If there was one subject that could ever truly capture my attention at school, it was the monster story that was Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. I’ve admittedly always been a ‘bad reader’, but outside of class I devoured books on the war as a teenager and still to this day, there seems to be no end to its disturbing secrets buried beneath history’s hidden rocks. Today, I fell into another dark pool of World War II’s repressed footnotes by discovering the details of the Lebensborn breeding program … a story that I would only recommend for those who, like myself, have that insuppressible desire to learn history’s most uncomfortable truths.
Lebensborn, meaning “fount of life” was an SS-initiated program that encouraged anonymous births by unmarried “racially pure” women who were selected to breed with Nazi officers and secure the future of a “super race” for the German Reich. The program expanded into several Nazi occupied countries including Norway, France and Belgium, resulting in a shameful post-war ostracism of surviving Lebensborn mothers and the mistreatment of their displaced children across Europe after Germany lost the war.
An estimated 8,000 children were born in Lebensborn institutions in Germany, up to 12,000 children in Norway and countless others across occupied countries where “super babies” had been selected become part of the German master race. The most famous of the surviving Lebensborn children is Frida Lyngstad of the iconic Swedish pop band, ABBA (pictured third from left).
With their blue eyes and blond hair, Norweigans were regarded by the Nazi regime as especially Aryan. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the creator of the Lebensborn, favoured Norwegian women for his perverted program and set up the majority of its institutions in Nazi occupied Norway.
To counteract falling birth rates in Germany, and to promote Nazi eugenics, leaders of the League of German Girls were also instructed to recruit young women with the potential to become good breeding partners for SS officers.
Young women who could prove their Aryan ancestry were given incentives for bearing Aryan children, including financial support and privileged treatment in maternity homes. For many Norwegian women, it became a survival strategy during the war, when their country was one of the poorest places in Europe. At a time when abortion was illegal, they could also have the option of leaving or donating their children in the Lebensborn’s special homes, where the child would receive special nutrition and an upbringing and education which reflected the Nazi way of thinking. The Iron Cross award was given to the women who bore the most aryan children.
Due to destruction and widespread cover-up of Lebensborn records, it cannot be confirmed whether young girls were forced to mate with Nazi officers, despite strong suggestion that they were (sexual assault was almost official policy within the Third Reich). The program was undoubtedly however, a system of supervised selective breeding, and recently discovered records show that “some SS men did sire children in Himmler’s Lebensborn program”.
Just to remind us, I took the liberty of pulling up the definition of ‘sire’ : the male parent of an animal, especially a stallion or bull kept for breeding.
In 1939, membership of the Lebensborn stood at 8,000, of which 3,500 were SS leaders.
On 13 September 1936, Heinrich Himmler had written the following to members of the SS:
The organisation “Lebensborn e.V.” serves the SS leaders in the selection and adoption of qualified children. The organisation “Lebensborn e.V.” is under my personal direction, is part of the Race and Settlement Central Bureau of the SS, and has the following obligations:
- 1. Support racially, biologically and hereditarily valuable families with many children.
- 2. Placement and care of racially, biologically and hereditarily valuable pregnant women, who, after thorough examination of their and the progenitor’s families by the Race and Settlement Central Bureau of the SS, can be expected to produce equally valuable children.
- 3. Care for the children.
- 4. Care for the children’s mothers.
It is the honorable duty of all leaders of the central bureau to become members of the organisation “Lebensborn e.V.”. The application for admission must be filed prior to 23 September 1936.
Relationships between German soldiers and Nordic women in occupied countries were strongly encouraged, provided both parents were proven to be “racially valuable”. The program also accepted women of Aryan descent who were already pregnant or had already given birth and were in need of aid. About 60% of the mothers were unmarried and the Lebensborn allowed them to give birth secretly away from home without social stigma. In most of these cases, the mothers agreed to adoption, but not all were informed that their children would be sent abroad to Germany.
The first of more than 20 Lebensborn homes opened in 1936, in a tiny village near Munich in 1941, the first institution abroad was opened in Norway.
In northern France, a home was opened in the town of Lamorlaye in 1944 where an estimated 200 children were born. The building (pictured above) now houses a branch of the Red Cross. The Lebensborn facilities included an on-site orphanage and offered adoption services. They were often established in confiscated houses and former nursing homes owned by Jews.
While the program initially excluded children born to foreign women and common (non-SS) soldiers for reasons of racial purity, the Lebensborn later expanded into countries with Germanic populations where parents and children were usually examined by SS doctors before admission. But in an even darker twist to the Lebensborn program, the strict requirements of racial purity were practically abandoned altogether by Heinrich Himmler when he took his mission to unimaginable extremes…
In 1939, under Himmler’s direction, Nazis began kidnapping thousands of children regarded as “Aryan-looking” from foreign countries, most notably Poland and Yugoslavia, but also from Russia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Norway – for the Lebensborn program.
Himmler reportedly said, “It is our duty to take [the children] with us to remove them from their environment… either we win over any good blood that we can use for ourselves and give it a place in our people or we destroy this blood”.
The policy of the Lebensraum had essentially given birth to the Nazi ideology of German expansionism and the regime’s plan for the genocide and ethnic cleansing on a vast scale. This was the real crime of Lebensborn, a seemingly helpful, almost innocent welfare solution for struggling women. How easily evil can disguise itself…
An estimated 200,000 children were stolen from their parents in Poland, Russia and several Eastern European regions for the purpose of ‘Germanization’. They were categorised into groups from the “most desirable” to the least Aryan-looking. If they couldn’t be of use to help build Hitler’s master race, they were discarded and sent off to concentration camps. If a child was considered “acceptable” they would begin indoctrination, spending time at ‘re-education camps’ before being fostered out to German families or boarding schools where they could become culturally German. They were given new German names and forced to forget their birth parents and ancestry. Any children who fought against their indoctrination or resisted, met a tragic fate.
All records of these mass kidnappings were destroyed in the final stages of the war, which made it near impossible to locate and identify children or even know exactly how many were taken. The Polish government has claimed that less than 15% of 10,000 children were returned to their biological parents.
Of the Norwegian children that were born into or indoctrinated under the Lebensborn program, the Norwegian government was able to recover all but 80 after the war. Local communities who had lived in starvation for most of the occupation, sought revenge on both the mothers and children of the Nazi maternity homes where members had received the best treatment available.
The press reported on the unusually well-fed “super babies” that had received two baths a day. Lebensborn mothers were publicly beaten, shamed, ostracized and often sentenced to slave labour. The “superior” children who had effectively become German under the Third Reich’s program, were considered outcasts and placed in orphanages or even in insane asylums where they would be relentlessly bullied and abused. The Norwegian government itself even attempted (unsuccessfully) to deport the Lebensborn children to Germany, Brazil, and Australia.
Sweden took in several hundred unwanted children from Norway, including future ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, whose father was a German sergeant. Her widowed Norwegian mother escaped persecution after the war and took Anni-Frid to Sweden, where their personal history could not be traced.
In 2008, a group of survivors brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights to fight the Norwegian government into admitting complicity in their mistreatment, revealing shameful details of the program’s aftermath. The case was dismissed with a compensation offering of £8,000 from the Norwegian government.
Associations have since been formed to help survivors identify their origins through documents administered by the International Tracing Service and the German Federal Archives.
There are so many facets of war that have been under-reported, swept under the carpet and left out of the history books, in large part due to the fact that we find them uncomfortable to talk about. I consider this sort of taboo historical knowledge as further education; a most fundamental one, that can help us identify dangerous patterns in society and recognise early on when history might be dangerously close to repeating itself.