We believe in the God of all things
And in the mission of our German blood
Which grows ever young from German soil.
We believe in the race, carrier of the blood,
And in the Führer, chosen for us by God.
The last time Annecdotal took a peek at the craziness of the Nazi project was with a fictional account of Mengele’s perverted twin studies. Today we’re visiting related territory with a memoir and social history of the Lebensborn programme, both literally and metaphorically Himmler’s baby.
At this point, Ingrid was placed in another orphanage, desperately yearning for the only mother she knew. When she left, it was to lodge with her father. Eventually, Gisela took her back but, while ensuring she had an education, she was always distant. Despite these insecure beginnings, and her foster mother’s refusal to tell her the truth about her background, Ingrid grew to forge a successful career as a physiotherapist for disabled children.
When she came to research her own past, the original secrecy around the Lebensborn programme was compounded by language barriers and half a century of political of upheaval and reorganisation in Eastern Europe. However, she was eventually able to meet members of her biological family in Slovenia, and with other Lebensborn survivors.
Himmler’s pet project is a deadly warning against mixing dodgy science with ideology. Convinced of the superiority of the Aryan “race” thought to be transmitted from generation to generation by the supposed purity of the blood, and concerned about the diminution of this genetic pool through loss of life in the war, he developed a method of assessment of racial purity and a system to support those deemed to possess it. Members of the SS were given incentives to procreate and, at a time when motherhood outside marriage was stigmatised, pregnant women of the “right” background were welcomed into specialist nursing homes, whether married or not.
When the numbers were still deemed insufficient, children with the desired characteristics were kidnapped from the occupied territories as was Ingrid’s lot.
Deluded as this appears to us now, we should beware of being complacent about the pseudoscience of race. In non-fascist Britain, over twenty years after the end of the Second World War, Enoch Powell made his infamous Rivers of Blood speech and, although less strongly rooted in concepts of race, children were shipped to its outposts of Empire often without their parents’ knowledge or consent. (And the social worker who uncovered this atrocity only thirty years ago is a personal hero of my character, Janice, in my current WIP, and hopefully my third novel-in-progress, currently known as High Hopes.) A less extreme version of the same phenomenon is our use of the term “mixed race” as if we don’t all have a mixed biological heritage and the excitement that surrounds new discoveries of an association between some aspect of behaviour and genetics.
One of the tragedies of the Lebensborn project’s assumptions of biological determinism is the neglect of environmental factors’ impact on child development. If only Himmler had read Lorenz, whose research on imprinting in ducklings influenced Bowlby’s later work on attachment. Instead, the (p188):
regimen was intended to produce strong and ruthless future leaders for the Master Race. But children need love, not unyielding discipline … the rules frequently produced the opposite effect to Himmler’s objective.
Separated from her birth parents while still an infant; inducted into a corrupt, and later discredited, cult; fostered by emotionally neglectful parents; a personal history buried in obfuscation: any one of these developmental wounds would have been difficult to cope with, so it’s to the author’s credit that she’s arrived at some kind of resolution to all four. One of my difficulties with memoir is my discomfort in standing apart from the author’s harrowing story. But, as a reader, I’d have liked more psychological context (for instance of the crucial role of attachment) and, as a concerned citizen, I’d have liked for the author and her fellow survivors to have had the opportunity for therapy to help unravel how those various psychological insults have impacted on their lives. In particular, I wondered about the yearning for connection with their biological origins as the key to their “true” identity. So I was surprised, moved and heartened by her conclusion (p225):
For years I had allowed my life to be overshadowed by the search for something that could not be found. There is for all of us, I believe, a gap between what we want and what we can have, and regret flourishes in that space. I spent too long trapped in a disappointing No Man’s Land between dreams and reality. I lost sight of the fundamental truth that we are not defined by the facts of our birth but rather by the choices we make throughout our life.
Finally, I wonder if you’d previously heard of Lebensborn? I ask because, although the author positions it as a secret history, I’m sure I’d read about it or heard something about it on the radio many years ago (and definitely prior to the Internet). It could be that I’d come across a distorted version of the story. (The author refers to myths about baby farms and women lost forced into pregnancy.) So I’d be interested to know how much this account is news to you.
Thanks Elliott and Thompson, a small press specialising in non-fiction, for my review copy.