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The Soviet version of Operation Paperclip was way bigger (but less successful)

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As World War II was approaching its conclusion in Europe, the United States, aided by the U.K., began recruiting Nazi scientists, engineers, and researchers in a program that would come to be known as Operation Paperclip. This secretive effort was controversial before it even began, and in recent decades, it’s come to be viewed by many as indicative of America’s seemingly nefarious predilection for advancing its military capabilities no matter the cost.

There’s no denying that the involvement of Nazi scientists in the American scientific and technological endeavors that followed Operation Paperclip is a stain on the nation’s honor that its government and population must come to terms with. But as is so often the case when it comes to inflammatory topics like these… modern discussion of Operation Paperclip often comes in the absence of the broader context of the day.

The U.S. did indeed recruit Nazi scientists in the twilight months of World War II, but you may be surprised to learn that the U.S. wasn’t the only nation to do so… in fact, the U.S. wasn’t even the nation to bring the most Nazi specialists under its wing. That dubious honor belongs instead to none other than America’s Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.

The US recruited over 1,600 Nazi scientists that worked on several high-profile programs

Kurt H. Debus, a former V-2 rocket scientist who became a NASA director, sitting between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1962 at a briefing at Blockhouse 34, Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. (Wikimedia Commons)

America’s Operation Paperclip saw more than 1,600 former Nazis relocate to the United States, where they helped advance a breadth of new programs.

Wernher von Braun may be the most notable individual to emerge from Paperclip. Von Braun was responsible for the world’s first operational ballistic missile, the famed 45-foot V-2 rocket that could deliver 2,200-pound warheads to targets as far as 200 miles away. Historical references to von Braun are mixed when it comes to just how committed he was to the Nazi cause.

On the one hand, after watching the first V-2 tests, he was famously quoted as saying, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet,” seemingly suggesting his involvement with the Nazi party was born out of his passion for rocketry and his German citizenship.

First rank, from left to right, General Dr. Walter Dornberger (partially hidden), General Friedrich Olbricht (with Knight’s Cross), Major Heinz Brandt, and Wernher von Braun (in civilian dress) at Peenemünde, Province of Pomerania, in March 1941. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, von Braun was also a member of the Allgemeine SS, a subset of the broader (and infamous) Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary force operating within Germany and its conquered territory at the time. When it became evident that Germany would lose the war, von Braun sought out and surrendered to American forces in order to avoid being captured by the Soviets. He then went on to become the director of NASA’s new Marshall Space Flight Center and served as the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that would ultimately win the Cold War’s Space Race by taking America to the moon in 1969.

Another notable German duo to arrive in America through Operation Paperclip was Walter Dornberger and Krafft Ehricke, who found their way to Bell Aircraft following the war. They also continued working in the field they had under the Nazi banner, eventually developing the X-20 Dyna-SOAR. This rocket-launched exo-atmospheric aircraft aimed to give America a hypersonic bomber in the 1960s before eventually being canceled to divert more funding toward von Braun’s new employers at NASA.

Full-scale mock-up of the X-20 Dyna-SOAR (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the cancellation, the X-20 program was widely considered to be entirely feasible using the technology of the day (provided it was adequately funded), but lawmakers sought more than just military capability in their Cold War efforts, and with the Soviet Union placing satellites into orbit, the X-20 simply wasn’t high-flying enough to garner the sort of prestige America needed to defend capitalism in the face of high profile communist successes.

The U.K. also had its own similar program, known as Operation Surgeon, though it was much smaller in scale and ultimately only led to 100 or so Nazi scientists working in British R&D facilities.

Related: The birth of stealth: How defeating radar became the way of war

The Soviet Union recruited more than 2,500 Nazi scientists… but its programs were less successful

Nazi scientists recruited by the Soviet Union in 1958. (Wikimedia Commons)

But the U.S. wasn’t the only nation to leverage the expertise of former Nazi scientists. In fact, the Soviet Union’s less-discussed equivalent effort, known as Operation Osoaviakhim, was even larger in scope.

Over the course of just hours on October 22, 1946, an estimated 6,500 Nazi scientists and others throughout all Soviet-occupied territories were drafted at gunpoint and loaded into 92 freight trains and relocated elsewhere within Soviet territory. Several hundred of these new “recruits” were transported to the remote and extremely isolated island of Lake Seliger, about 300 miles from Moscow, specifically to work on new Soviet ballistic missile programs with direct ties to the nation’s nuclear and space-based aspirations.

They remained there for at least five years before ultimately being released, after the Soviet Minister of Armament, Dmitrii Ustinov, reported that their effective imprisonment had compromised their value to the Soviet missile enterprise.

“Owing to the long isolation from modern science and technology, the work of the German specialists has become less effective,” he wrote.

Related: The Soviets crashed into the moon while Apollo 11 was on it

Nazi scientists recruited by the Soviet Union saw less success due to the confines of the Soviet system

Soviet R12 Dvina ballistic missile. (Wikimedia Commons)

All told, Soviet Forces recruited (a term used loosely in this context, as recruitment often came at gunpoint) more than 2,500 former Nazi specialists delivered to Soviet firms following the war.

Some notable Nazi scientists or engineers recruited by the Soviet Union include Hugo Schmeisser, who developed the first truly successful assault rifle for Germany in the StG 44. In the year that followed, rumors swirled that Schmeisser played a role in designing the famed Soviet AK-47, which was developed between 1946 and 1948. However, it’s entirely possible that similarities between these rifles were born out of Soviet inspections of his designs recovered during the war, rather than his direct involvement.

The Soviets also brought in Erich Apel and Helmut Gröttrup, both rocket engineers who had worked directly with Von Braun under the Nazi regime. Apel would become a prominent East German party official before committing suicide in 1965, but Gröttrup would eventually escape to West Germany, where he went on to invent the smart card (or ID cards with microchips in them).

Related: Project Horizon: Nukes and shotguns on the moon

Nazi scientists may have been ahead of some Allied scientists, but they weren’t superhuman

Group of 104 German rocket scientists in 1946, including Wernher von Braun, at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Creative Commons)

There is no denying that these Nazi scientists, engineers, and researchers brought their experience and even some of their developmental programs with them to their new homes following the war; there’s also no doubt that they played a role in advancing a variety of innovations.

But the mix of successes, failures, and stalled efforts produced by these former Nazis in the decades that followed shows clearly that the Third Reich may have been years ahead of its competition in a few specific fields, but they were certainly not decades ahead. Their efforts in the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union were only met with success when paired with significant funding, resources, and support from the home countries, and then when these men were given years to continue with their efforts.

The truth is, Operation Paperclip tends to get the lion’s share of the notoriety not only because many Americans found the idea of recruiting Nazi scientists unethical, but also because those scientists found greater degrees of success within the American establishment. After the United States won the Cold War, a narrative emerged that sought to credit the U.S.’ technological achievements to the 1,600 or so Nazi scientists recruited during and immediately after World War II.

And while it’s undeniable that Nazi scientists did play a role in many significant American scientific breakthroughs, the fact that the Soviet Union didn’t find similar successes – despite casting a much larger net – suggests other variables were also in play. Whether it was the administrative framework these recruited scientists worked within, the finances allocated to their efforts, the American and Allied researchers working alongside them, or a combination of all three, the fact of the matter is, the American approach simply proved more effective than that of its Cold War competitors.

Because if recruiting Nazi scientists was really the secret to success in the Cold War, the Soviet Union should have had a distinct advantage through numbers alone.

This article was originally published in February 2023. It has been edited for republication.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.

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