Through breeding, kidnapping, and even murder, the Nazis' Lebensborn program aimed at creating a super-race of Germanized children.
As far as secretive government projects go, the Lebensborn project was a doozy. The purpose of the Nazi-led program was to create the German’s glorified ‘super race’ by means of a breeding bank for ‘racially-pure’ babies. Of course, indoctrination to Nazism for both mother and child followed.
The nature of pregnancy made this creation of a new master race a rather lengthy process. To rev things up a bit, the Nazis also set out to Germanize fair-haired kids who already existed.
This meant kidnapping and brainwashing what were seen as genetically superior European kids into the Nazi regime. If the child resisted, they found themselves in a concentration camp where their ultimate fate was extermination.
Head Nazi SS officer Heinrich Himmler was the driving force behind the decade-long Lebensborn program, which started in 1935. He assured any unwed mother who fit the racial profile that giving birth inside a Lebensborn home was the best thing to do for their children. The Nazis would provide the best in care and education, and even handle the adoption process if desired.
Before the war, Germany’s birth rate had plummeted due to industrialization. Now the country’s goal was to grow the birth rate, especially with the ‘right’ kind of babies. With the Nazi party enacting the Nuremberg racial hygiene laws, which restricted Jews and Germans from marrying or having extramarital intercourse, they needed a plan to up the numbers.
The idea of using eugenics came largely from the United States, who was working to advance the ideology in the early 1930s. The Rockefeller Foundation, a funder of U.S. eugenics at the time, even financed some research conducted by Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele.
Because the Nazi government wanted to grow the population quickly, the view of illegitimate children as shameful began to change. Any German baby born was now a blessing in the eyes of the SS – unwed mother or not. If the baby carried the coveted Aryan genes, that – of course – was the optimal scenario.
Part policy, part propaganda, the Lebensborn program literally translated to “Fount of Life.” It was first ‘marketed’ to unwed and pregnant women who wanted to have their babies in secret. The stigma of out-of-wedlock birth still lingered among the public; therefore girls living in poverty likely jumped at the chance to receive free top-notch care.
The first Lebensborn home opened its doors in 1936 in a tiny village near Munich named Steinhöring. Financial assistance and maternity ward privileges were incentives to enter. For Norwegian women, the program was a way out of the poverty-stricken country; a strategy for survival.
Of course, you had to qualify for such privileges; not by ways of money or class or connections – but by genealogy. Proof of paternity and a racially-pure family tree for three prior generations gained you access. The program accepted only 40 percent percent of the women who applied under this staunch rule.
However, the Lebensborn program was not producing offspring quickly enough for the likes of the Nazi officials. So, Himmler began using the facilities to arrange secret meetings for ‘suitable’ women to meet SS soldiers to make more babies.
A report to the Ministry of Justice stated, “Leaders of the [League of German Girls have] intimated to their girls that they should bear illegitimate children; these leaders have pointed out that in view of the prevailing shortage of men, not every girl could expect to get a husband in future, and that the girls should at least fulfil their task as German women and donate a child to the Fuhrer.”
Reformation of the German Divorce laws in 1938 made it easier for men to dump wives in their late forties and fifties for younger women more capable of making babies. Approximately 30,000 divorces occurred in Germany within two years, and 80 percent of them fell into this categorization.
The German Reich practically made motherhood into an Olympic event, issuing a Mother’s Cross of Honour in three classes: gold, silver, and bronze. This was a symbol of an exemplary mother who conceived and raised at least four children. These mothers received numerous privileges such as no waiting in lines, government subsidized care for the kids, and even the best meats from the butcher shops.
By 1939, the population numbers of the super-race still didn’t impress Himmler. Orphans throughout occupied Europe that fit the Aryan profile started disappearing. Other children, most notably from Poland and Yugoslavia were stolen in plain sight and kidnapped by Nazi soldiers for Germanization.
Reportedly, Himmler stated, “It is our duty to take [the children] with us to remove them from their environment, if necessary by robbing or stealing them.” When confronted by the cruelty of this action, he retorted, “How can you be so cruel as to leave on the other side a brilliant future enemy who later on will kill your son and grandson?”
After being forcibly taken from their loving parents, they would be examined. The stolen children would then fall into three categories: desirable, acceptable, and unwanted. If the children were deemed ‘unwanted’ by the regime, they would be sent to labor until their death inside a concentration camp.
This abhorrent offshoot of the Lebensborn nurseries turned an already highly questionable program into one that facilitated murder. Even in the name of birthing new life, the Nazis found a way to kill children.
Leaders took the ‘desirables’ and the ‘acceptables’ and placed them in foster homes or boarding schools. Lost children were told to forget their old names and their parents. Often the authoritative figures convinced the children that their parents didn’t want them anymore.
Germany was their home now, and they were to pledge allegiance to it. Resistance was futile and led to death.
Himmler now declared that every SS soldier should father at least one child before going off to war. He assured the soldiers that while men fought, the mothers and babies would be cared for in a Lebensborn home.
These changing attitudes towards sex had lingering effects. By the time the war was over, venereal disease was rampant, affecting as many as 23 percent of young Germans.
The Lebensborn program spread to other areas of occupied Europe, including Norway in 1941. Maternity wards were located in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and Luxembourg. Often the Germans converted buildings or homes – now vacant – that once belonged to Jews.
The focus of the Norway locations was taking care of babies born to the local women, fathered mainly by German soldiers. It’s probably safe to say that SS soldiers forced these ‘relations.’ Between 8,000 and 12,000 children were born into Norway’s Lebensborn facilities during this time which was a much higher number than other locations.
When the war ended, the government continued to care for the mothers and children of Lebensborn. Even with limited food and resources now available, the children were well fed and safe. Some of the public resented this and resorted to beating the women out in public; attempting to run them off.
In post-war Norway, the children of Nazi descent were often bullied. Some were even sent to mental institutions where they endured further abuse.
Of all the estimated 200,000 kidnapping victims, it’s difficult to say how many parents recovered their children. The Nazis destroyed almost all of the Lebensborn documents as the Allied forces neared victory.
The most famous child of Lebensborn is the Norwegian ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad; fathered by a German sergeant. Her widowed mother escaped after the war and took her daughter to Sweden, who accepted several hundred ‘refugee’ children and saved them from persecution.
Many parents chose not to tell their children of their involvement due to the controversial nature of the program. The identities of these kids’ fathers remained a secret; their names not on the birth certificates.
Some are still in the dark about their heritage. In 2006, some Lebensborn survivors gathered to meet in Germany to discuss their shared experience.
Dorothee Schmitz-Köster, author of a book about Lebensborn, tells The New York Times, “Most grew up knowing they had a secret,” she said. “They were angry at their mothers, because they had been lied to or abandoned. Some feel shame. There are also a small number who are proud of being Lebensborn. They feel they are part of an elite.”
Had the Germans won the war, however, Himmler and associates considered enacting laws allowing bigamy for Nazi officials and war heroes.