At first glance, the brochure looks like it’s advertising resort vacations. A stately home peeks out of the forest on a scenic Austrian hillside in one photograph, while in another, a fountain bubbles in a mansion’s stone courtyard. Interior pages show sitting rooms full of comfortable armchairs and dining halls set with starched white tablecloths.
It’s only the first and last photos in the booklet that provide a sense of what it’s actually advertising: at the beginning, a blonde woman. At the end, blonde, chubby-cheeked babies.
What appeared to be resort destinations are in fact Lebensborn homes, homes for expectant mothers and newborns established throughout the Third Reich. They were intended to support the Nazi aim of creating a racially “pure” society populated by members of the “Aryan” master race. The Lebensborn program, which means “source of life,” was designed to promote the birth of “racially valuable” offspring by members of the SS, the elite paramilitary organization. At its height, this organization employed about 400 people at homes in Germany, Austria, Norway, and other occupied countries.
The story of Lebensborn — its inception, how it operated, and its aftermath — is a case study in the Nazi racial ideals that underpinned so much of Germany’s actions during the Holocaust.
Why More Babies?
The Nazis’ drive for taking over Europe can be summed up in two words, according to historian Gerhard Weinberg: race and space. The Nazi government wanted to create a racially “pure” society by increasing the number of “Aryans” and eliminating people it considered inferior, like disabled people, Jews, and Roma (race). At the same time, it wanted to give these “Aryans” plenty of “living space” by expanding Germany’s borders into Eastern Europe (space). To populate all this new territory and cement the “Aryan” race as the master race, they thought, the “Aryan” members of the population needed to produce many children.
Nazi policy reinforced this demand for Germany to produce more babies. New laws banned women from terminating pregnancies if the resulting child would be “of good blood.” The government incentivized young people to get married and start families by offering “marriage loans” to newlyweds — a quarter of the debt was forgiven with each child they had, so if they had four children, the debt was erased. A new medal, the “Mother Cross,” was awarded to women who produced many children: bronze for four children, silver for six, and gold for eight. With each new arrival, a German family received “Kindergeld,” or “child money,” as a monthly stipend from the government, a practice so popular that it continues in Germany today.
But for true racial fanatics like SS leader Heinrich Himmler, measures like restricting abortion access and incentivizing marriage were not extreme enough. The new Germany needed to grow in numbers, and quickly, in order to become the racially pure utopia that he and other Nazi ideologues imagined. With that aim, he founded the Lebensborn program in 1935, including the homes displayed in this brochure. Shortly after, he added a Lebensborn statute into the SS’s marriage regulations mandating that every SS man had to produce four children — whether in or out of wedlock.
All our struggle, the death of the two million in the world war, the political fight of the last 15 years… would be in vain and pointless if the victory of the German spirit is not followed by the victory of the child.
–Heinrich Himmler, quoted on the last page of Lebensborn pamphlet
A National Socialist Utopia
In the 1930s and ’40s, being a single mother came with enormous social stigma. Women were shunned, singled out, and humiliated for having a child without a husband, which is why many single women chose to end their pregnancies. Lebensborn worked to overcome this cultural obstacle with propaganda, like this pamphlet. The first page, seen below, proclaims, “Every German mother of good blood shall be holy to us.”
This was a well-targeted message, considering 60 percent of the women who would eventually stay in Lebensborn homes were unmarried. Making single mothers feel not sinful, but “holy,” was an inversion of expectations for these women.
The booklet goes on to explain that women in the Lebensborn program could expect the utmost secrecy in the help they receive. If a woman wanted to keep her baby and raise it as a single mother, Lebensborn would handle all contact with the child’s father and set up child support payments. If she wanted, the program could even change her paperwork to say that she was divorced or widowed, just to keep up appearances.
If a woman wanted to give the baby up, on the other hand, Lebensborn assumed custody of the child as soon as it was born, under the promise that it would be adopted into a “good German home,” preferably, an SS family.
“The Reichsführer-SS [Himmler] reserves the right in each individual case to grant permission for the adoption placement suggested by Lebensborn,” the pamphlet reads. “Each mother thus has, if applicable, the guarantee that her child will have the best adoptive parents imaginable.”
The goal for Lebensborn propaganda, like this pamphlet, was to paint the experience of being pregnant and giving birth in these homes as a National Socialist utopia. The program promised to remove every obstacle to “giving the Führer a child,” leaving a woman with no acceptable reason for terminating an unwanted pregnancy. After all, how could any pregnancy that produced an “Aryan” child for Hitler be “unwanted?”
The Dark Reality
On paper, providing maternity care and adoption services advertised in this pamphlet might seem relatively benign. And in a few respects, the Lebensborn program achieved its goal — between 1936 and 1945, approximately 7,000 children were born in the Lebensborn maternity houses. However, underneath its veneer of charity, the program was driven by lies, cruelty, and kidnapping in its pursuit of a racially “pure” baby boom.
In the first years of the program, most SS housewives refused to take in Lebensborn babies on moral grounds — a situation Himmler had failed to anticipate. Lebensborn eventually had to expand its facilities to accommodate the children it could not place in families. Overcrowding, substandard care, and lack of funding resulted in climbing child mortality rates in these homes during the prewar years, which the organization covered up. With the start of the war, Lebensborn’s mission gained greater political importance, funding increased, and conditions improved. As the war progressed, more families were willing to adopt children, especially to “replace” a son who died on the battlefield.
As Germany gained control over more land in the east, the Lebensborn program implemented a second, sinister aspect of its mission to increase the number of Aryan children in Germany. It cooperated with other parts of the SS to find children in captured towns who looked “Aryan.” These children, Lebensborn claimed, could undergo a “genuine ethnic transformation,” or be “Germanized” into members of the Nazi state, if they were placed with good German families. So, when German forces “resettled” ethnically non-German people out of their homes, children who looked like they could be valuable under Nazi racial theory were singled out and adopted into German families.
However, if a child ended up proving not “Aryan” enough to be adopted, the child was not reunited with family. Usually, children rejected from Lebensborn were either murdered or sent to labor or reeducation camps.
The Postwar Legacy of Lebensborn
Lebensborn collapsed in 1945, along with the rest of the Nazi state. The Allies helped reunite some of the “Germanized” Lebensborn children, at least the ones they could identify, with their surviving family members. Some Lebensborn children were never told that they were adopted, and possibly never found out the truth of how they became Germans.
But the children who had been born in Lebensborn homes didn’t have the option of returning anywhere. With the Nazi social framework gone and Germany entering a time of deep embarrassment over the Hitler period, both the unwed mothers and their children suffered under the crushing weight of shame and social disapproval.
When we examine Lebensborn, we have a chance to look at the mirror image of the Holocaust. While the Nazi regime committed the largest, most well-documented genocide the world has ever known, they were also working to “replace” the people they murdered with racially “pure” children. How does that deepen the ways in which we think about Nazi Germany and its ideological underpinnings?
The legacy of the Lebensborn program, by its nature, is inescapable. There are people alive today who exist because of Lebensborn, and when those people are gone, their children and grandchildren will continue to be a part of our world. We can see echoes of the program and its aims in recent dystopian portrayals, from The Handmaid’s Tale to The Man in the High Castle. And, of course, we have pamphlets like this one, their beguiling photos and sinister messages preserved forever in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s collection.
View the full Lebensborn pamphlet on the Museum’s website.
Abigail Hartley is a social media producer in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.