Like many people, I initially visited the German island of Usedom for its sandy beaches, fischbrotchen (a local fish sandwich) and quaint seaside towns, such as Heringsdorf. The small, remote resort was popular with the Prussian royalty, and later, East Germans. But between 1936 and 1945, the Nazis occupied one village for a darker purpose.
Usedom draws visitors with its white sandy beaches and quaint seaside towns (Credit: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
Peenemünde looks out across the mouth of the River Peene where it drifts into the Baltic Sea. In 1935, engineer Wernher von Braun pinpointed the village, which offered a 400km testing range off the German coast, as the perfect, secret place to develop and test rockets.
Frantic building work began on the world’s largest and most modern rearmament centre. About 12,000 people worked on the first-ever cruise missiles and fully functioning large-scale rockets at the site, which spanned an area of 25sqkm. The research and development carried out in Peenemünde was not only crucial to the course of the biggest war in history, but impacted the future of weapons of mass destruction, as well as space travel.
Today, all that remains of the complex is an old red-brick power station that houses the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum. When I visited, the solid, rectangular building with looming rusty chimneys and the model rockets scattered across the museum grounds created a chilling impression. But inside, the exhibits ‒ from old documents to hunks of broken and bent metal rudders, rocket tails and turbo pumps ‒ filled me with awe.
Twelve thousand people once worked on large-scale rockets and the first ever cruise missiles at Peenemünde (Credit: robertharding/Alamy)
The ominous coupling of scientific enlightenment with dark intent was captured by the military leader of the rocket programme, Walter Dornberger. In a speech manuscript from 1942, Dornberger wrote that the recent successful launch of the Aggregat 4 (A-4) ‒ the world’s first long-range rocket, otherwise known as the V2, or ‘Vengeance weapon’ ‒ was “The engineer’s dream: to have developed a device which, as one of the most revolutionary inventions of recent ages, will give one’s own state military, economic and therefore political superiority.”
The world’s first long-range rocket, otherwise known as the ‘Vengeance weapon’ was the engineer’s dream
But while the programme’s leaders, such as Dornberger and von Braun, as well as key figures from the Nazi regime, such as Albert Speer, who was responsible for the military buildings at Peenemünde, believed that rockets would be vital to winning the war, one person remained sceptical: Hitler.
Peenemünde was not completely finished when Hitler declared war in 1939. Thus began a struggle for priority, personnel and materials, following the rocket programme’s initial unlimited funding. It was only after Dornberger and von Braun presented a film of the successful A-4 launch to Hitler that he finally granted the weapon full approval.
By then the situation was desperate, and a new layer of history disturbed the site. In June 1943, 2,500 concentration camp prisoners were forced to help with the planned series production of the rocket. Preserved name lists show that these slave labourers mainly came from occupied France, Belgium and Netherlands. They worked under terrible conditions on weapons that would wreak terror and devastation on their homelands.
Around 2,500 concentration camp prisoners were forced to build rockets that would devastate their homelands (Credit: alex havret/Alamy)
Around the same time, in summer 1943, British Intelligence realised the importance of Peenemünde. Reconnaissance flights and aerial photographs pointed to the development and production of German long-range weapons ‒ something that had to be stopped. On the night of 17 August, the Royal Airforce carried out Operation Hydra, the largest British action against a single target during WWII. Although the bombing was largely unsuccessful, it did delay production and force it to move underground to Mittelwerk in central Germany.
In 1944, Hitler realised his miscalculation and expressed his regret at not having approved the project sooner to Dornberger: “I have had to apologise only to two men in my whole life. The first was Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. I did not listen to him when he told me again and again how important your research was. The second man is yourself.”
In 1944, Hitler expressed regret at having miscalculated the importance of using rockets to win the war (Credit: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
But the end of the war did not spell the end of the work carried out at Peenemünde. After the war, the Allies sought to acquire the technology contained within the A-4/V-2, the first missile to launch a large warhead along a predetermined trajectory. German rocket scientists and engineers who worked for the Nazi regime were offered citizenship and jobs in the USSR, Great Britain, France and the US. Most famously, von Braun went on to live in the US and work for Nasa, where he developed the rockets that launched the Apollo-manned lunar landings. In addition to impacting the space race and guided missiles of the Cold War, the research and development performed at Peenemünde informed all later developments in rocket engineering.
Perhaps, however, the most important legacy of Peenemünde is the reflections it raises about the impact of technology, and the role of scientists and engineers within a wider context. Museum curator Dr Philipp Aumann told me, “Progress and innovation are a key aspect of modern societies, and we as a society have an influence on what gets researched and developed.”
Peenemünde reflects the darkest and most illuminating aspects of humanity
As I moved through the site, with its multiple layers of history and complexities, I found myself becoming more enmeshed in its contradictions and questions. Peenemünde reflects the darkest and most illuminating aspects of humanity, making it relevant for all of us today.
Peenemünde’s continued relevance has inspired international artists such as Catalonian painter Gregorio Iglesias Mayo and Mexican-American print artist Miguel A Aragón to interact with the site. Mayo, who painted a 121ft x 40ft canvas in the museum’s courtyard, which captures the human dimension in relation to technical apparatus on a grand scale, has stated that Peenemünde is a “place where once there had also been a concentration camp, a place of research, creation, intelligence, weakness, contrasts, frustration, helplessness and the fight for the most rudimentary things.”
The research conducted at Peenemünde impacted the future of weapons of mass destruction and space travel (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)
As well as using visual art as a way to process history, the museum hosts concerts by The Baltic Sea Philharmonic in the former turbine hall of the power station. The site, which once threatened to tear Europe apart, now brings together leading musicians from the region’s 10 countries. In 2002, the museum was awarded the Coventry Cross of Nails for its efforts towards reconciliation and peace.
Now, every time I visit sunny Usedom, Peenemünde attracts me to its many shades of light and grey.
Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.