Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Creating a race of orphans: Lebensborn, the “spring of life”

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Lebensborn birth house, nurse in Lebensborn home. 1943. German Federal Archives. Via Wikimedia Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1973-010-11 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Nazi Germany was a racial state. People of “pure” Aryan or Nordic heritage were believed to have superior physical, intellectual, and moral qualities. People from other ethnic or racial groups were undesirable, and a potential source of “pollution” in an Aryan nation. One of the Reich’s main functions was to eliminate racial undesirables, as well as Aryans with hereditary conditions and physical or mental handicaps. At the same time, the Reich demanded an increase in Aryan births. More people would be needed to populate the territories seized in Eastern Europe during the “Thousand-year Reich.”

Germany, however, had a falling birth rate. During the years 1915-1933, there were fourteen million fewer births than during the period of 1896-1914. Efforts to keep women at home and producing babies included reducing both jobs and university admissions for women, exempting mothers from war-time factory work (until 1943), and giving medals to mothers of four or more children. Gold medals were given to mothers of eight or more children. The Reich demanded a minimum of four children per mother. Loan forgiveness and the use of women taken from occupied countries as servants were other incentives offered to Aryan couples to have children. The availability of abortion decreased, while the ease of getting a divorce (on grounds of sterility) increased. The government ended the legal difficulties women had with out-of-wedlock pregnancies and deliveries. It did not have much success in removing the social stigma of such births.

One of the teachings of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the League of German Girls) was, “You will not all find husbands, but you can all become mothers.” All of these attempts to increase the Aryan population did not produce many results.

The next step was the creation of Lebensborn (fountain or spring of life) homes, under SS supervision. These were places where racially worthy unmarried women could, in secret, deliver their babies, if fathered by racially pure men. SS men and police officers were “pure” as a condition of their employment. The homes provided good prenatal care, delivery rooms with competent medical personnel, and good postnatal care. The mothers got a very satisfactory diet, with fresh fruit and vegetables, chocolate, coffee, and tea—even while food was scarce in Germany.

At one month of age, instead of a christening, a naming ceremony was held. A civilian government representative, as well as some SS officers were present. The mothers dressed in their best clothes, and coffee and cakes were served. The ceremony inducted the baby into the society of the SS. The mother was then able to take the baby home, if she wished, and receive payments for the infant’s maintenance, or she could leave the baby (which happened most of the time), with adoption to be arranged by the SS with a childless Aryan couple. If a child was born with visible deformities, the mother was told that the child was born dead. Such babies were sent to a special hospital where they were eventually killed. The death certificates were filled out the day the newborn arrived.

Although local people and the foreign press called Lebensborn homes “stud farms” or “baby factories,” this was not the case. There were, however, young women volunteers (mostly from the League of German Girls or a related organization), who, after providing racial origin documentation, passing physical and psychological examinations, tests of loyalty to Hitler, and rejection of religion, were designated “nursing students” and were introduced to approved potential “one-night-stands.”

These encounters took place at country homes and apartments owned by the Lebensborn organization. It is estimated that twelve thousand births resulted from these volunteer mothers’ pregnancies.

Lebensborn homes were also established in countries that the Nazis occupied. The SS considered Norwegian women to be ideal Nordic Aryan women and wanted them to become pregnant by German men. German soldiers and airmen were encouraged to be social and friendly with Norwegian women. The Norwegian Nazi-controlled puppet government enabled minor girls to marry Germans without parental permission. Eventually nine Lebensborn homes were created in Norway, resulting in six to twelve thousand births. It was required that the newborns be given to the Reich. Norwegian women carrying babies fathered by Germans were detested by most Norwegians. The Reich wanted these women to come to Germany, to be used for further baby-production.

In the Netherlands, racially acceptable women could be admitted to a Lebensborn home only if the father was in the SS. Several hundred babies were born in the Dutch Lebensborn system. The mothers were considered “collaborators” by the Dutch people. In the one Lebensborn home in Belgium, the SS had trouble recruiting doctors, midwives, and nurses willing to serve. The Germans generally suspected the Belgians of trying to sabotage their mission.

Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and therefore head of the Lebensborn organization, took a great personal interest in Lebensborn. By 1941, the number of blond-haired, blue-eyed babies with German fathers coming in to greater Germany was insufficient, despite the presence of over thirty Lebensborn homes in eight countries (Germany, Austria, Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).

To clarify, the Lebensborn homes were not “baby factories,” as some articles in the popular press would have it. They offered pre- and postnatal care, medically supervised deliveries, and a more-than-adequate diet to the expectant mothers. The evil and inhumanity appeared, uncamouflaged, when the Lebensborn homes became reception centers and triage stations for Aryan-appearing infants and children kidnapped by the SS and Wehrmacht from occupied countries.

Christening of a Lebensborn child, Lebensborn association naming ceremony. circa 1936 /1944. German Federal Archives. Via Wikimedia. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-062A-58 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lands with non-Aryan majorities, even countries populated by the “inferior” Slavs, had numbers of blond-haired, blue-eyed children. Such children, according to Nazi race theoreticians, must have had Nordic or Aryan ancestors, and therefore should be “brought home” to the Reich. Starting in 1941 and continuing until 1944, over 200,000 Polish children were kidnapped, initially by the SS, and later with the help of the Wehrmacht. At first, children were seized from orphanages and hospitals, then from their homes. Later all Polish children were given “appointments” for racial examinations. The examination consisted of several anthropometric measurements, including skull, torso, arms, legs, the pelvis for girls, and the penis for boys. This was followed by psychological testing and physical examination. “Worthy” children immediately became part of a “Germanization” program in a Lebensborn home in Poland. They were forbidden to speak Polish. They were given German first and last names, and instructed in German language and culture. The children were told that their parents were dead and had been “shameful” people, that is, alcoholics, prostitutes, or tuberculosis patients, with the goal of making the children thankful that the Germans had saved them. They were taught to march, to salute, and were required to work at physically demanding tasks. “Discipline” was of a harsh, military style, with beatings and punitive starvation. Children still considered acceptable were triaged by age. Those between two and six years old were given to childless SS couples, and children six to twelve years old were placed in German state schools. Children who refused to cooperate, or were found on re-examination to be insufficiently Aryan or handicapped in some way, were sent to Auschwitz to be used as slave labor or to be killed immediately.

Children were also kidnapped from Yugoslavia, the USSR, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and Latvia. By mistake, about 200 children were kidnapped from Romania, Germany’s ally.

By mid-1944, Allied armies were advancing towards Germany on two fronts. All the Lebensborn homes were evacuated by the SS, and personnel and children brought to the Lebensborn motherhouse at Steinhöring, in Bavaria. Nearly all of the records from every Lebensborn home were destroyed. The SS then abandoned the Steinhöring center, taking all the food and valuables (paintings, for instance) with them. They left about 300 children and some about-to-deliver and recently delivered women. The three- and four-year-olds could not speak and showed clear signs of neglect and delayed development. About fifteen per cent of these children had frank mental retardation and would have been sent away to be killed, had Germany not been collapsing into anarchy.

The liberation of Germany found thousands of children who did not know who they were. “Where do I come from? Who are my parents? When was I born?” they wondered. Instead of answers, they got abuse. The result of Germany’s fantasized eugenic utopia were pariah children called Wehrmachts Kinder (German: the army’s children), Tyskbarna (Norwegian: Kraut kids), Hitler’s child, Himmler’s child, child of shame, daughter of the Third Reich. Ten thousand children from Norwegian mothers (“the Germans’ whores”) were sent back to Norway. They could not understand nor speak Norwegian, only German. The post-war Norwegian government wanted to deport these children to Germany, Brazil, and Australia. A certain number of these children were placed in psychiatric hospitals for no apparent reason, other than to put them somewhere. They were often mistreated in these places. Not surprisingly, when these children reached adolescence and adulthood, there were a disproportionate number of suicides, as well as alcohol and substance abuse.

Norwegian women could not marry a Norwegian man if she kept her German-fathered child. Norway arrested 14,000 Norwegian women on “suspicion of collaboration” and sentenced them to eighteen months in a forced labor camp.

As late as 1972, a Norwegian man refused to attend the wedding of his daughter to a man who was an ex-Lebensborn baby. In 2008 the Norwegian government offered $14,500 in today’s money to each surviving Lebensborn child.

Despite persistent demands from the post-war Polish government, the western allies in the occupation government of Germany did not want to remove kidnapped children from their German adoptive parents. It was considered “in the interest of the child” to have the child remain with the adoptive parents. Also, Poland was a poor, devastated, and now communist state. Most German adoptive parents did not want to relinquish the children, even when the child’s biologic parent or parents were found. German courts, with many ex-Nazi judges and lawyers, usually ruled in favor of the adoptive parents.

Today there are elderly people who have spent a lifetime, usually in vain, trying to learn something about their own personal history. It is not possible to understand or quantify the distress of this “race of orphans.” The Nuremburg trials found “no certain proof” that the Lebensborn organization participated in kidnapping. The managing director and the chief physician of Lebensborn were found guilty only of being members of the SS, and were each sentenced to thirty-two months in prison.

Nearly all of the information in this article came from two books:

  1. Marc Hillel, Au nom de la race. Fayard: Paris, 1975.
  2. Oscar Lalo, La race des orphelins, Belfond: Paris, 2020.

Some films of general interest:

  1. Robb Weller and Gary Grossman, Hitler’s Perfect Children, Weller/Grossman Productions, USA, 2001.
  2. Tim Tate, Children of the Master Race, UK TV, 2013. groupMentertainment www.2.bfi.org
  3. Roman Icard, Les pouponnières du IIIe Reich, Nilaya Productions, 2013.

HOWARD FISCHER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2021



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