Forced procreation, kidnapping, and execution of babies were all carried out in the name of a master race
By Erin Blakemore
It sounds like the stuff of dystopian fantasy: women encouraged to bear children to hand over to a totalitarian regime. But for thousands of Europeans, including ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, such a program isn’t imaginary — it’s the story of their lives. Lyngstad and approximately 20,000 others are the Lebensborn, survivors of a Nazi breeding program designed to create racially “pure” children for the Third Reich.
Between 1935 and 1945, the secret program encouraged racially “fit” women to bear children for the Reich and protected babies thought to exemplify Nazi Germany’s Aryan ideals. Translated as “fount of life,” the Lebensborn program involved secret birthing facilities, hidden identities, and the theft of hundreds of thousands of children.
The program has its roots in World War I, which decimated Germany’s male population and contributed to a sharp decline in the country’s birth rates, which fell 43 percent between 1920 and 1932. This was a problem for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, which came into power in 1933 with plans to usher in a new world order, one in which Nordic and Germanic “Aryans” — whom they considered the most superior of the races — would rightfully reign supreme. In order to carry out Hitler’s vision of a completely Aryan Europe, the Nazis would need address the country’s genetic shortage.
SS head Heinrich Himmler was convinced that abortion was the primary reason for the falling birthrate, and in 1935 he decided to strike back. He decided to make abortions of racially “pure” children less appealing by offering an alternative to their mothers. Women who could prove that their unborn child would fit Nazi racial purity standards could give birth to the child in secret, comfortable facilities.
But there was a catch: Once the babies were born, they had to be relinquished to the SS. The SS would then educate them, indoctrinate them in Nazi ideology, and give them to elite families to raise.
At first, Himmler urged the SS and German military to have children with Aryan women both in and out of wedlock, but as the war progressed, that became an mandate. When casualties further decimated the German male population, Himmler ordered his officers to marry and reproduce. Women in occupied countries were also encouraged to have children with German soldiers.
As it moved eastward, the Third Reich expanded the Lebensborn program to include wholesale kidnapping. Children thought to be racially pure were taken from their parents and temporarily placed in Lebensborn homes before being adopted by German families. In Poland alone, between 100,000 and 200,000 children were kidnapped; those who failed racial purity tests in Germany were sent to orphanages or summarily executed.
At its height, the Lebensborn program included dozens of birth centers in Germany and the countries it occupied. Comfortably furnished with the possessions of deported Jews, these homes were quietly advertised as places where unwed mothers could escape social ostracism, ensuring a bright future for their children. In occupied territory, they were also a place to escape the fury of locals who faced starvation and oppression at the hands of the Germans and resented the special privileges granted to women pregnant with “desirable” children.
It’s still unclear exactly how many children were born in Lebensborn homes; current estimates range up to 20,000. However, that number may never be fully known due to secrecy on the part of mothers, incomplete and destroyed records, and new names given to children who were placed in Nazi families.
What is clear is the trauma suffered by children who were part of the program. After the war, Lebensborn became social outcasts both inside and outside of Germany. At the time, single, unmarried mothers were seen as social misfits, and in occupied countries, those who had engaged in sexual relationships with German soldiers were seen as traitors.
Take, for example, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who was born in 1945 after her Norwegian mother had a relationship with a Nazi sergeant. Though Lyngstad was given her mother’s surname, she was branded a Tyskerbarnas, or German child, and her mother became an outcast. The family later emigrated to Sweden, where Lyngstad grew up lonely and isolated.
When she was 22, she entered and won a Swedish talent contest; by the time ABBA formed, she had multiple number one hits. After her time with ABBA, one of history’s most recognizable and best-selling pop groups, Lyngstad became a princess by marriage.
Other Lebensborn haven’t been so lucky. As The Guardian’s Kate Connolly notes, Lyngstad’s success would have been almost unthinkable if she had remained in Norway. Educational and employment opportunities were rare for Lebensborn; the government sent many children to different countries in an attempt to get rid of them, and many ended up in children’s homes after their mothers were shipped off to concentration camps. Norwegian Lebensborn also allege they were used in secret military trials of drugs like mescaline and LSD; however, those claims have never been officially recognized.
In 2002, Norway offered about $31,000 to Lebensborn to make amends for the government’s treatment of children, but the country has never officially apologized. No other country has offered to compensate victims, who endured shaming and trauma.
Those who know they were Lebensborn face a harsh reckoning with the knowledge that their fathers — and possibly their mothers — were devoted Nazis. But perhaps the most horrifying part of the program is the fact that so many people who were kidnapped or adopted under Lebensborn ideology will never know their true identities. The Nazis never managed to create an Aryan super race, but their quest for racial perfection, ironically, damaged a generation of the children they claimed to cherish.