As Hitler tightens his grip on Europe, a secret program is rolled out across Germany. In small towns throughout Germany and Norway, expectant mothers arrive at mysterious clinics in droves. But what is the real story behind the sinister Lebensborn?
As Germany struggled to return to normality in the aftermath of World War One, a new ideology began to take hold. Angry at the restrictions placed on them, citizens became increasingly drawn to the far-right ideas of the National Socialist Party, or the Nazis as they were commonly known.
By 1934 Adolf Hitler had become the country’s leader, and the era of Nazi Germany had begun. Under the Nazis, the nation became a fascist dictatorship, and the party sought to control every aspect of everyday life. Although their beliefs were varied, one of the central ideas was the concept of the Aryan race.
First coined in the late 19th century, the term Aryan was originally used to denote people of Western Asian and European descent. However, by the time Hitler came to power, the Nazis perceived the Aryans as a solely European master race – with the Germans representing the purest of them all.
According to Nazi propagandists, the Germanic Aryans were of Nordic descent, typically with blonde hair and blue eyes. Crucially, they believed that other races – such as those of Jewish and Slavic origins – were somehow diluting the pure Aryan bloodline.
Determined to protect what they perceived to be the purity of the Aryan race, the Nazis embarked on a systematic slaughter of anyone they thought to be inferior. However, they also needed to ensure a plentiful supply of “pure” Aryans to replace them.
In a country still reeling from the after-effects of World War One, this was easier said than done. With a shortage of men to marry, many unwed women were choosing to terminate their pregnancies. In fact, the rate of abortions had risen to some 800,000 a year.
In order to combat this issue, the Nazis launched a project known as Lebensborn. Meaning “Fount of Life,” the aim of this program was to increase the number of Aryan children being born to those who Nazi ideology deemed racially pure.
Launched in 1935, the Lebensborn initiative took on many different forms over the years. At first, it functioned mostly as a healthcare service, caring for the wives of Nazi officers through childbirth and beyond. However, the program also accepted unmarried mothers – as long as both parents met Nazi standards, of course.
In fact, around 60 percent of mothers in the program were not married, and the Lebensborn centers provided a welcome respite from the associated social stigma. Moreover, if the women didn’t want to raise a child themselves, a German adoptive family would be lined up.
However, this wasn’t the only way in which the Lebensborn program sought to promote the Aryan race. Beginning in 1939, Nazi officers began scouring countries such as Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Latvia and the Ukraine for children who fit the Aryan ideal.
Tragically, any children deemed desirable would be taken from their parents and spirited back to Germany to join the Lebensborn. There, they would be subjected to a series of tests designed to screen them for any non-Aryan traits. If they failed, they would subsequently be moved to concentration camps.
Moreover, for those children deemed acceptable, a heartbreaking future still lay in wait. Alone in a strange country, they were handed over to German families tasked with raising them under Nazi beliefs. Consequently, if they resisted, they were often beaten or even sent to concentration camps.
Meanwhile, in occupied Norway, the locals were perceived as having valuable Viking blood. Under the Lebensborn program, nine clinics were established across the country. There, Nazi officers were encouraged to have children with Norwegian women.
Apparently, many children born under the Lebensborn program were also subjected to a terrifying Nazi christening ritual. As a dagger was brandished over them, their mother was forced to pledge allegiance to the Nazi party. However, there were less terrifying aspects of being a Lebensborn.
Often, those children taken from their parents were raised by wealthy German families, enjoying all the trappings of Nazi high society. In addition, for those who remained with their mothers, all of their material needs were met. In fact, women who gave birth to many children were rewarded with perks such as cheap loans and discounted rent.
In total, it’s believed that around 20,000 children were born in Lebensborn clinics across Germany and Norway. Shockingly, the number of youngsters kidnapped by Nazis is thought to be even higher. Although records were destroyed after the war, some studies put the figure at as many as 200,000.
While the plight of the Lebensborn children during the war was tragic, what happened to them afterwards was often just as bad. At best, they were labeled bastards, unable to trace their fathers – many of whom had been encouraged to have children with women who were not their wives.
Moreover, in Norway, the awful plight of children fathered by Germans continues to this day. Suspected of carrying dangerous Nazi genes, many of them subsequently ended up in mental hospitals. Others have faced lifelong persecution, shunned by locals and authorities alike.
Today, many Lebensborn children – now in their old age – are seeking help to deal with the stigma that has haunted them all their lives. For some, advances in archiving have allowed them to finally trace their roots after all these years. However, for others, their parents’ pasts have revealed dark secrets that they would rather forget.