The upper echelons of the Nazi party famously believed in the pseudo-science of eugenics, and thus many Nazi social policies were implemented with the intention of strengthening the genetics of the ‘Aryan’ race. The combination of the ‘social Darwinism’ in which Hitler believed, and his desire for Germany to dominate Europe and for the Third Reich to last a thousand years proved lethal for millions of people that didn’t match Hitler’s idea of a genetically valuable person. Lebensborn, the brainchild of Heinrich Himmler – head of the SS, was effectively a policy with the ultimate goal of encouraging the development of a ‘master race’, specifically attempting to increase the number of healthy Aryan children in Germany. However, as Germany’s military successes during the first half of the Second World War gave the Nazis a greater pool of Aryan people to draw from, the Lebensborn policy evolved accordingly.
After the SS initiated Lebensborn (‘fountain of life’) in December 1935, the Nazi state funded maternity homes, services comparable to modern family planning clinics, an adoption service and orphanages, thus giving ‘racially valuable’ babies (including ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, though not necessarily strictly Aryan, but certainly not of Jewish or Slavic descent) every chance to be cared for. As unmarried pregnant women were able to give birth and be cared for both during and after their pregnancy within state sponsored facilities, the secrecy this gave them proved alluring to many. Estimates of the amount of women who participated in the programme up to 1940 that were unmarried vary from 60% to 70%. While predominantly used by the wives of SS officers after its inception, Lebensborn quickly expanded to provide care beyond the Nazi elite. However, women who wanted to be part of the Lebensborn programme had to be examined by SS doctors and/or prove that their child would be or were ‘racially valuable’, which in effect meant the mother proving her Aryan lineage back to her grandfather and also often the father’s. Only 40% of the women who applied to be involved with Lebensborn passed this test.
The Lebensborn programme expanded along with Nazi-occupied Europe, as this gave the SS more opportunities to fuse the Aryan blood and the Nazi ideology. To achieve this, Aryan children were sent to Germany, although there was diversity in how the policy was applied in different areas of Europe. Norwegians fascinated Himmler (reflected in the creation of nine Lebensborn facilities there), due to the legacy of the Vikings as warriors. Many Norwegian women, irrespective of marital status, were encouraged or forced into having children with SS officers, who were then sent to Germany to be raised by parents who had to swear that they would raise the child as an obedient Nazi. In Eastern Europe, it is estimated that 250,000 Aryan children were stolen and would again be raised by Nazi parents following a period of ‘Germanisation’ at a re-education camp, part of the eight Lebensborn facilities which were set up in Poland alone. France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg each had a Lebensborn facility set up by the SS, while Denmark had two, Austria had three and Germany itself had ten.
In the later years of the war, certain factors severely limited the capability and overall success of the Lebensborn effort. The shift in Nazi racial policy to the ‘Final Solution’ inevitably overwhelmed the Lebensborn programme, as transport and manpower were directed elsewhere. Furthermore, consequences of the military defeats Germany suffered from 1943 onwards included organisational difficulties and a reprioritisation, both undermining the Lebensborn programme. Setbacks occurred throughout the programme, illustrated by the year it took from the beginning of the programme to the opening of the first maternity home, due to financial and personnel complications. This contributed to underwhelming results within the SS, as by 1939, the 93,000 SS men that were married had produced only 100,000 children. Around 8,000 children were born in Lebensborn facilities in Germany and 10,000 in Norway, much more than anywhere else. While there are problems in interpreting Lebensborn records due to the destruction and falsification of some, they do reveal that overall the programme was a failure. One could argue that as long as the Nazi state fell the programme would be a failure, ultimately a waste of resources direly needed during the war. Also, the children that were to become the ‘master race’ that the programme sought to produce ended up being subject to horrific abuse in Norway among other places after the war for years to come.