As a result of WWI and its subsequent treaties, Germany saw a massive decline in the birthrate of its citizenry. To curb the effects of a declining Germanic population, the Third Reich began an Aryan breeding plan led by Heinrich Himmler and the SS called the Lebensborn program. It was a means to put Josef Mengele's experiments on eugenics into practice. Women from various areas of occupied Europe were selected to sleep with SS officers and give birth to a new generation of “genetically pure” babies.
Between 1936 and 1945, women within the Lebensborn program gave birth to roughly 20,000 children. The Lebensborn program extended beyond a system of eugenics, however; it also served as a method of indoctrination. More than 200,000 children were taken throughout Europe and distributed to German foster homes, where they were forced to integrate into German culture.
When WWII came to a close, the Third Reich tried to hide their experiment. But within many of the countries once involved, the Lebensborn program was a point of persecution. Though their participation was outside of their own volition, the children of the Lebensborn program were shunned and shamed.
WWI cast a long shadow over Germany's history. More than two million soldiers fell during the conflict, and the Treaty of Versailles forced the Central European country to pay financial reparations and give up the industrial region of Alsace-Lorraine on its Western border. Moreover, the government that emerged from the ruins of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, was weak and unable to appease the German people.
The National Social Worker’s Party rose to power in the wake of this hardship and promised to restore the country to its former imperial glory. The party believed it needed to create super beings, or "Übermensch," of Aryan descent through eugenics, and rid the nation of those they deemed inferior. Co-opted from Friedrich Nietzsche, Übermensch means biologically-superior, what the party viewed as the ultimate representation of a human being.
As a part of this effort, on December 12, 1935, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel Heinrich Himmler founded the Lebensborn program to increase Germanic and Nordic populations after many years of declining birth rates in Germany.
At the outset of the Lebensborn program, the United States had been promoting eugenics for decades. Though the movement began in the first decade of the 20th century, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization was legal in Buck v. Bell.
This single court decision affected the country from the 1920s to the 1970s. It conceded the sterilization of thousands of people deemed "undesirable." The policy targeted the disabled and mentally ill, as well as minority populations, unwed mothers, and the poor. It had a significant influence on Germany's desire to target specific groups in the same manner.
“There is today one [country], in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable," Adolf Hitler wrote in his book Mein Kampf. "Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”
Heinrich Himmler and the SS specifically recruited German and Norweigan women for the program. Participants were encouraged to sleep with SS officers and bear children outside of wedlock in exchange for housing, protection, and healthcare. After giving birth, the mother would give up all parental rights to her child.
Hildegard Trutz was one of the first women to take part in the program. She was held up as an example of ideal Nordic features because of her tall stature, blonde hair and blue eyes. Trutz was a long-time party supporter and joined the Lebensborn program in 1936 at the age of 18.
To be admitted, she endured a series of medical tests and background investigations to assure her pure Nordic background.
The program was not as successful as initially anticipated. In 1939, Heinrich Himmler directed the SS to seize children who fit Aryan specifications. During WWII, the SS forcibly took an estimated 200,000 children from other countries (with an emphasis on Poland and Yugoslavia) for the Lebensborn program.
Through a process of “Germanisation,” the program forced these children to reject their childhood and birth parents by convincing them of familial abandonment. The Third Reich indoctrinated the children into its ideology. SS families adopted those who did not fight the process; those who refused, however, transferred to concentration camps.
When the conflict ended, only 25,000 displaced children were identified and reunited with their families.