The Lebensborn Organization: Nazi Germany's Most Terrifying Secret
D. B. T.
Southern Illinois University
Lebensborn was a discreet program in which the Nazi Germans intended to breed the perfect Aryan race-so discreet in fact that very few people to this day know of these breeding factories. During the Second World War, Heinrich Himmler created "one of the most secret and terrifying Nazi projects: the Lebensborn organization" ("The Lebensborn", 1998). The name of the organization ironically stood for 'fountain of life'; it was actually an attempt to perfect the human race.
On December 31, 1931, the SS Race and Settlement Main Office, the RuSHA organization was established. One of their first tasks was to draw up an official list of 'racial values' (Henry and Hillel, 1976). Originally this list of values was to be used only to sift through recruits for the SS, but it soon began to dominate the German life. A series of principles were laid down: insistence on racial hygiene, improving racial stock by means of selection, supervision of the marriage of individuals of pure blood, and the bringing up of children in state institutions. In the following years, Lebensborn was placed under RuSHA. Their responsibility then encompassed not only the genealogical side of SS entry and marriage investigations, but also the task of selective breeding (Padfield, 1990).
Himmler was chairman of the board of Lebensborn, and he took a personal, detailed interest in every aspect of its affairs down to the diet and confinement periods, the decoration of the wards, and the runic logos for the letter-heading. Himmler saw Lebensborn as a contribution to the genetic selection for the master race. It was the opposite side of the spectrum from the sterilization laws ordering the forced sterilization of the psychically ill and physically deformed (Padfield, 1990). There were three other principle personalities in the organization of Lebensborn. The first was SS Standartenfuhrer Max Sollmann, the administrative head of the organization and a member of the Blood Order; he concentrated on organizing the recovery of Nordic blood. SS Oberfuhrer Gregor Ebner was the medical chief of the organization. Ebner joined the SS and became a specialist lecturer on the problems of racial selection. The last was Inge Viermetz, the former head of the Bund Deutscher Madchen, or the League of German Girls (Henry and Hillel, 1976). These three were responsible for luring the Norwegian girls into the trap of Lebensborn to 'help' them fall into the arms of the SS officers. All that mattered was the children and their integration into the Third Reich.
Due to the little research on Lebensborn, there is still much controversy over the purpose of its creation. To some the Lebensborn facilities were regarded as "admirable institutions which gave protection and assistance to unmarried mothers of German blood" (Frischauer, 1953, p. 98). Others feel they were stud farms, where the SS officers bred with Nordic women. Little facts have been found to tell exactly what the purpose of Lebensborn was. Due to the law in Germany, all citizens, even former members of the SS, have a right to privacy. Little records have been kept on their whereabouts, and research is extremely difficult. Siegfried Egel is one of the supporters who portrays Lebensborn in a positive light. He claims that they were nothing more than a "system of lying-in hospitals for pregnant women" (Egel, 1998). He maintains that Lebensborn is being used as just another form of propaganda to cast a negative light onto the Germans. Stated best by Revisionist historian Erich Kern:
"Lebensborn was among the most exemplary charitable organizations of its time. It grew to include a total of eighteen lying-in hospitals" (Egel, 1998).
Lebensborn had facilities to take "illegitimate children under its care where necessary and, supported by funds from the SS exchequer, controlled homes for mothers and children" (Frischauer, 1953, p. 98). Kern does acknowledge that unwed mothers were accepted into the hospital, but every effort was made to arrange the marriage with the biological father. Countering the charge that Lebensborn participated in a program for the Germanization of children abducted from the nearby countries, Kern states that the US Military Tribunal found no substantiating evidence. Lebensborn orphanage facilities always offered the best possible care to these children and no instances of cruelty or sexual abuse were ever found. When asked why only fair, blue-eyed women were chosen, Gregor Ebner's wife responded in an interview that was simply the fashion at the time (Henry and Hillel, 1976). Lebensborn supporters argue the misconceptions of this program. The negativity and prejudice against these charitable organizations is (as supporters termed it) complete nonsense. Egel argues that the National Socialists and SS, along with almost all authoritarian governments, were actually quite modest and proper, whereas the democracies, the US in particular, are the governments that promote loose sex with their rumors and Hollywood sex fantasies (Egel, 1998).
On the other side is what a majority of the world needs to learn about. After reading Of Pure Blood, I can without a doubt say that Lebensborn was one of the most terrifying Nazi projects. The idea began on December 12, 1935, when Heinrich Himmler created the first Lebensborn. The main goal of this society was to breed young 'racially pure' girls with SS officers to help create a master race. The girls were given the opportunity to bear the child in secret; the child was then given to the SS organization, which took care of the child's education and adoption ("The Lebensborn", 1998). The children associated with Lebensborn came there one of two ways: through the selective breeding and from the kidnapping of 'racially good' children.
The theory of creating this master race and exterminating the weak for the benefit of the strong was accepted among many of the Nazi Germans. With the breeding, Lebensborn used eugenics to seek a better race. The master race so valued by the Nazi regime was that of the Aryan or Nordic race, which symbolizes good health, high intelligence, and noble character. Stated best by Hitler in an excerpt from Mein Kampf, "any crossing of two beings not at exactly the same level of the two parents...such mating is contrary to the will of nature for a higher breeding of all life" (Hitler, 1971). The Aryan race was viewed as the highest of all races, and they were not permitted to blend with the weaker race because doing so sacrifices their own greatness" (Hitler, 1971, p. 285). This myth of racial purity was firmly engrained in the mind of the Nazi Germans, therefore the guidelines for marriage were strict. In the semi-medical journal Deutsche Voldsgesundheit durch Blut & Boden (German People's Health through Blood and Soil), marriage or any interaction with the Jewish race is detrimental. As written: "One single cohabitation of a Jew with an Aryan woman is sufficient to poison her blood foreverÖNever again will she be able to bear purely Aryan children, even when married to an Aryan" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 44).
Specific guidelines of the master race were laid out and determined by the Nazi race experts. The typical features of a qualified Aryan were "tall, long head, narrow face, well-defined chin, narrow nose with a very high root, soft fair (golden-blond) hair, receding light (blue or gray) eyes, and pink white skin color" (Henry and Hillel, 1976, p. 24). Racially pure women were encouraged to return to the old-fashioned domestic German virtues where the most important part of a woman's life suddenly was that in which she could bear a child for the Furher. A woman's duty was to be "attractive and bear children" (Henry and Hillel, 1976, p. 34). They were to follow their dedication to Hitler with hopes of giving him at least one child.
1939 began one of the most horrible aspects of Lebensborn policy: the kidnapping of the 'racially good' children from the eastern occupied countries. Himmler resolved to deport from occupied parts of Poland to the Reich, in order to be individually settled and thereby uprooted as a people approximately four million persons of 'good racial extraction'. Himmler gave the outline of the whole action in his 1940 memorandum. It provided for an annual selection on racial grounds of Polish children aged from six to ten, and their taking away for Germanization. Himmler stated:
"It is our duty to take [the children] with us to remove them from their environment, is necessary by robbing or stealing themÖEither 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" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 49).
Himmler proclaimed that the SS was not to be interested in the fate of these foreign countries; the people were to be taken just as the children were stolen. Robbery of all good blood embraced children of many nations-Yugoslav, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Rumanian, Estonian, Latvian, Norwegian, etc, although Slav children and Polish children predominated (Sosnowski, 1983). The people kidnapped from foreign countries were either sent to the concentration camps and put to work, or they were killed. The children were selected based on the Nazi criteria, taken directly from their homes, schools, or right off the streets, never to see their family again. The Nazis would simply bust into the homes of these families and "forcibly uproot the child from the family so as either to kill it outright, to imprison it, to deport it for forced labor, or forcibly to de-nationalize it" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 59). After initially being selected, these children were sent to the Lebensborn homes for Germanization. In Poland, all of the children in orphanages or in the care of foster parents were first taken; next the children were examined racially by the local officials of the RuSHA and medically by the local health offices. Doctors specializing in racial knowledge would test the children, usually around seven hundred per day. The children's legs, arms, and heads were measured and they were then divided into three groups: the desirable addition to the German population, the acceptable addition to the population, and the unwanted (Henry and Hillel, 1976). Children between the ages two and six were to be taken immediately to the Lebensborn homes, where a search for an SS family to adopt them would begin; those between six and twelve were to go to the state boarding schools in Germany. It is estimated that in Poland alone, two hundred thousand children were declared racially useful. In the centers, everything was done to try to force these selected children to reject and forget their birth parents. Nurses in the centers would try to persuade the children that their parents deliberately abandoned them. The selected children were given German names and indoctrination designed to instill pride in their new racial identity (366). If the children dared to reject the Nazi education, they were usually beaten ("The Lebensborn", 1998). Most of these rebellious children were finally transferred to concentration camps and exterminated. In summary, Germanization had dire consequences for the children. They were deprived of the right to use their native tongue and to go to their own schools, they were forced into German youth and para-military organizations and conscripted into the army, their family names were Germanized-every trace of their heritage was erased.
What happened to the children who never made it through the first sifting? These 'useless' children, such as the Jewish children, were sent immediately to the concentration camps, where they either worked or were exterminated. The number of those that the Nazis felt had no right to any selection exceeded two million, of whom one million eight hundred thousand were under the age of six.
As for the specially selected Lebensborn children, in the final stages of the war the files on the kidnapped children were destroyed. Available data is not sufficient to determine the exact figures relating to this campaign of the procurement of good blood. "German archives concerning this matter were deliberately destroyed, while those that have been preserved should be approached with the utmost reserve, since the Germans falsified birth certificates of those children" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 52). American scholar R. L. Koehl states that "statistics are still very uncertain because the records were destroyed or falsifiedÖAbout two hundred children from Lidice and other Czech villages destroyed by the Germans and about nine hundred Slovene children of executed partisans can be traced. The children taken from Russia before and during the great retreats ran into the thousands. The Polish government has claimed that ten thousand children were kidnappedÖ" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 52). After the war less than fifteen percent were ever recovered by their biological families (Henry and Hillel, 1976). Several of the German families refused to give back the children they had received; in some cases the children themselves refused to come back to their original family. Author Kiryl Sosnowski writes:
"Upon this liberation, the children often had to go through a new ordeal having passed earlier the first shock when they were taken away from their parents or guardians. Their return to them now was sometimes no less powerful an experience. This was especially true of children who had lost their homes at a very early age. In the course of the several years spent in a completely foreign environment, the painful recollections must have gradually dimmed, and with them also the mental picture of home" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 53).
As for the children that were returned to their biological families, they too had difficulty accepting their 'new' families and lifestyles. Many of the children were described as broken in spirit, not knowing who to trust or love. Bonds with their adopted families had formed. New relations with other people and new emotional links had developed. In such circumstances, the return home meant renewed uprooting from surroundings to which the child had grown accustomed. These dramatic experiences often led to serious shock and could not but leave a mark on the children's mind. Danuta Siekierska, a Polish woman who volunteered to teach the kidnapped children after the war, described her first encounter with some of the victims of Lebensborn.
"Stubbornly, they stared at me in continued silence. My eyes rested on the face of a girl of about seven. Her eyesÖheld in them the whole confidence of her tiny heart. I smiled at her and all of a sudden the classroom explodedÖThe children did not look forward to much. A smile, that was enough" (Sosnowski, 1983, p. 54).
These children too had unintentionally been swept away by Hitler's master plan, and believed themselves to be pure Germans. Thirty years after the end of the war, the Lebensborn children were still searching for their parents and parents for their children. So, even the unintended consequences of the criminal 'good blood' campaign were numerous.
On October 10, 1947, the trial of the Race and Settlement Head Office and the Lebensborn opened at Nuremberg. Among the defendants were Max Sollmann, the administrative head of the organization, Gregor Ebner, medical chief of the organization, Gunther Tesch, head of the Lebensborn legal department, and Inge Virmetz, who was responsible for the reception of foreign children 'recovered' from Eastern Europe and placing them with childless SS families. The principle administrator was missing: Heinrich Himmler had committed suicide on May 23, 1945. The outcome of the trial was unsatisfactory. The court decided that the Lebensborn Society was a welfare organization, and in the beginning a maternity home. The court stated that "from the start it cared for mothers, both married and unmarried, and children, both legitimate and illegitimate" (Henry and Hillel, 1976, p. 244). The prosecution failed to prove the participation of the Lebensborn in the kidnapping program conducted by the Nazis. While the evidence did disclose that thousands of children were kidnapped by other agencies and brought to Germany, the evidence has further shown that only a small percentage of the total number found their way to the Lebensborn homes. The court decided that "Lebensborn did not participate in the selection and examination of foreign children" (244). The defendants were found guilty only of having belonged to the criminal organization of the SS. On all other charges, they were acquitted.
In all, Lebensborn remains a mystery, a terrible secret that only a select few still living know the truth behind it. The Lebensborn records that actually escaped destruction consist of only two hundred files that include the correspondences between the patients who passed through the maternity homes and the SS administration attached to Himmler's headquarters. The letters of the Nordic mothers have been dismissed as unimportant and have never been published. Due to this decision, few will ever know the many aspects of this so-called 'charitable' organization (Henry and Hillel, 1976). As with the entire concept of the Holocaust, we can only pray that the atrocities of the past are learned, but never repeated.
Egel, S. (1998). Lebensborn--Popular history as sex fantasy. [On-line]. Available: http://www.barnesreview.org/lebensborn.html.
Frischauer, W. (1953). Himmler: The genius of the third reich. Boston: Beacon.
Henry, C. and Hillel, M. (1976). Of Pure Blood. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Hitler, A. (1971). Mein Kampf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Padfield, P. (1990). Himmler: Reichsfuhrer-SS. London: Macmillan.
Sosnowski, K. (1983). The tragedy of children under Nazi rule. New York:Howard Fertig, Inc.
"The Lebensborn" (1998). [On-line]. Available: http://www2.3dresearch.com/~june/Vincent/Camps/LebensbornEng.html.