Lebensborn sounds like an awesome crib you can get from IKEA that can fold up small enough to fit in the cupboard. But it was actually a breeding program so sinister that even the Jewish Virtual Library called it "one of the most secret and terrifying Nazi projects." Tens of thousands of children were born or kidnapped into the program.
It may seem like attempted genocide on an international scale would have been enough for the Nazis and their dreams of racial purity. But they were proactive ethno-nationalists who were just as interested in extra-marital breeding and kidnapping as they were in mass murder. That interest led to Lebensborn, a literal Aryan breeding program.
As the Nazis cemented power in Germany in the 1930s, they instituted a series of discriminatory policies against the Jewish, Roma, and other peoples deemed immoral or undesirable by the Third Reich. On December 12, 1935, Germany instituted the Nuremberg Laws that banned intermarriage between most Germans and Jewish people. But Lebensborn was enacted in secret the same day.
The program was led by Heinrich Himmler himself. Women were recruited from the Band of German Maidens, the female wing of the Hitler Youth. (Yes, the Nazis filled their breeding roster with their version of Girl Scouts.) Women and girls who wanted to participate had to prove their racial purity going back three generations.
The "studs" of the program were primarily officers recruited from the SS and the Wehrmacht. Again, they were partnered with young women who had just made it out of the Fascist Girl Scouts. And the officers were typically partnered with multiple girls/women, sleeping with them at a time scheduled to match their peak ovulation.
A German officer with a baby at a Lebensborn Society.
(German Federal Archives)
Women could join the program whether they were wed or unwed, though Himmler stopped advertising that fact after the Germans protested the immorality of babies being bred out of wedlock.
The babies born to the mothers were quickly weened and placed in the care of the SS. Many would be adopted out to German families, but others would live in special Lebensborn houses. There were at least 26 of these spread across Nazi-occupied Europe. An estimated 20,000 children were born to Lebensborn women.
But as creepy as all of that is, there was an even darker side to the program. Potentially hundreds of thousands of children deemed "racially pure" were kidnapped from countries conquered by the Nazis and sent to Lebensborn houses where they were indoctrinated to be German and then adopted out.
Children who refused to believe that they were abandoned by their parents or who refused to identify as German were beaten. If they continued to resist, they were sent to concentration camps and eventually killed.
The Allies found the evidence of these crimes as they liberated Europe, same as the discovery of concentration camps. On May 1, 1945, 300 children were discovered—alive but abandoned—in the town of Steinhoering. When the relatives of a kidnapped child could be identified, Allied personnel sought to reunite them with their family.
But the Germans had destroyed much of the paper trail as the Allies advanced, and many children were too brainwashed to leave their adopted families. A 1946 estimate put the number of children kidnapped at 250,000. Only 10 percent—25,000—were successfully reunited.
All of this led to a terrible legacy. Hundreds of children born or kidnapped into Lebensborn only discovered their heritage as adults. For their childhoods, they either had gaps in the knowledge of their family or else were fed lies about who their fathers were.
And, unsurprisingly, there is no sign that the breeding program led to genetically superior people. The children born of these "racially pure" unions often had blond hair and blue eyes, but there wasn't anything remarkable about them — certainly nothing that would justify such a despicable practice by the Nazis.
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