Taking Nazi Technology

Allied Scientific Espionage and Exploitation of German Technology after the Second World War

Following the Second World War, the Allied Powers attempted the largest-scale technology transfer effort in history, aiming to take “intellectual reparations” from occupied Germany. This book is a history of America, British, French, and Soviet cooperation and competition in controlling and exploiting German science and technology. Through this, it is a history of science, diplomacy, espionage, and changing attitudes towards technology in society.

One dimension of this story is fairly well-known: Project Paperclip, which brought over the Nazi rocket scientists who helped NASA with the moon landings, led by Wernher von Braun. The Nazi scientist working for the West became a cultural archetype in fiction from Dr. Strangelove to Captain America. Paperclip is only one relatively small episode in the American case, however. This book reveals the inner workings of an international set of programs with much broader ambitions than rocket science. In nearly every field of industrial science and technological research, the Western allies gathered teams of experts to scour defeated Germany, seeking industrial secrets and the technical personnel who could explain them.

Image of a newspaper article on Operation Paperclip from Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Image of a newspaper article on Operation Paperclip from the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

This book addresses two major gaps in the sparse academic literature on these efforts. First, almost all of the current literature on this topic looks solely at the American case, limiting our knowledge to the perspective of the country with the least to gain from German technology. The United States emerged from the war with excess industrial capacity and a mobilized, world-class scientific community, unlike indebted Britain, recently-occupied France, or the shattered Soviet Union. Second, this literature tends to accept claims of technology being “taken” at face value, skipping over the enormous challenges of effectively communicating and implementing technology across national and cultural borders. The greatest espionage coup in the world is useless if no one uses the information it provides.

By taking a transnational perspective, this book emphasizes how these ambitions filtered through the different diplomatic, political, and economic circumstances of the three main Western Allies. It takes a careful approach to the question of technology transfer. What exactly did planners in each country expect to acquire from studying Germany, and why did they expect that? How did they intend to take science and technology? Were they successful, as judged by the businessmen and trade associations involved? These issues played out very differently in each nation, with early Cold War diplomatic tension driving and being driven by different approaches to learning from German science. The legacies of the efforts to take German technology lay not just in economic gains, but in the international politics and business culture of the early Cold War.

The overarching argument of the book is that the late 1940s and early 1950s witnessed a dramatic change in international understanding of what it means to transfer technology. While America and Britain initially planned on sharing German technology with their industries via written reports, they increasingly found themselves in agreement with a stance already held by many in France and the Soviet Union: technology cannot be separated from the technical ‘know-how,’ the hands-on skill and experience of technicians and engineers, that cannot be captured in writing. This meant rapid and fundamental changes in the exploitation programs, with significant diplomatic costs. It also left a lasting impression on the businessmen across the Western world, who had been brought in to staff these programs and select targets of economic value. Moving technology across national and cultural borders meant moving people – a lesson with long-lasting implications for business, law, and intelligence agencies in an increasingly global postwar economy.

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This book is based on my PhD dissertation, “Science, Technology, and Know-How: Exploitation of German Science and the Challenges of Technology Transfer in the Postwar World” (available in full at this link).

Part of one chapter, exploring the French exploitation of German science, became an article published in the International History Reviewhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2013.879917

Part of another chapter, looking at the broader history of business interest in “know-how,” became an article in Technology and Culturehttps://muse.jhu.edu/article/648252/

I also discussed the dissertation at a panel at the Miller Center for Public Policy in Spring 2014, with video available:
http://millercenter.org/events/2014/cross-border-transformations-war-and-revolution-in-international-history

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The book manuscript is now under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press, estimated date of release in late 2018 or 2019. The full book proposal is available here: Book Proposal for Taking Nazi Technology