousands of reports. This worked out for the French. As O’Reagan writes, “a role at the heart of western Europe was worth more than boxes of reports and miles of microfilm (pg 98).”
American and British Approach
Of the Allied nations, the U.S. and U.K. relied most heavily on document copying to obtain German knowledge. When faced with billions of pages of available documentation, they chose to take the haystacks and worry about finding the needles later. As Mark Twain said, “if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Wanting to keep the original documents intact, the U.S. and U.K. resorted to copying as much as they could via microfilming with the goal of summarizing and distributing the findings as consumable reports. It was a herculean task.
First, teams of experts were sent to a factory or lab to select what should be copied from the hundreds of thousands or even millions of available pages. Selections were microfilmed, shipped, and processed. Translation was a frequent bottleneck, although several successful translation businesses were started during this period and drove down the cost of translation. (A fascinating second order-effect of aggressively translating German research into English was that it accelerated the transition to English being the language of science, which was not the case pre-WWII). Finally, a report was written and assigned a classification designation. The classifying of information is its own battleground, and the tendency to over-classify was alive and well in 1946.
Had it been more difficult to copy documents, the U.S. and U.K. would have been forced to develop a more discriminating process for selecting documents, and ironically, more material and insights may have been dispersed faster.
Unsurprisingly, the Soviets’ approach to taking technology yielded the grand-scale absurdity characteristic of Stalin. Operation Paperclip pales in comparison to Operation Osaviakhim. In October 1946,
“Soviet troops and NKVD teams rounded up about three thousand German scientists, engineers, craftsmen, and other technical specialists, along with their families and possessions, and placed them on trains heading east… nearly every major firm in a war-related industries were impacted, including Carl Zeiss in Jena, BMW Strassfurt, Leuna, Siebel Works, Junkers, and Schott (pg 110).”
The following anecdote describing how the V-2 scientists were rounded up would have fit perfectly into Iannucci’s hilarious The Death of Stalin (2017), a black comedy chronicling the frenetic political machinations immediately following Stalin’s death. Unfortunately the film’s action doesn’t get rolling until 1953 (naturally).
Helmut Gottrup and two hundred of his colleagues working at the Mittelwerk rocket facility were invited to a party with a Soviet general, after which they were informed they and their families would be on trains to facilities in the Soviet Union the following morning (pg 110).
The theater of the absurd continued with the Soviets’ massive industrial seizures, where they lifted not just equipment but entire factories on the order of thousands for transport by rail to the Soviet Union. Equipment was broken en route and ended up rusting in depots. When it did reach its destination intact, written documentation for how to assemble was lacking (or in German!). Despite these struggles, “there is little question that artifacts and raw materials taken from Germany formed the basis for the Soviet rocket program (pg 107).” Notably, the historical consensus is that the German contribution only resulted in a few months saved.
American Approach Revisited
O’Reagan reaches the contrarian conclusion that the United States benefited little from unfettered access to German technology. He concedes von Braun was a unicorn critical to the Saturn V, but that’s as far as he’s willing to go:
This is not a story, ultimately, of the United States getting a free lunch at Germany’s expense. Instead, it is a story of American firms having an unprecedented ability to study a long-standing rival, realizing that they had relatively little to learn, and moving forward as self-aware leaders in industrial research… The biggest shock was one of disappointment (pg 44).
The United States’ aggressive push to absorb as much German technology as possible was a policy motivated in large part by a desire to deny the Soviets, and even the other Allies, access to knowledge. It was less about what the Americans would gain than what the Soviets would lose. Look no further than the hundreds of German scientists who sat idle in American barracks while the Air Force struggled to find businesses who wanted them. But even here, it seems the Americans didn’t deny the Soviets all that much, as they were well on their way to developing an atomic bomb with or without German “assistance.”
Why Taking Nazi Technology Matters Today
O’Reagan’s major finding is that sustained contact with the people and processes that collectively form the intangible “know-how” for a given technology is necessary to successfully transfer and innovate on it. This has profound implications for how we replicate progress and foster innovation, and it goes a long way in explaining America’s hollowed-out manufacturing base and fragile supplier ecosystem. Despite innovations in computing, AI, and robotics, manufacturing knowledge is concentrated in the heads of people who learned the trade at a young age via an apprenticeship model, and who usually lack a college degree. When this knowledge is not passed on, it dies. When the small business that went made a critical piece of the B-2 bomber retired, the U.S. Government released an RFP to reverse engineer the parts (frightening).
As the number of critical but unfilled manufacturing jobs increases, there is no guaranteed and inexorable march towards automation to save us (contrary to popular belief). Failed startups like Plethora, which raised over $30mm and was founded by very smart people, are case in point. Encoding know-how is hard, and automating parts of the factory will require more venture money and government investment towards those companies and technologies showing the most promise.
O’Reagan’s book also has something to say of the inverse: how do we prevent and punish theft of technology? One silver lining is that industrial espionage in the form of document pilfering, while not desirable, may not pose much of a threat. What does pose a threat is having well-networked American technologists working for the opposition. The Biden administration understands this! Its recent U.S. export control rules prohibit U.S. citizens from supporting China’s semiconductor development, handicapping Chinese access to critical American know-how. It will force American executives in China to choose between their job or their U.S. citizenship. The move caught industry off-guard and is widely considered to be the most punitive American action taken against Chinese industry in recent years, inclusive of Trump’s tariffs and blustering rhetoric.
Effectively integrating German technology was neither easy nor obvious, and O’Reagan’s book puts a point on why we must continue to study what enables and blocks technological progress.