Reconsidering Race: Lebensborn and the Nazi Imperial Project

Reconsidering Race: Lebensborn and the Nazi Imperial Project

Timothy J. Schmalz

The author is currently reading for an M.Phil in Modern European History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge where his dissertation examines the creation of propaganda in relation to perceived public attitudes during the Third Reich. He holds degrees from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and The Catholic University of America.



  1. Lebensborn e. V.

Hitler envisioned a cataclysmic clash of ideologies in a struggle for survival. In an effort to fundamentally restructure German society along racial lines, the Nazis created institutions to catalyze this transformation and to sustain the ‘master race.’ The Lebensborn association was one such institution that embodied the ideology-driven policies that lay at the foundation of the Third Reich. Charged by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in 1935, Lebensborn was an SS welfare organization that initially provided prenatal and newborn health and wellness services to mothers of racially valuable children in private, secluded, state-run maternity homes. It later expanded its purpose to include care for wives of SS officers, racially pure unwed women carrying the babies of similarly pure soldiers, including women in conquered territories, and eventually to include young children in the East who fit the Aryan racial profile. Those of this latter group were removed from their homes and were either sent to Lebensborn homes or were adopted by ardent National Socialist families to be raised as sound Aryans.[1] Put simply, the ideological goal of the Lebensborn program was to breed a master race.[2]

Placing Lebensborn in the broader context of the Third Reich reveals that the organization was part of a much larger scheme and strips away some of the ‘crime novel’ exaggerations concerning “stud farms for the Führer” that popularly defined the program in the early histories.[3] Lebensborn, as an association that not only strove to stabilize what had been a plummeting national birth rate but also increase the birth rate of pure children, must be viewed collectively with its counterpart organizations, such as the T-4 program, which was formed to eradicate impure Germans unfit for marriage through euthanasia.[4]

Much of what has been written on Lebensborn, however, supports a contemporary paradigm that historians use to conceptualize the Third Reich called the ‘racial state,’ which holds that racism provided coherence to the Nazi regime. When one looks at Lebensborn beyond the racial element, however, a great deal of inconsistency surfaces, indicating that race cannot be wholly relied upon for clarity and nuance in understanding the Third Reich.

  1. Objectives and Methodology

How does placing a racial organization, such as Lebensborn, within the context of imperial policy problematize characterizing the Third Reich as the ‘racial state?’ In many respects, Lebensborn seemingly exemplifies the ‘racial state.’ Its purpose and the rhetoric surrounding its operations suggest its significance in the Third Reich’s idealized racial project, and yet, when the scope of inquiry is expanded beyond simply race, Lebensborn challenges the paradigm’s central claim that race provides overall coherence to Nazism. Relying on sources from SS elites, mid-level bureaucrats, and actors in the field, this paper illustrates how Lebensborn as a function of the ‘racial state’ can be contextualized within a larger Nazi narrative of empire and war, thereby demonstrating both the analytical strengths and weaknesses of understanding the Third Reich as the ‘racial state.’ This paper argues that while the ‘racial state’ is not devoid of value, it does not capture the character of the Third Reich in its entirety.


The Paradigm

  1. Debates that Fostered the ‘Racial State’s’ Emergence

The concept of the ‘racial state’ emerged from the Historikerstreit of the 1980s, and the intentionalist-functionalist debate that coincided with it.[5] Both academic debates aimed to establish an accurate lens through which the Third Reich could be empirically understood. The questions of ‘why did this happen?’ and ‘was the Third Reich unique in history?’ have remained central to these scholarly conversations, the answers to which have undergone several transformations since the regime’s collapse in 1945.

Historians who claimed modernization characterized Nazi Germany frequently referred to the advances in industrial and medical technology that made measures such as T-4 and the Holocaust possible as emblematic of a modernizing trajectory. Conversely, proponents of a reactionary Third Reich cited the removal of women from the workplace and subsequent relegation to the domestic sphere as a distinctly anti-modern phenomenon.[6] Jeffrey Herf’s influential “reactionary modernism” describes a thesis in which Germany rejected the Enlightenment’s reason and liberal democratic values, but embraced technology and, as he calls it, “unreason”—a claim which supports the Sonderweg[7] thesis in which Germany forged for itself a unique path to modernity that gave rise to German fascism.[8]

In the wake of such debates, however, the consensus amongst historians shifted yet again.  In the spring of 1988, Thomas Childers and Jane Caplan hosted a conference at the University of Pennsylvania that recognized that in being preoccupied with the language of interpretation and the often turbulent debates that accompanied the historiographical dialogues, historians had drifted too far from the subject and source of the quarrels—the Third Reich itself. One of the products of that conference was a previously underdeveloped perspective through which the Third Reich could be examined: race. Claudia Koonz’s paper about eugenics, gender, and sterilization highlighted how women figured into the Nazi hierarchy as protectors of the nation, mothers, and bearers of children—the future of the Reich.[9] Her work, for example, demonstrated how Nazi social policy affected as of yet unexplored collective groups. Furthermore, by using race as a conceptual framework, the conference for the first time suggested that Nazi persecution of the Jewish people could be absorbed into a wider context of racism—a context that included a multitude of targeted individuals, such as ‘asocials’ and the mentally ill. That is, it was argued that the Holocaust could be seen on a spectrum of Nazi racial discrimination aimed at those perceived to be racially inferior. It just so happened that Jews were subject to the most radicalized racist policies—policies that violently sought to exterminate them.

  1. The Racial State and its Thesis

In their 1991 book entitled The Racial State, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann argued that racial ideology—that is, the belief in the superiority of Aryan blood—drove the Nazis in their policies, in their conquest of Europe, and in their murderous violence against inferiors including their attempt to eliminate European Jewry. Burleigh and Wippermann’s book—which gave the paradigm its name—directly challenges the teleological Sonderweg and the ‘Hitler state’ hypotheses, suggesting that the Third Reich was neither solely modernizing nor solely reactionary, but rather a combination of the two—a synthesis of forces that illustrates “both sides of the same coin,” the authors note.[10] They explain a dialectic in which the Nazis had to harness capitalism to wage an industrial war in order to revert to an agrarian society. The Racial State explores the policies and institutions that the regime employed to implement racial ideology in an attempt to contextualize the racist element of the Third Reich more broadly, thereby shedding new light on old debates, and constructing an idea of Nazi Germany that integrated seemingly opposite motivations and ideologies under the umbrella of racism.[11]

Burleigh and Wippermann’s account offers a comprehensive history of Nazi racial programs and ideology and uses the notion of the Volksgemeinschaft to construct two distinct spheres in which policies were implemented: towards Aryans, who had legitimate claims to the ‘national community,’ and towards the racially inferior, who were subjected to policies which sought to systematically eradicate them from German-occupied territories. The authors sought to recognize the pervasiveness of race in the Third Reich, an analytical framework which incorporated a multitude of initiatives that attempted to improve the health of the German nation by both facilitating growth and cultivation of the master race and actively manipulating and eliminating those who were perceived to threaten the security and wellbeing of Aryans.[12] In doing so, Burleigh and Wippermann propose a thesis that would explain why and how the Third Reich worked towards what they call a “barbarous utopia.”[13]

The ‘racial state’ paradigm has attempted to demonstrate that race pervaded nearly all levels of the Nazi machine including Lebensborn, and was causative in how policies were shaped and implemented. It argues that Hitler’s Nazi regime struggled to realize its ideology-driven mission of fostering a state forged in the pure blood of its citizens—the transformation of Germany from an ordinary class-based society to a modern racial order. The paradigm suggests that the Second World War and the Holocaust, Nazi ambitions of the largest magnitude, were mechanisms for expanding the Reich under the Lebensraum philosophy and the elimination of the categorically racially inferior from the German sphere of influence, respectively. They were means to an end—necessary measures to ensure to optimal conditions for breeding a master race.[14]

Revisiting the ‘Racial State’ 

  1. Questioning the Paradigm’s Utility

The paradigm, however, has recently come under scrutiny as historians assess the analytical strengths and weaknesses of understanding the motivations of the Third Reich in racial terms alone. A 2009 conference of the German Historical Institute at Indiana University sought to revisit the paradigm and to offer new perspectives of inquiry. Mark Roseman, one of the conference’s conveners, suggests that a fundamental assumption that the paradigm holds that race is an epistemological category.[15] The participants’ research has questioned the limited scope of the paradigm, and has suggested alternative ways of seeing the Third Reich in the context of economic, social, and occupation policies.

Burleigh and Wippermann use legislature and political rhetoric to explain how policies targeted those who were perceived to be a threat to the wellbeing of the Volk, such as the mentally ill, homosexuals, and the physically deformed. As Claudia Koonz shows, for example, instruments of bodily manipulation, such as sterilization, were intended to prevent the reproduction and transfer of genetically undesirable traits that could hinder the perceived strength of the Aryan race.[16] While the ‘racial state’ can account for such sterilization, it fails to explain euthanasia, such as the T-4 program, which murdered psychiatric patients and the disabled in special facilities. If race was the determining factor, then sterilization would have addressed the concern about the ‘genetically ill.’

The rationale behind extermination, however, was economic, not racial. The German leadership viewed invalids, those with psychological disorders, and the deformed as economic burdens, in that they contributed little, if anything, to the German economy but required resources for their care—a burden which was thought to increase exponentially as war progressed and considerable strain was placed on the economy.[17] Similarly, homosexuals were considered to be useless because they did not procreate. The German population was experiencing a declining birthrate, and policymakers who predicted the economic hardships to accompany war and colonization of the East targeted those who would not, or ‘should not,’ reproduce for hindering potential productivity while consuming resources.[18] Cost efficiency, not racial fanaticism, was the underlying principle behind some exterminationist programs aimed at German citizens. Similarly, Lebensborn’s transformation from a pronatalist foundation to a child resettlement organization—which handled those of questionable blood—suggests that there was perhaps more to the organization than racial motivation.

  1. New Trends

More recent works on the Third Reich at war also undermine the primacy of race by placing it within the transnational frame of empire. In his book on Nazi imperial policy, Mark Mazower considers empire building and colonization amidst war as far more convincing factors for explaining policy implementation than racial fanaticism. Mazower argues that the speed at which the Third Reich conquered Europe resulted in policy decisions that sacrificed ideological intention for addressing issues of pragmatic imperial administration.[19] He reveals that the conditions of governance as well as the intended relationship between Germans and specific territories mattered significantly in how policy was implemented. Moreover, pragmatic concerns and opportunities often allowed for inconsistency between racial policy and imperial rule. By 1942, for example, the SS leadership admitted that the Germanization of children had largely failed in Czechoslovakia.[20] Nazi repression of Czech schools resulted in expressions of radicalized Czech nationalism, whereby parents indoctrinated children at home, and often refused to send their children to German schools.[21] Mounting public resistance to Germanization efforts prompted an alleviation of Nazi policy towards children, culminating in what the Germans characterized as a policy defeat.[22]

Timothy Snyder builds a similar case, arguing that the implementation of racial thinking was secondary to more pressing, pragmatic issues of controlling territory, facilitating colonization, and conducting war. This became especially evident in autumn of 1941 when German military forces encountered significant Soviet resistance after the invasion of the Soviet Union. As Snyder writes, “as these utopias waned, political futures depended upon the extraction of what was feasible from the fantasies.”[23]

Finally, David Welch argues that Nazi propaganda attempted to reframe racial policy, continuously reinventing itself as the war on the eastern front soured. Though the German public seemingly bought into racial ideology when combined with military victories, the slump in morale, economic hardship, and diminishing quality of life as the Red Army gradually reversed the German military’s advance into the Soviet Union influenced propagandists to reframe war not against racial inferiors but against Bolsheviks. The notion that ‘inferiors’ were defeating the master race was incompatible with racial ideology, and Germans, Welch suggests, were all too aware of the insubstantiality of Nazi rhetoric.[24]

Race and Empire

  1. Lebensborn and the Nazi Imperial Project

The Nazi imperial project planned for Eastern Europe was a critical encounter between ideological ambitions and pragmatic realities. Often times, racial policy yielded to the more pressing issues of establishing order in occupied territories, of sustaining the military advance, and of developing the lands and institutions for the intended German resettlements. Lebensborn’s presence in these territories adapted to the realities of occupation and altered its ideological mission in order to more firmly establish its influence in shaping what was to become a continental German empire. First, Lebensborn and similar such organizations practiced institutional colonization, by which German associations commandeered and utilized preexisting institutions to serve German purposes. Second, Lebensborn participated in behavior typical of empire, in the acquisition of goods and resources, population resettlements, and infrastructure reform. German institutions such as Lebensborn first sought to solidify an imperial network capable of sustaining an intended lasting presence while the implementation of racial policies was often of secondary importance. Third, Lebensborn was instrumental in the Germanization of Eastern European societies. Germanization, however, was used to squash potential insurrection, to bring populations in line with German policies, and to ease the transfer of German institutions. Ultimately, Germanization was a tool for social control and a catalyst for transforming occupied societies into Nazi colonies.

  1. Institutional Colonization

The Nazis efficiently exploited established institutions for administrative and ideological purposes as part of an effort to exert state authority and influence. Lebensborn also employed this process of institutional colonization both within Germany and abroad as a way to bring potentially disruptive organizations in line with state policy. Peter Fritzsche demonstrates how the Nazis penetrated associational life in Germany, became embedded in provincial life, supported community traditions, and utilized existing infrastructure and institutions to both reach the German people and to efficiently nazify state and private apparatuses.[25] As Sheri Berman points out, this was a strategic move by the Nazis, as many Germans during the tumultuous Weimar era became disenchanted with unstable party politics and staked their loyalties to other institutions and local groups.[26] The Nazis were most successful in harnessing preexisting institutions and refashioning them to serve ideological purposes. One such institution was the so-called Haus der Natur in Salzburg, which sat on the Austro-German border in the shadow of Hitler’s Alpine home on the Obersalzberg. Its origins were as a natural history museum, but it was taken over by both Lebensborn and Ahnenerbe, the Nazi institution responsible to pseudo-scientific racial research. Himmler personally had a hand in the museum’s exhibitions, which promoted the notion of the master race and displayed the research findings from Ahnenerbe’s racial research projects as early as 1938—the year Salzburg fell under German control.[27]

A letter from a Lebensborn administrative officer stationed in Vienna to Heinrich Himmler dated 21 March 1938—a mere nine days after Germany annexed Austria under terms of the Anschluß—reveals one way in which Nazi policy was extended to newly acquired territories. The letter details the officer’s frustration over the Catholic Church’s great influence on Austrian culture, particularly in education, which was potentially an obstacle for the implementation of Nazi racial policy. The letter informs Himmler that a chair at the University of Vienna was being created in the field of ‘Rasse und Recht,’ which would be a pedagogical Nazi puppet for the promotion of the ‘benefits of racial hygiene for students of Vienna and, indeed, all of Austria.’[28]

As the Lebensborn officer’s letter above indicates, the Third Reich’s interest in procreative affairs did not end at conception and birth, but rather followed the lifecycle of those ‘fit’ children born according to the standards of the hereditary and marriage laws, particularly so for Lebensborn clients. Throughout the twelve-year Reich, the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum of Dresden, which was originally an anatomical museum but under Hitler was charged with conducting racial research and distributing both their findings and racial propaganda to Reich offices, including Lebensborn, published the bimonthly information pamphlet Praktische Gesundheitspflege in Schule und Haus. Medical experts, academics, experienced mothers, and political leaders wrote the material included in this publication. It was written expressly for mothers of pure children, and explored topics of practical health and wellbeing, as well as lauding the superiority of German blood, physicality, sexuality, and character. In the series’ first publication following the September 1939 invasion of Poland, Walter Sichler[29] wrote an article entitled “Alle Kräfte gelten dem Sieg” in which he stresses the threat of British hegemony to Germany’s self-assertion on the global stage.[30] Fitting the nature of the publication, Sichler called upon mothers to be model domestic warriors, saying that their strength and that of their children will bring Germany victory. He also outlined how mothers were to combat the threats of war, namely, that they should be paying careful attention to nutritional consumption and must teach their children the importance of vitamins and the alimentative benefits of locally-found herbs. Sichler closed by warning that every mother must “spare in der Zeit, so hast Du in der Not.”[31] During wartime, the state characterized mothers as being caretakers of those who would lead Germany, and it prescribed measures to ensure that their pure children were groomed according to the time’s best medicinal practices so that societal hygiene could be at the highest possible level of strength and competitiveness. Similarly, several months later, Reichsgesundheitsführer Leonardo Conti[32] penned the lengthy opening essay of the April/May 1940 edition, entitled “Gesunde Kräfte, siegreiche Kräfte.” Conti placed the fate of the Reich solely and securely in the hands of the Reich’s valuable mothers and the manner in which they raised their children, saying that “ihr Kampf das Schicksal unseres Volkes auf ein Jahrtausend bestimme.”[33] The notion that the “struggle for [Germany’s] destiny over the next thousand years” lies with the strength and racial integrity of pure children resounds strongly amongst the Lebensborn organization, whose intended purpose was to ensure that Germany’s future role of global hegemon was secured for the duration of the “thousand year Reich.”

III. Imperial Behavior

            Lebensborn was also part of a larger imperial project that included a restructuring of civil services according to German practice, such as the importation of administrative officers, like judges, educators, engineers, and agricultural specialists who moved into occupied territories to commence reconstruction in the wake of advancing military forces. In Regierungsbezirk Bromberg, for example, Lebensborn oversaw welfare and infrastructural reform as early as September/October 1939. With funds from Lebensborn’s operational budget, burned houses and stalls were rebuilt along a legible grid system, basic necessities such as petroleum, groceries, and clothing were distributed to ethnic Germans whose property and livelihood had been disrupted by the war, and propagandist educators, such as Dr. F. Theis, a Lebensborn physician attached to the Wartheland head office, routinely visited newly established German colonial settlements explaining the structure and purpose of German villages in the East.[34]

            Lebensborn was also intended to participate in the colonial experience by resettling pure children in occupied areas undergoing Germanization in an effort to bolster the strength of regions at the Reich’s borders. A series of letters between Lebensborn director Max Sollmann and chief Lebensborn medical officer Dr. Gregor Ebner in the spring of 1940 describes how pure Norwegian expectant mothers, especially those impregnated by German soldiers, would be transported to fringe regions of acquired territories so that soon-to-be-born children could start to repopulate occupied space in the east. The German language would be acquired from nurses and staff, and, should mothers wish to return to Norway, children would be kept by Lebensborn and put up for adoption by German families in the occupied territories.[35] Lebensborn, then, was key to extending the German sphere of influence eastward.

In the same vein as Mazower’s articulate argument about the primacy of imperial policy, Shelley Baranowski contextualizes Nazi imperial ambition within a larger German history of colonial enterprise, demonstrating the continuities in practice and ideology between Bismarck-era expansion and Hitler’s quest for continental domination. A key component of colonization, she argues, concerns the plunder of goods and the exploitation of resources and labor, which at once build morale and the notion of superiority amongst colonizers and deprive the colonized of status and potential for insurrection.[36] Lebensborn actively shared the advantaged role of colonizer with competing Nazi institutions, such as the Wehrmacht and the many settlement offices in occupied territories. In December of 1939, the Lebensborn department head of the SS administrative field office in Bromberg, Hauptsturmführer Karl Birkel, who held dual rank as an Unterscharführer in the Waffen-SS, requisitioned twenty rail cars in Lodz previously owned by Jews on order of the director of the Bromberg field office, Guntram Flum. Flum dispatched a team of Lebensborn-affiliated SS officers to acquire materials from nearly thirty Jewish-owned stores, such as bolts of fabric, dresses, bed linens, children’s clothing, and leather shoes that were to be transported back to Bromberg on the train.[37] Although the majority of this shipment continued on to Germany, some of these items were distributed directly by the Lebensborn field office to the wives and children of those resettled German fathers who were killed in Bromberg’s ‘Bloody Sunday,’ in which German civilians were killed in a skirmish between retreating Polish soldiers and German militia in civilian clothes.[38] Additionally, foodstuffs, and more importantly, children of murdered Yugoslav resisters, were requisitioned by SS-Freiwilligen-Division ‘Prinz Eugen’ and sent to Lebensborn in Bromberg before some of the material was sent along to Germany.[39] Plunder and the acquisition of resources were part of an economic component to war, one that increased in significance as the fighting continued. Material shortages within Germany necessitated that institutions in the field, including Lebensborn, collect from occupied zones. Preoccupations with economic concerns often resulted in altered missions. One historian notes how the intended storming of Leningrad, for example, was halted and transformed into the city’s siege because military units had spread thinly in an effort to gather sufficient food and supplies from the countryside—an event that intensified the starvation campaign against the Soviets, which itself was an economic endeavor.[40]

Though problematic for the primacy of racial policy, Lebensborn often handled the resettlement of decidedly non-Aryan children, a practice that increased in frequency as the war progressed. For example, SS-Obersturmbannführer Hermann Krumpey who was attached to Lebensborn Bromberg and field director of SS field office in Lodz oversaw the transportation of eighty-one ethnic Polish children on Himmler’s order to Lebensborn Bromberg and Germany.[41] This evidence substantiates the notion of seeing the Third Reich in terms of empire. Lebensborn was instrumental in extending its mission to include infrastructural reform of settlements, the acquisition of goods and resources, and the resettlement of populations.

  1. Germanization as Social Control

            Lebensborn worked alongside several other Nazi organizations aimed at sorting through occupied populations. The process of Germanization was a critical component of occupation, as its intention was to allow the Nazis to exert influence over populations and was a means of social control by which recalcitrant individuals were conditioned either through education or by force. For example, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and chief of the Reichssicherheitsdienst, by Czech nationalists in June of 1942 prompted swift and harsh retributive measures by the German military.[42] Aktion Lidice, named for the community near Prague to which the assassins were traced, saw the men of the village executed and the women sent to concentration camps. The children, however, were examined by Inge Viermetz of the Lebensborn office in Munich, who was the assistant to Lebensborn director Max Sollmann.[43] In a revealing letter to Sollmann, Himmler suggests that children whose Czech fathers were killed in the Aktion be placed in concentration camps if they are “naughty,” but entrusted to Lebensborn to be placed either in the maternity homes or put up for adoption to German families if they were of “good racial” quality.[44] Ninety-seven orphaned children were deemed to be of poor racial quality, and were subsequently transported to Chelmno, where they were gassed.[45] Though the fate of the undesirable children had been sealed, Himmler’s suggestion to resettle the remaining few was not acted upon for fear of creating a public disturbance amongst the Czechs.[46] The letter is insightful in that it recommends the safekeeping of Slavs who only “seem” to be of good racial quality, indicating that the children were not scrutinized to the same extent that Lebensborn-participating mothers were. Their family histories were not exhaustively researched in the case of the SS, and their only criterion for being considered for the program was that they looked pure.

Similar action occurred in occupied Poland, when in the spring of 1941, Polish orphanages were closed and the children were sent to Lebensborn facilities in the Altreich. The SS leadership made the argument that Poles who resisted occupation undoubtedly had traces of Nordic blood, which gave them the initiative to rebel in the first place. The children had to be removed from their nationalist parents to prevent them from becoming rebels. In a letter to Hitler dated 15 May 1940, Himmler writes that taking responsibility for the resettlement and Germanization of Polish children is an effort to “remove the danger that this subhuman people of the east might acquire a leader class from such people of good blood, which would be dangerous for us because they would be our equals.”[47]

Also in Poland, Lebensborn-affiliated SS Sturmbannführer Dongus, who would later become head of the Rassenamt in Prague, supervised the children selection camps in Lodz, and oversaw the transfer of dozens of ethnic Poles to Lebensborn’s care.[48] A situation report from an Einsatzkommando unit operating in Regierungsbezirk Bromberg notes German apprehension of Poles and the need for Germanization. “Because these Poles are uniformly proficient in German and incredibly accomplished at assimilating,” it reads, “they must be considered all the more dangerous.”[49] The squad imagined the potential for a Polish nationalist rise against the Nazi occupation force, and acted to prevent such an event. Children under the age of six were taken and instructed in German by Lebensborn affiliates as an attempt to Germanize them and prevent future insurrection. This practice became increasingly prevalent in the East, where field commanders were instructed by Lebensborn officers to send westward any children who looked like they could be of pure origins. One historian’s recent estimate places the number of children kidnapped from their parents in the East in the tens of thousands.[50]

The process of Germanization was by no means standardized, however, and both the criteria for selection and the methods by which the process was carried out were often determined by regional and local-level political and SS administrators. In Reichsgau Wartheland, Gauleiter Forster of Danzig-West Prussia ordered that entire villages and towns—accounting for upwards of eighty percent of that district’s population—be registered on the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt’s Volksliste. By Nazi racial criteria, only seven percent were ethnic Germans.[51] Forster, who was pressured by Himmler’s desire for a rapidly-transformed, Germanized Poland, and keen to impress the SS leadership with seeming progress in his district, took advantage of poorly-defined racial criteria and implemented a broadened Germanization policy that categorized race along ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other lines.[52] Mixed standards, however, were problematic even at the regional level. Arthur Griesler, Forster’s immediate supervisor, who was Reichsstatthalter of Wartheland, followed different criteria and even challenged Himmler’s strict ‘save one drop of German blood’ decree by mandating that one was German only if he was of at least fifty percent German ethnicity. Massed confusion at the local, regional, and state level resulted in Himmler granting Greiser and his subordinates a special decree by which their standards would hold over his, as Berlin agreed that reevaluating those who had already been screened would have been an overwhelming administrative task that could be saved for a time when such individuals intended to migrate to the Altreich.[53]

In some instances, an individual’s value to the Volksgemeinschaft was not determined by race at all. An October 1939 situation report from Einsatzkommando Bromberg to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt details the challenges associated with sifting through ethnic Poles with potentially useful skills. For example, a renowned ethnic Polish oncologist was scheduled for resettlement in the Altreich “assuming [he] can be smoothly absorbed into the German racial body.”[54] Expertise, not race, secured the physician’s fate under the Third Reich.

German propagandists were also sensitive to Lebensborn’s image during its radicalized stage of Germanizing ethnic non-Aryans. Depictions of Lebensborn in the annual SS calendars, which showcased images of the various SS departments at work ‘in the field,’ such as nurses caring for Aryan infants in Lebensborn homes, demonstrate how social control shaped the use of race. The calendars were published yearly by Ahnenerbe and were distributed to SS men and their dependents. Wartime correspondence between officials referenced the potential “undesired propagandistic effects” of captioning the selected Lebensborn photograph for a draft of the calendar as featuring kidnapped children from the East, suggesting rather that all future photographs be simply captioned “Lebensborn-SS.”[55] These aspects are revealing. The former exposes not only the racial criteria by which photographs were selected but also points to the rationale for propagandizing Lebensborn’s transformative mission as the Reich fluctuated in size. Conversely, the latter sheds light on the administration’s hesitations and scrutiny in releasing these ‘company calendars’ to soldiers and their families in large quantities. The calendars and accompanying inter-office letters show that the administration’s sensitivities to potential public fallout over the full extent of Lebensborn’s operations prompted officials to propagandize only those areas of Lebensborn that complemented existing public notions of the Nazi racial project.

Although it is not explicit, it seems that the incoherence of racial policies that had so stringently been applied in Lebensborn’s earlier years coincided with complications arising from the war. Put another way, the war necessitated that the Third Reich reorient its practices of building a racial utopia to one of, in 1941, conquering an immense opponent in the Soviet Union but then to, by late 1942, preserving as much of what would quickly become an ever decreasing empire pressured by a resilient and ever strengthening enemy. Echoing Snyder’s observations, in many instances the driving emphasis on racial policy was curtailed in order to redistribute efforts on securing resources and minimizing the negative effects of the explosive conflict on the Eastern Front.[56] Transformations in Lebensborn’s mission from a welfare system for unwed mothers of presumed pure children to a kidnapping organization that resettled vast numbers of racially suspect youth reflect how the organization altered in the face of challenges and opportunities encountered through territorial expansion, and the threat of defeat and subsequent radicalization (and perhaps more pragmatic application) of racial policy in the East.



[1] Himmler’s adjutant, SS-Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl, married a Lebensborn mother and adopted her illegitimate child, Heilwig, and is likely the most prominent participant in the organization’s history. See, Dorothee Schmitz-Köster, Kind L 364: Eine Lebensborn-Familiengeschichte (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2007).

[2] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 305.

[3] For example, see Marc Hillel and Clarissa Henry, Of Pure Blood (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976).

[4] Götz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene, trans. Belinda Cooper (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p. 55.

[5] In the 1980s, a major contention arose among historians concerning, for example, the Sonderweg, in what was called the Historikerstreit. Historians such as Ernst Nolte faced backlash from Jürgen Habermas and others when they attempted to relativize Nazi atrocities as being fundamentally no worse than crimes committed by Stalin, for example. Nolte and his supporters were seen as denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust, arguing that it was a function of modernity, potentially occurring in any modernizing state. If it could be established that Nazi Germany followed a similar modernizing trajectory as other states, then the question of Hitler’s responsibility for World War II falls into insignificance. The Historikerstreit highlighted the problems of historicization, particularly of so potent a topic as the Holocaust. For a discussion on Nolte’s role in the debate, see Richard J. Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past (London: Pantheon Books, 1989).

The Historikerstreit also occurred amidst another particularly venomous dispute amongst historians, the intentionalist-functionalist debate. Some historians, such as Andreas Hillgruber, sought a single “key” that would explain why and how the Nazis committed crimes. The answer, he believed, was that the Holocaust was part of a master plan conceived by Hitler and Nazi elites. Furthermore, many works that emerged from this school were top-down elite and institutional histories that did not consider forces ‘from below.’ Historians such as Hans Mommsen—a proponent of the functionalist school—argued against these claims, and suggested that opportunity and the initiatives of lower-level actors allowed for the space in which violence could occur in what he described as “cumulative radicalization.” For an excellent analysis of Third Reich historiography, including the intentionalist-functionalist debate, see Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (London: Hodder Arnold, 2000).

A methodological weakness to above paradigms is that they evaluate the Third Reich almost solely in terms of widely recognized Nazi elites and their primary victims, Jews. Undoubtedly, Jewish persecution and suffering by ever more radical means was a crucially central component of Nazi Germany, but for too long historians had neglected the wider scope of Nazi policies and actions. The intentionalist-functionalist debate, for example, considered the dynamic between intention and power in how the Holocaust came about, and, as such, it focused on perpetrators, whether they are among Hitler and elites or “ordinary men” whose extraordinary violence seemed to have been the products of opportunity and the pressures of conformity.

[6] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, p. 53.

[7] For a thorough critique of the Sonderweg thesis and its implications for understanding the Third Reich, see David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[8] Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 1-3; 189-216.

[9] Claudia Koonz, “Eugenics, Gender, and Ethics in Nazi Germany: The Debate about Involuntary Sterilization, 1933-1936,” in Reevaluating the Third Reich, eds. Thomas Childers and Jane Caplan (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1993), pp. 66-67.

[10] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, pp. 1-2.

[11] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[12] Eugenics was not particular to Germany, nor did it originate there. Indeed, an informative poster featured in Rassenpolitisches Amt’s Neues Volk of March 1936 proclaims “Wir stehen nicht allein!,” alerting readers that medical sterilization was practiced in twelve other countries, including the United States and Poland. Furthermore, schemes that promoted procreation of racially “valuable” children, such as the Ehrenkreuz der deutschen Mutter awarded to mothers who “bore the state” four or more “healthy” children, were common in Japan and Canada, among others. Source: Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 96; 120-121. For example, a French political poster was featured in an article called “Frankreich und die schwarze Gefahr” in the October 1934 edition of the German Neues Volk, the newsletter of the Rassen-politisches Amt des NSDAP , and called for the birth of healthy white children to combat the perceived threat of so-called “Rhineland bastards,” children of largely black French colonial troops and white mothers in what had been, up until 1930, Allied-occupied Rhineland. The poster features six white babies being held high above the slogan “No children today, no France tomorrow!” BArch. NS2 (Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt-SS ) / 74, [Reel 1, microfilm 58]. Original Text: Sans les enfants d’aujourd’hui, pas la France demain! For a comprehensive look at European and American eugenics in the interwar period, see Stefan Kühl, For the Betterment of the Race: The Rise and Fall of the International Movement for Eugenics and Racial Hygiene, trans. Lawrence Schofer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Also, see Bradley W. Hart, “Watching the ‘Eugenic Experiment’ Unfold: The Mixed Views of British Eugenicists toward Nazi Germany in the Early 1930s,” Journal of the History of Biology, 45, no. 1 (2012): 33-63.

[13] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann,, pp. 40-43.

[14] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, p. 305.

[15] Patrick Gilner, “Beyond the Racial State: Rethinking Nazi Germany,” in The Bulletin of the GHI, 46, (Spring 2010), p. 164.

[16] Claudia Koonz, pp. 66-67.

[17] Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2005), p. 188.

[18] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), pp. 233-234.

[19] Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), pp. 236-237.

[20] Tara Zahra, “Reclaiming Children for the Nation: Germanization, National Ascription, and Democracy in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1945,” Central European History, 37, no. 4, (2004), p. 532.

[21] Ibid., p. 534.

[22] For a thorough account of Germanization policies in occupied Czechoslovakia, see Chad Bryant, Prague in Black: Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[23] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), pp. 187-189.

[24] David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 101-103.

[25] Peter Fritzsche, Germans Into Nazis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 189.

[26] Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” in World Politics, 49, no. 3, (April 1997), p. 402.

[27] BArch. NS21 (Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft “Das Ahnenerbe”) / 568, Letter from Obersturmführer Dr. Brandt to Gruppenführer Berger, 22 November 1942.

[28] BArch. NS19 (Persönlicher Stab Reichsführer-SS) / 3434, [Reel 1, Microfilm 65-66], Letter from SS in Vienna to Himmler, 21 March 1938.

[29] Sichler, previously an employee of the Dresden-based Chlorodont toothpaste company, earned employment with the Deutschen Hygiene-Museum, Dresden, and published Sauberkeit und Ordnung in 1936, which was a 20-page essay describing the societal effects of hygiene.

[30] USHMMA, Accession Number 2001.204.1, “Lebensborn papers,” Walter Sichler, “Alle Kräfte gelten dem Sieg,” in Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, Praktische Gesundheitspflege in Schule und Haus, vol. 8, no. 3 November/December 1939. Dresden: Verlag Wilhelm Limpert.

[31] It is interesting to observe that Sichler propagates the importance of rationing as early as November 1939, well before Germany encountered the food supply depletion of the war’s latter years.

[32] SS-Obergruppenführer Dr. Leonardo Conti served as the first Reichsgesundheitsführer from 1939-1945. He joined the NSDAP in 1927, and was implicated in the T-4 operation at Nürnberg in May 1945. He committed suicide in captivity on 6 October 1945. Source: Michael H. Kater, “Doctor Leonardo Conti and His Nemesis: The Failure of Centralized Medicine in the Third Reich,” Central European History, 18, no. 3/4, (Sep.-Dec. 1985), pp. 301-302; 320-321.

[33] USHMMA, Accession Number 2001.204.1, “Lebensborn papers,” Leonardo Conti, “Gesunde Kräfte – siegreiche Kräfte,” in Deutschen Hygiene-Museum Dresden, Praktische Gesundheitspflege in Schule und Haus vol8, no. 6 May/June 1940. Dresden: Verlag Wilhelm Limpert.

[34] BArch. NS19 (Persönlicher Stab Reichsführer-SS) / 560 (12) [Fiche 1, Fol. 1-108], Report from SS Obersturmführer Sielaff, Dienstelle Bromberg des Lebensborn e.V., to Dr. R. Brandt, Persönlicher Stab RFSS, 16 August 1941.

[35] BArch. NS48 (Statistisch-wissenschaftliches Institut des Reichsführer-SS) / 86, Letter from Sollmann to Ebner (Steinhöring, 20 May 1940); Letter from Ebner to Sollmann (22 May 1940).

[36] Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 238-240; 242; 247.

[37] Although most of the items requisitioned by Lebensborn somehow aided its mission, it is interesting to note how the organization also enjoyed more typical plundered booty. For example, Michael Brandmeier, a low-level Lebensborn bureaucrat who had previously been a waiter for the Pschorr Brewery in Munich, requisitioned luxury goods from the Netherlands and France, such as goose feathers, cakes, and porcelain, for the personal use of Lebensborn directors, like Sollmann. Source: Wiener Library, MF Doc 531a/5, “International Tracing Service – Child Search Branch: Papers Re. Lebensborn Children, etc., 1940s-1950s.”

[38] For a more detailed account of ‘Bromberg Bloody Sunday,’ see: Jochen Böhler, Auftakt zum Vernichtungskrieg: Die Wehrmacht in Polen 1939 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006), pp. 143-145; Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 2, 1795 to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 331.

[39] Wiener Library, MF Doc 531a/5, “International Tracing Service – Child Search Branch: Papers Re. Lebensborn Children, etc., 1940s-1950s.”

[40] Jeff Rutherford, “The Radicalization of German Occupation Policies: The Wirtschaftsstab Ost and the 121st Infantry Division in Pavlovsk, 1941” in Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941: Total War, Genocide, and Radicalization, eds. Alex J. Kay, Jeff Rutherford, and David Stahel (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012), pp. 136-137.

[41] Wiener Library, MF Doc 501(1-2)/5222, “Copy Documents Re. Heinrich Himmler (1920s-1940s).”

[42] Heydrich was appointed by Hitler to replace Konstantin von Neurath as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia in September 1941 in order to radicalize Germanization efforts and to suppress burgeoning Czech nationalism.

[43] Wiener Library, MF Doc 501(1-2)/5222, “Copy Documents Re. Heinrich Himmler (1920s-1940s).”

[44] USHMMA, Photograph #03608, courtesy of National Archives and Record Administration, College Park.

[45] Wiener Library, MF Doc 501(1-2)/5222, “Copy Documents Re. Heinrich Himmler (1920s-1940s).”

[46] Tara Zahra, p. 532.

[47] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), pp. 30-32.

[48] Wiener Library, MF Doc 501(1-2)/5222, “Copy Documents Re. Heinrich Himmler (1920s-1940s).”

[49] Situation report by Einsatzkommando Bromberg to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, October 20 1939, IPNW NTN 196/179 in Jürgen Matthäus, Jochen Böhler, and Klaus-Michael Mallmann, War, Pacification, and Mass Murder, 1939: The Einsatzgruppen in Poland (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), pp. 144-145.

[50] Peter Longerich, p. 595.

[51] Robert Lewis Koehl, RKFDV: German Resettlement and Population Policy, 1939-1945: A History of the Reich Commission for the Strengthening of Germandom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 140-142.

[52] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War, p. 33.

[53] Catherine Epstein, Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 208-212.

[54] Proposal by Einsatzkommando Bromberg for propaganda aimed at Poles in Danzig-West Prussia (late October 1939), IPNW, NTN 196/79, in Jürgen Matthäus, Jochen Böhler, and Klaus-Michael Mallmann, War, Pacification, and Mass Murder, 1939: The Einsatzgruppen in Poland (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), pp. 147-148.

[55] BArch. NS21 (Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft “Das Ahnenerbe”) / 568, Letters between Sollmann and Ahnenerbe Main Office, April 1943.

[56] See footnote 23 for corresponding citation.




Primary Sources

Bundesarchiv, Berlin-Lichterfelde

BArch. NS2 (Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt-SS ) / 74

BArch. NS19 (Persönlicher Stab Reichsführer-SS) / 3434; 560

BArch. NS21 (Forschungs- und Lehrgemeinschaft “Das Ahnenerbe”) / 568

BArch. NS48 (Statistisch-wissenschaftliches Institut des Reichsführers-SS) / 86


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive, Washington

USHMMA, Accession Number 2001.204.1, “Lebensborn papers”

USHMMA, Photograph #03608


Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, London

WL, MF Doc 501(1-2)/5222, “Copy Documents Re. Heinrich Himmler (1920s-1940s).”

WL, MF Doc 531a/5, “International Tracing Service – Child Search Branch: Papers Re.     Lebensborn Children, etc., 1940s-1950s.”


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