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Lebensborn (Fount of Life, in antiquated German) was a Nazi organization set up by SS leader Heinrich Himmler, which provided maternity homes and financial assistance to the wives of SS members and to unmarried mothers, and which also ran orphanages and relocation programmes for children.
Initially set up in Germany in 1935, Lebensborn expanded into occupied countries in western and northern Europe during the Second World War. In line with the racial and eugenic policies of Nazi Germany, the Lebensborn programme was restricted to individuals who were deemed to be "biologically fit" and "racially pure", "Aryans", and to SS members. In occupied countries, thousands of women facing social ostracism because they were in relationships with German soldiers and had become pregnant, had few alternatives other than applying for help with Lebensborn.
After World War II it was reported that Lebensborn was a breeding programme. While individuals were not forced to have sex with selected partners, the programme did aim to promote the growth of "superior" Aryan populations through providing excellent health care and by restricting access to the programme with medical selections that applied eugenic and "race" criteria.
During the war, Lebensborn also processed the adoptions by German families of children from occupied northern and eastern Europe, mostly orphans. At the Nuremberg Trials no evidence was found of direct involvement by the Lebensborn organisation in the kidnapping of thousands of Polish children who were subjected to "Germanisation" by sending them to re-education camps and fostering them out to German families. This project, also directed by Himmler, was carried out by other segments of the Nazi bureaucracy.
The Lebensborn e. V. (eingetragener Verein, "registered association") was founded on December 12, 1935, in part as a response to declining birth rates in Germany, in order to promote the policies of Nazi eugenics. Located in Munich, the organisation was partly an office within the Schutzstaffel (SS) and responsible for certain family welfare programmes, and partly a society for Nazi leaders.
The purpose of the programme was to provide incentives to encourage Germans, especially SS members, to have more children.
The organization "Lebensborn e. V." serves the SS leaders in the selection and adoption of qualified children. The organisation "Lebensborn e. V." is under my personal direction, is part of the race and settlement central bureau of the SS, and has the following obligations:
In 1939, membership stood at 8,000 , of which 3,500 were SS leaders. The Lebensborn office was part of SS Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt (SS Office of Race and Settlement) until 1938, when it was transferred to Hauptamt Persönlicher Stab Reichsführer-SS (Personal Staff of the Reich Leader SS), ie. directly overseen by Himmler. Leaders of Lebensborn e. V. were SS-Standartenführer Max Sollmann and SS-Oberführer Dr. Gregor Ebner.
Initially the programme served as a welfare institution for wives of SS officers; the organisation ran facilities, primarily maternity homes, where women could give birth or get help with family matters. Furthermore, the programme accepted unmarried women who were either pregnant or had already given birth and were in need of aid, provided that both the woman and the father of the child were "racially valuable".
Later such facilities also served as temporary homes, orphanages and as an adoption service. When dealing with non-SS members, parents and children were usually examined by SS doctors before admittance.
The first Lebensborn home (known as Heim Hochland) opened in 1936 in Steinhöring, a tiny village not far from Munich. The first home outside of Germany opened in Norway in 1941.
While Lebensborn e. V. established facilities in several occupied countries, activities were concentrated around Germany, Norway and the occupied north-eastern Europe, mainly Poland. The main focus in occupied Norway was aiding children born by German soldiers and Norwegian women; in north-eastern Europe the organisation, in addition to services provided to SS members, engaged in the movement of children, mostly orphans, to families in Germany.
Lebensborn e. V. had facilities, or planned to, in the following countries (some were merely field offices):
About 8,000 children were born in Lebensborn homes in Germany, and another 8,000 in Norway. Elsewhere the total number of births was much lower. For more information about Lebensborn in Norway, see war children.
In Norway the Lebensborn organisation handled approximately 250 adoptions. In most of these cases the mothers had agreed to the adoption, though not all were informed that their child would be sent to Germany. The Norwegian government brought back all but 80 of these children after the war. The Norwegian Lebensborn records are intact, the majority stored at the The National Archival Services of Norway.
Although this was not their original purpose, the Lebensborn homes were also used to house very young Polish children (between two and six) kidnapped to be Germanized. While older children were sent to institutions specifically dedicated to Germanization, the younger ones would merely be observed for a time at the home before adoption.
After the war the branch of the Lebensborn organisation operating in north-eastern Europe was accused of kidnapping children deemed racially valuable in order to resettle them with German families. However, of approximately 10,000 foreign-born children located in the American-controlled area of Germany after the war, in the trial of the leaders of the Lebensborn organisation (United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt, et al.), the court found that only 340 had been handled by Lebensborn e. V.. The accused were therefore acquitted on charges of kidnapping.
The court did find ample evidence of an existing kidnapping/forced movement programme of children in north-eastern Europe, but indicated that these activities were carried out by individuals who were not members of Lebensborn. Exactly how many children were moved by Lebensborn or other organisations remains unknown due to the destruction of archives by SS members prior to fleeing the advancing Allied forces. From the trial's transcript:
The prosecution has failed to prove with the requisite certainty the participation of Lebensborn, and the defendants connected therewith in the kidnapping programme conducted by the Nazis. While the evidence has disclosed that thousands upon thousands of children were unquestionably kidnapped by other agencies or organisations and brought into Germany, the evidence has further disclosed that only a small percentage of the total number ever found their way into Lebensborn. And of this number only in isolated instances did Lebensborn take children who had a living parent. The majority of those children in any way connected with Lebensborn were orphans of ethnic Germans.
Himmler's effort to secure a racially pure Greater Germany, the fact that Lebensborn was one of Himmler's race programmes, and sloppy journalism on the subject in the early years after the war led to false assumptions about the programme. The main misconception was that the programme involved coercive breeding. The first stories reporting that Lebensborn was a coercive breeding programme can be found in the German magazine Revue, which ran a series on the subject in the 1950s. On January 13, 1961, the German film Der Lebensborn (also known as Ordered to Love (US) and Fountain of Life (International)), produced by Artur Brauner, was released, later to gain worldwide circulation. The film purported that young girls were forced to mate in Nazi camps, which was not proven.
However, the programme did aim to promote the growth of Aryan populations, though encouraging relationships between German soldiers and "Nordic" women in occupied countries, and access to Lebensborn was restricted in line with the eugenic and racial policies of Nazism, which could be referred to as supervised selective breeding. Recently discovered records and ongoing testimony of Lebensborn children (and some of their parents) shows that some SS men did sire children in Himmler's Lebensborn program.
Until the last days of the war, the mothers and the children at maternity homes got the best treatment available, including food, even though many others in the area were starving. Once the war ended local communities often took revenge on the women, beating them, cutting off their hair, and running them out of the community. Many Lebensborn children were born to unwed mothers. After the war, Lebensborn survivors suffered ostracism.
In November 2006 an open meeting took place between several Lebensborn children, with the intent of dispelling myths and encouraging those affected to investigate their origins.
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