In order to propagate their "master race," the Nazis established the Lebensborn program: maternity homes where women who met certain racial criteria could give birth to the future elite of the Third Reich.
German SS officers at the naming ceremony of a Lebensborn child
Lebensborn means "spring of life," and when Nazi SS head Heinrich Himmler established the program in 1935, he intended the series of homes in Germany, and later across occupied Europe, to literally be a spring from which his desired legions of "Aryan" babies would flow.
But, just as the "Thousand-Year Reich" ended up in ashes and ruin after 13 years, the Lebensborn program, one of the Nazis' most daring social experiments, left behind no army of blond-haired, blue-eyed people. Instead, its legacy is thousands of destroyed lives, broken families and stories of personal shame.
"There are still a lot of myths around the Lebensborn program, that for example, they were breeding centers for the SS," said Dorothee Schmitz-Köster, who wrote a book on the program called "German Mother, Are You Prepared?" "There is almost a pornographic aspect to it in many people's minds, which meant for decades it simply wasn't talked about."
"German mother, are you prepared..." is the title of the book on Lebensborn centers
Not stud farms
Despite the stubborn belief that the Lebensborn program was about bringing blond-haired SS officers together with rosy-cheeked German girls for the sake of baby-making, the real story is somewhat less titillating.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the birth rate in Germany had been falling and SS chief Heinrich Himmler (photo) wanted to reverse the trend, especially as he must have known Germany was soon to have more territory that would need to be populated by those the Nazis deemed genetically acceptable -- healthy, white, non-Jewish, preferably Nordic.
In 1935, he formed the Lebensborn association and two years later opened the first maternity home in Bavaria, in Steinhöring outside of Munich. It was a place that offered an attractive alternative to a home or hospital birth to many women, especially single ones.
At that time, being an unwed mother carried an enormous social stigma and could even result in a woman being fired from some jobs, not to mention ostracized from her family. The Lebensborn homes offered unwed mothers a place to go have their baby in secret, in pleasant surroundings, with top-notch pre-natal care.
"We were treated like princesses," reminisced one woman in an interview who brought her baby into the world at one of the homes.
"I continue to find it fascinating how intelligently the Nazis enacted their policies," Schmitz-Köster said. "They entered into this moral hornet's nest, the issue of unwed mothers, and made women a very attractive offer that fit perfectly with their own social goals."
With the Lebensborn homes, Himmler could ensure that these women did not abort their babies and therefore could keep the country's birth rate up. At the same time it allowed him to pursue his goal of creating a future nation of "racially pure" people.
Of course, not every woman was accepted into the homes. A woman did not have to show a marriage certificate, but she and the father did have to provide documentation that they were "Aryan" and healthy. In fact, the proof of racial suitability had to extend back to both parents' grandparents.
Those with Jewish kin, a disability or genetic disease, or a connection with any of the other "undesirable" groups would find the Lebensborn doors slammed in their faces. And although most babies who were born in the homes received high-quality care, those children born disabled were sometimes dispatched to euthanasia clinics where they were poisoned or starved to death.
A walk with the children at a Lebensborn home
While many of the women in the homes were unwed mothers, who were granted anonymity and whose births were not recorded on official registered, wives of higher-ranking party members also often chose the Lebensborn program to carry out their pregnancies.
It's not clear exactly how many children were born in the homes, since official records were kept only in special Lebensborn registers, many of which of burned in the closing days of the war. Schmitz-Köster estimates around 6,000 babies were delivered in the 10 homes in Germany and the other scattered throughout occupied Europe. Others put that number between 7,000 and 8,000.
Continue reading to find out more about one European country occupied by the Nazis where the program was pursued especially enthusiastically.