Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Monique Laney's "German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie"

Monique Laney is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Auburn University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past during the Civil Rights Era, and reported the following:
Page 99 describes a very positive moment for most of the central characters of my book, when the German rocketeers and their families, whom the U.S. Army brought to the United States beginning in 1945, were moving to Huntsville, Alabama. Previously, the rocket specialists who designed the V-2 rocket for Hitler’s regime had lived in military barracks at Ft. Bliss near El Paso, Texas. In 1950, they followed the Army’s rocket development program and moved their families to the Deep South state—a pivotal moment for the rocketeers and for Huntsville, but also the first time that the reader hears directly from the Germans I interviewed for this book as they describe their initial impressions of Huntsville.

In the coming decade, Huntsville would become home for approximately 200 German rocket specialists and their families. Despite their arrival with thousands of other newcomers from across the country, many in the once small cotton mill town believe that the Germans were the driving force that transformed its culture and economics, dramatically changing the lives of locals.

Strikingly, one of the first things the Germans talked about when I asked them to describe Huntsville upon their arrival, were the visible effects of Jim Crow segregation. Most members of the first generation quickly tried to set themselves apart from the local white community, depicting themselves as mere bystanders, i.e., outsiders and newcomers, who were trying to fit in by adjusting to local customs and politics. Their children reported more complicated responses, however, and African American interviewees confirmed that the Germans indeed adjusted well, remarking that they simply blended into the town’s white power structure. Not surprisingly, Jewish interviewees had different concerns about the Germans.

With this book I tried to explain why the Germans were continuously celebrated in Huntsville, even after one of the team members signed an affidavit confessing to war crimes under the Nazi regime. Many locals tried to have his name cleared, taking his case all the way to the U.S. president. They did not succeed, but their actions speak volumes about their attachment to the German rocket team. Given that the Germans arrived as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, I contend that this story tells us something about the history of American race relations as well as the nation’s relationship to Nazi Germany.
Visit Monique Laney's website, and learn more about German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue