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.
However, in one country, the Lebensborn registers, which are more complete, show some 12,000 babies came into the world there fathered by members of the German occupying forces.
Norway was one of the center stages of the program and the Nazis set up 10 maternity homes there. The Norwegians came closest to the Nazis' Aryan ideal -- namely blond and blue-eyed. Himmler was eager to encourage the production of babies of mixed German and Norwegian parentage.
Because Nazi Germany saw Norway as a country filled with "blood brothers and sisters," the occupation of the country was generally much less harsh than in other places. At the time, Norway had a population of three million and there were some 400,000 German soldiers stationed there. A good deal of mixing took place and the Lebensborn homes were very willing to pick up where the German soldier left off.
But while the occupation might have been relatively easy, for Norwegian mothers and those children of German soldiers born there, many in Lebensborn homes, the post-war period was a nightmare.
Gerd Fleischer is the treasurer of the "Lebensborn League of Norwegian War Children," an organization which offers support for its members and seeks compensation from the Norwegian government for its dealings with children born of German fathers during the occupation.
Her mother fell in love with a German soldier in 1941 and Gerd was born one year later. Although her father left the country with the retreating German forces, her life was relatively happy until the age of seven, when she started school. It was then that she learned about the intense hatred in Norwegian society toward Germans and anything to do with them, including their children.
"The first time I was called 'German whore' at school, I didn't know what it meant," she said. "My mother talked to me about my father, but other mothers didn't want to admit to anything. We were their shame."
One member of her group, Paul Hansen (photo), spent the first three years of his life in a Lebensborn home after his mother abandoned him. But because of his German parentage, he was sent to a collection center for unclaimed Lebensborn children. Later, Norway's Ministry of Social Affairs had him classified as retarded and sent him to a mental institution where he was beaten by guards and had to listen to psychotic screams of fellow patients. He didn't leave there until he was 22.
What has made life bearable for many of these Lebensborn children who still have difficulties in their personal and professional lives is their willingness to find one another and come forward with their stories. They have called on the Norwegian government to provide compensation for its discriminatory handling of them after the war. The government has not met all their demands, but has offered a small amount of compensation.
In Germany, the story is different. Until just recently, there was no organization of former Lebensborn children. Only recently have there been tentative movements by a few to set up an organization similar to the two now existing in Norway. Because of the destruction of the Lebensborn files at the war's conclusion, many people do not know who their fathers are. Many of their mothers, if they are still alive, are still reluctant to talk about that time in their lives.
Scene from the 2000 film "Spring of Life"
"A lot of that is bound up with the feeling of being a perpetrator somehow," Schmitz-Köster said. "Many of the children in Germany had fathers who were in the SS and were war criminals. That's completely different than the situation in Norway, for example, where most are children of simple German soldiers. Here there are still strong feelings of guilt."
But she said after having written her book, she received many calls from people wanting to know more, and who were interested in researching their own pasts. According to her, there is still a lot about the Lebensborn era that is shrouded in secrecy and shame, and is just now coming to light.
"There is still a great need among many of these children to know more about their history," she said.