A group of astronauts land on the moon, only to discover they are not alone. To their horror they discover a troop of Nazis who fled Earth at the end of the second world war and hope to return one day to revive the Third Reich.

The plot of Robert Heinlein's 1947 sci-fi novel Rocket Ship Galileo is, of course, fantasy, but it would have struck a chord with a readership still coming to terms with the horrors of the war and the scale of Nazi brutality.

The story plays on rumours that began soon after the war - amid revelations about advanced weaponry and secret experiments - that the Nazi regime had plans to conquer outer space. This is a premise that has provided works of science fiction - encompassing everything from comics to computer games to episodes of Star Trek - with a chilling motif ever since.

The latest example is Iron Sky, a Finnish sci-fi spoof. The flurry of interest the movie has generated is testament to the enduring appeal of its eccentric subject matter. The plot - in common with Heinlein's novel - asks us to believe a troop of Nazis fled to the moon at the end of the war; on this occasion, on a fleet of saucer-shaped spaceships from a secret base in Antarctica. "In 1945, the Nazis went to the moon," the tagline declares. "In 2018, they are coming back."

The film's producers swatted up on starry-eyed conspiracy theories to feed their gloriously far-fetched storyline. "There's some amazing stuff out there," says Iron Sky director Timo Vuorensola. "Many people still believe the Nazis had some kind of space programme. It's amazing how widespread this view is, even today."

A host of books and articles, wielding all manner of wild and wacky statements as fact, have helped propagate the Nazi space legend, allowing it to enter the fringes of public consciousness. The internet allows these theories to be recycled and disseminated ad infinitum.

The book Morning of the Magicians, for example, authored by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (1964), links a mysterious group named the Vril Society with Nazi designs on space. Meanwhile, Nazi International: The Nazis' Postwar Plan to Control the Worlds of Science, Finance, Space and Conflict, by American writer Joseph Farrell (2009), claims the Nazis developed technologies that stretched the boundaries of physics.

"The Nazis might well have developed spaceships; there is mat-erial that supports this," says Joshua Shapiro, who runs a web-site in the United States that covers conspiracy-oriented subject matter. He is not alone in this unusual view. Enter "Nazi space programme" into Google, and you will find a whole galaxy of theories and conjecture.

Buttressing their plausibility, the Third Reich's collapse came just over a decade before the launch of the first artificial satellite, Russia's Sputnik. But beyond crackpot conspiracy theories and wild stories, is there any verifiable evidence to support this fanciful version of history?

There certainly wasn't an official Nazi space programme. The Nazi high command was, unsurprisingly, consumed with trying to win the war. But away from the Third Reich's corridors of power were engineers driven by dreams of exploring the stars, who experimented with ideas that were decades ahead of their time; and it's here that the real roots of the Nazi space legend can be found.

The story begins in the late 1920s, amid the turmoil of the Weimar Republic, when a group of space-obsessed scientists formed the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) - the Society for Space Travel. The group's leading light was Hermann Oberth, one of the founding fathers of modern astronautics, and its ranks included Wernher von Braun, a charismatic young rocket engineer described by a colleague as having had space dust in his eyes since childhood. The group's pioneering experiments with crude liquid-fuelled rockets opened a whole world of possibilities. But after the Nazis seized power in 1933, civilian rocket tests were banned. The VfR's best engineers had to work exclusively for the military: their sole focus became weapons of war. Von Braun joined the Nazi Party and the SS to advance his career prospects.

At Peenemunde, northeastern Germany, von Braun presided over the development of the infamous V-2 ballistic missile which rained down on London and Antwerp near the end of the war, killing thousands. But he still dreamed of space. In 1944, he was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for blabbing, in an off-guard moment, that the real aim of his rocket programme was space flight.

The Nazis' grasp of rocket-propulsion technology was vastly superior to that of the Allies, and at the end of the war their best engineers were coveted by the US and the Soviets. Von Braun and scores of other German scientists moved to the US via a secret programme, Operation Paperclip, the expediencies of the cold war meaning that any links with Nazi war crimes - such as the death camps used to build the V-2 missiles - were quietly swept under the carpet.

Von Braun became a patriotic American citizen. The establishment of Nasa in the 1950s allowed him to focus unhindered on space exploration and he became director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama. It was von Braun who designed the Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. He died eight years later, his lifelong ambition fulfilled.

"Wernher von Braun was the most influential rocket engineer and space flight advocate of the 20th century," says biographer Michael Neufeld. "It's hard to imagine we would have put a man on the moon when we did without him."

It's easy to see how those of a conspiracy-minded bent might have twisted von Braun's remarkable story into evidence that the Nazis planned to conquer space. But this alone surely can't explain the persistence of the Nazi space legend. (The regime, after all, repeatedly attempted to hinder von Braun's space ambitions rather than support them.)

Another less well known second world war subplot more directly links the Nazis with plans to put a rocket into space.

In 1942, as the war's momentum shifted towards the Allies, the Nazi leadership sought ways to regain the initiative. Adolf Hitler wanted to bomb the US. But the Nazis relied on slow piston-powered aircraft with a limited range - and a round trip from Berlin to New York is more than 11,000 kilometres.

Hermann Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe, weighed up his options. One possibility was to try to harness the latest rocket technology and cross the Atlantic via some kind of prototype supersonic jet. But most of Germany's rocket engineers were working on the V-2 missile project under von Braun. Goring turned to Austrian engineer Eugen Sanger. "Sanger was a bit of a maverick," says aviation writer David Myhra. "He was a brilliant mathematician, but he was a dreamer. He was obsessed with exploring the universe in rockets."

The plan Sanger submitted was jaw droppingly ambitious. He proposed sending a manned, rocket-powered jet into the lower reaches of space. Sanger's sub-orbital bomber - named the Silverbird - was to be launched on a sled attached to a two-mile monorail powered by a clutch of V-2 rockets at nearly 2,000km/h. Thirty seconds after lift off, the craft's 100-tonne rocket motor would ignite. The Silverbird would hit an altitude of 130 kilometres above the Earth - the commonly accepted distance between Earth and outer space is 100 kilometres - and, in Myhra's words, skip across the atmosphere like a stone bouncing over a pond, before releasing its payload over the US.

"By reaching sub-orbital altitude its fuel life would be significantly extended, allowing it to - theoretically - bomb anywhere in the world," says Myhra, who has written a book on the Silverbird.

But Sanger's plan was so far out on the horizon of probability that Goring dismissed it. "The underlying concept was more or less sound but it was way ahead of its time. The costs involved would have been enormous," Myhra adds. The Silverbird never got past the drawing board. But it stands as an example of the Nazi leadership considering a plan - albeit briefly - to put a manned craft into space.

It is another project - or to be more precise, alleged project - that has fuelled the Nazi space legend more than even the outlandish Silverbird plan, however. And it sounds even more bizarre, too: the Nazi flying saucer. A host of writers and researchers have, over the years, claimed the Nazis developed disc-shaped craft during the war - craft which allegedly defied gravity using mysterious technologies. Recent examples include the book The Hunt for Zero Point (2001), by military journalist Nick Cook, and the Discovery Channel documentary Nazi UFO Conspiracy (2008). Both suggest a link between UFO sightings over the past half century and a secret Nazi flying saucer programme established during the second world war.

In the context of the frenzied experimentation that took place during the war, the idea that the Nazis might have looked into saucer-shaped prototypes is not as ludicrous as it sounds. Such craft, if they existed, had nothing to do with space travel. Allied bombing raids had targeted runways across the Third Reich. If the Nazis could construct a craft that could take off and land vertically they would be at a considerable advantage. But not so much as a seat cushion exists to verify their existence.

The phenomenon can be traced back to the early 1950s and a German engineer named Rudolf Schriever. In a series of newspaper interviews, he claimed to have designed a disc-shaped prototype at a BMW facility in Prague during the war. The 15-metre-diameter craft, Schriever said, was powered by a circular plane of rotating turbine blades. A pilot named Otto Habermohl allegedly helped him with the design. But the prototype was destroyed by the Russian advance, Schriever claimed, and the plans were lost.

Berlin-based historian Ralf Bulow has analysed the Nazi flying saucer claims. "Most people who have written books on the subject had no first-hand experience. They relied on secondary sources," he says.

"Rudolf Schriever is different because he claimed to have worked on disc-shaped craft during the war."

The problem is that his story is full of holes. "Schriever claims he built the craft at BMW's plant in Prague. BMW did not have a facility in the area," Bulow adds. "Moreover, its probable Otto Habermohl never existed. There is no such German surname. I fear he made the whole thing up." Schriever died in 1953. But his story lives on.

The flaws in Schriever's tale undermine the enduring flying saucer claims. And they also undermine a key pillar in the Nazi space legend. In fact, taking everything into account - including Sanger's schemes and von Braun's dreams - the evidence linking the Nazis with plans to explore space is pretty thin on the ground. But perhaps to look for the basis of the legend in real-life events is to miss the point.

In the 1950s, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung analysed the flying saucer phenomenon. He saw it as occupying a place within an ancient religious tradition: mankind looking to the heavens with a sense of anxiety and the hope of redemption. In a modern, quasi-scientific context, Jung argued, strange and powerful forces from outer space replace vengeful Gods armed with bolts of lightning.

"Jung focused on the circular shape of flying saucers; the circle is an ancient symbol of wholeness," says William Rowlandson, an expert in mythology at the University of Kent, in Britain. "There's a strong underlying mythical dimension."

The Nazis, meanwhile, occupy an unequivocal, one-dimensional position in modern history. Nazi equals evil. There is an implicit assumption that a Nazi in any story will seek to dominate and destroy. The conjunction of "Nazis" and "space" therefore combines two monstrous concepts central to modern mythology.

But what makes this union so powerful is that it's grounded in just about enough circumstantial evidence to make it tangible. "Legends are at their most powerful when they are built on verifiable truths, not wildly elaborate and spurious ideas," Rowlandson says. The Nazis had engineers who were obsessed with space, and led the world in rocket technology. Throw in the fact that the Nazi leadership had a well-documented interest in the occult, and the Third Reich's dramatic iconography, and you have an arresting, visceral motif that intertwines the mysteries of the heavens with uniquely modern horrors.

Such a compelling mix will lead some people to conclude deeper truths lie obscured and overlooked, even seven decades after the end of the war. "So many sources claim that the Nazis had saucer-shaped craft powered by some form of anti-gravity technology that there must be something to it," says Shapiro. "And if they did have, its entirely possible that they could have taken these craft to the moon. I believe that all these things are possible."

IFA Amsterdam


Iron Sky has been getting mixed reviews, to put it kindly - "As satirically weightless as playing golf on the moon" (The Observer); "Great idea, lousy execution" (The Seattle Times); "Madchens in tight blouses, space travelling stormtroopers - was ist not to like?" (Sky Movies). Assuming it has not been pulled prematurely, through lack of interest, Iron Sky is playing in Hong Kong cinemas now.