Demon Demographics, Nazi Germany and the Making of Racialised Anxiety

Exhortations to certain communities to breed because they will otherwise be overrun by other communities is a political plank that is reminiscent of a Nazi-era eugenics progamme – a history lesson we ought to learn.

Demon demographics – they are breeding faster than us, we need more numbers – have always served the cause of totalitarianism, racism and the genocidal state.

Nazi Germany exemplified how such a demon demographics enabled the making of a nationwide, racialised anxiety around the need for greater numbers of the Aryan race so that the Third Reich would last a thousand years.

These demon demographics generated a plan for appropriate breeding and training, and the incorporation of sexuality, maternity and childhood into a national project. Some accounts by the children of this project have surfaced recently, whose texts read like a cross between a detective thriller and a horror tragedy.

In a moving account of her childhood and an adult life spent seeking her biological parents, Ingrid von Oelhafen in Hitler’s Forgotten Children records how she was mystified by some family documents which listed her name as ‘Erika Matko’.

Puzzled, von Oelhafen traverses archives, meets people, and pursues vague leads to trace the story of her birth. One puzzling document she unearths is a receipt that reads:

“The family Hermann von Oelhafen, of Gentz Strasse 5, Munich, has on 3 June 1944, taken into their home the ethnic German girl Erika Matkow [sic], born 11 November 1941. Because she is a child of German stock, on the orders of the Reichsfuhrer she is to be brought up in a German family.”

She finally discovers accurate information:

“Lilienthal’s research had found the name Erika Matko in some long-forgotten records … She had been raised in one of its children’s homes: a place called Sonnenweise … at Kohren-Sahlis. Since I was – or once had been – Erika Matko, that meant I was a Lebensborn baby …”

Erika Matko/Ingrid von Oelhafen was a Lebensborn baby. The discovery inverts her sense of self, because she had lived under another, assumed identity all her life.

Lebensborn, meaning ‘Fount or Fountain of Life’, was a Nazi organisation whose purpose was ostensibly to take care of expectant mothers, including unwed ones, who would produce healthy Aryan children to populate the Third Reich. Its principal officers, Gregor Ebner, Max Sollmann and others were prosecuted (Case 8 of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials), but not executed.

Also Read: How to Indict Perpetrators – Nuremberg’s History Lessons

Lebensborn was monitored directly by Heinrich Himmler, who even drew up dietary charts for expectant mothers. This organisation, the proverbial tip of the eugenics iceberg, had its origins in the ‘fear of small numbers’, to adapt Arjun Appadurai’s resonant phrase: the Nazi fear that the Aryan population was on the decline.

The fragmented Lebensborn records are fascinating for what they reveal about theories of racial purity, the discourse of demographic decline and the exhortation to produce more numbers of a specific race in order to dominate the rest.

The ‘fear of small numbers’

After World War I, Germany had the sharpest birth-rate decline in Europe. In 1900, the statistics showed an average rate of births per thousand of 35.8, but by 1932, it was down to 14.7.

The German population of 37 million in 1885 had produced the same number of children as the population of 67 million in 1935! Of the 16 million married women at the end of 1938, 22% were childless.

That the chosen race of Aryans simply did not have the numbers to create and sustain the Third Reich became a matter of considerable concern for Hitler, Himmler and the SS. In 1936, Himmler sent out a circular that said:

“The SS has taken a first step in issuing the marriage order. But a marriage without many children is no more than an affair. I hope here too members of the SS, and particularly its leaders, will set a good example. Four children are the necessary minimum for a good and healthy marriage …”

After the entry into Poland marking the start of World War II, Himmler issued a circular on October 28, 1939:

“Every war involves a tremendous letting of the best blood. Many victories won by the force of arms have been a shattering defeat for a nation’s vitality and blood. But the sadly necessary death of the best men, deplorable though it is, is not the worst. Far worse is the absence of the children who were not born of the living during the war and of the dead after it.”

Soon after, Rudolf Hess published ‘An Open Letter to an Unmarried Mother’, in which he wrote:

“In wartime, which involves the death of many of our best men, every new life is of special importance to the nation. Hence, if racially unobjectionable young men going on active service leave behind children who pass on their blood to future generations through a girl of the right age and similar healthy heredity … steps will be taken to preserve this valuable national wealth.”

It was, then, a matter of numbers: the Teutons had to be in a majority so that any and every threat to the nation could be thwarted. The Third Reich’s future depended on breeding.

Early incentives to encourage the reproduction of the preferred race included: every year on the birthday of Hitler’s mother, fertile women were awarded the Honour Cross of the German Mother. Women who had had more than four children were given a bronze medal; those with more than six earned silver; and those with more than eight, a gold medal. As a Nazi mouthpiece put it:

“Having many children is the real meaning of life. That is why a man who has become the father of healthy children is worth more to us than all the deliberately childless priests of a whole millennium.

And a German woman who has given life to many children and has looked after them for a lifetime is to us a phenomenon more sacred than all the childless nuns our nation has ever produced.”

Himmler often used the following analogy to support larger numbers of progeny:

“Supposing Bach’s mother, after her fifth or sixth or even twelfth child, had said that’ll do, enough is enough, the works of Bach would never have been written. The same applies to Richard Wagner. He was a sixth child. I tell you our culture would have been tremendously impoverished if in the old days, families had generally been limited to four or five children.”

Nazi policy encouraged racially ‘acceptable’ couples to have as many children as possible. Pictured here is Joseph Goebbels family. Photo: Dan Iggers/Flickr. CC BY-NC SA 2.0.

Breeding for the Fuhrer

The Lebensborn camps, fifteen of them in 1943, were the place, in Nazi fantasy, where the Teutonic race would be nurtured, and who would all be, in a description by the Nazi Party’s official theorist Hans Gunther,

“Tall, long head, narrow face, well-defined chin, narrow nose with very high root, soft fair (golden-blond) hair, receding light (blue or grey) eyes, pink white skin colour.”

Such magnificent specimens of the Teutonic race were contrasted with other races, what the Main Race and Settlement Office (RuSHA, established in 1931) in a 1942 pamphlet titled ‘The Sub-human’ described as follows:

“The sub-human, that biologically seemingly complete similar creation of nature with hands, feet and a kind of brain, with eyes and a mouth, is nevertheless a completely different, dreadful creature. He is only a rough copy of a human being, with human- like facial traits but nonetheless morally and mentally lower than any animal.

Within this creature there is a fearful chaos of wild, uninhibited passions, nameless destructiveness, the most primitive desires, the nakedest vulgarity. Sub-human, otherwise nothing. For all that bear a human face are not equal. Woe to him who forgets it.”

As early as 1935, the Nazi youth movement proposed ‘biological marriages’ to give respectability to extramarital sexual relations between young people who shared the Nazi vision. Nazi youth camps indoctrinated the boys and girls, particularly the latter, of their duty to reproduce. As Marc Hillel and Clarissa Henry in Children of the SS put it:

“Nazi character training and the sexual education that went with it thus largely took place at the camps, outings and sporting, and quasi-military meetings to which the regime attached so much importance. Children no longer belonged to their parents, but to the Nazi movement.”

Ironically, the Nazi Party published in January 1921 a statement in which they undertook to exclude women permanently from important posts in political life. Their role in national politics and life was made clear: the kitchen, the church, children. Joseph Goebbels stated it simply:

“A woman’s duty is to be attractive and bear children. The idea is not as vulgar and old-fashioned as it might seem. A female bird makes itself beautiful for its mate and hatches out her eggs for him. The removal of women from public life … is only to restore their female dignity.”

Also Read: Genders of Atrocity: Before Lynndie England There Was Ilse Koch

But this dignity must not deter the women from actively increasing the numbers for the Third Reich. Himmler’s order ‘for the whole SS police forces’ of October 28, 1939 appears in an English translation in Kiryl Sosnowski’s The Tragedy of Children Under Nazi Rule (1962):

“Notwithstanding the limits of the perhaps once necessary bourgeoise laws and customs, it would be a great task for German women and girls of good blood, also outside matrimony, to become, not out of levity but out of a feeling of responsibility, the deepest and earnest moral conviction, the mothers of children begotten by soldiers going to the front, about whom only fate knows whether they will return home or fall for Germany.”

Girls from as early as 1935 were cultured into the belief that they needed to reproduce for the Fuhrer and the Fatherland. Reproduction was a moral and national duty, as one circular, obviously directed at German girls, of the youth movement described it:

“We shall all today or tomorrow be able to abandon ourselves to the rich emotional experience of procreating in the company of a healthy young man, without troubling about the impediments that encumber the antiquated institution of marriage.”

Lebensborn, breeding and kidnapping for the Fuhrer

RuSHA approval was required for SS personnel to marry, and the approval was contingent upon the man and woman proving their racial purity and suitability for breeding. In 1935, the Lebensborn project was formally launched under RuSHA. The order launching the organisation stated as its objectives:

1. To support racially and genetically valuable large families.
2. To accommodate and look after racially and genetically valuable expectant mothers who, after careful investigation of their families and those of the fathers of their children by RuSHA, can be expected to give birth to equally valuable children.
To look after those children.
4. To look after the mothers of those children.

 The 1939 orders from Himmler outlined the plan:

1. All children of good blood, whether born in or out of marriage, whose fathers have died in the war, will be taken into guardianship in the name of the Reichsfuhrer-SS by special officers, appointed by me personally.

We will contact these mothers and will take over care for the material and spiritual welfare of their children until their maturity, so that no mother or widow could find herself in distress or need.

2. The Schutzstaffel [SS] will take care, in case of want and distress, of all children born during the war, whether in or out of marriage, and of the mothers to be. When the fathers return after the war, the Schutzstaffel will secure for them additional economic aid on an extensive scale, on individual or substantiated application.

3. SS-men and you, mothers of the children awaited by Germany, show that because or your faith in the Fuhrer and because of your desire for the eternal life of our blood and of our nation, you are willing to give new life for Germany in the same way as you know how to bravely fight and die for Germany.

There was to be absolute confidentiality over the identities of the biological mother – photographing mothers in the Lebensborn was forbidden for this reason – and foster parents.

A June 1939 circular stated: “It is possible to maintain secrecy about the origin of illegitimate children born in Lebensborn homes for an unlimited period. The Reich office will provide a certificate confirming the child’s Aryan descent.”

Kidnapping of Polish children during a Nazi-German resettlement operation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

There was, of course, much rumour-mongering that the Lebensborn camps served as brothels and stud farms for SS officers. Indeed, Peter Neumann’s The Black March: The Personal Story of an SS Man narrates an incident where, having been identified as ‘of pure Aryan stock’, a doctor tells him of future plans:

You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the Lebensborn. You have been selected with five of your comrades to go to Westphalia. Our Fuhrer, having been advised by Rosenberg and Darre, started these establishments, in which is being produced for Germany that pure, regenerative blood which we need so badly for the future. We require young men like yourself, healthy, intelligent, tried-and-tested Nazis.

When he reaches one such camp, he asks a young woman about the place. Coquettishly, she responds:

“‘But you’re dying to know how we all go to bed together according to National Socialist regulations?’ … A strange thing for one’s country to ask of one.”

And later, she says, in Neumann’s reportage:

“‘Your baby-making machine is at your disposal’. Her laugh sounded false. Don’t you think it’s pretty horrible, this business of selling one’s body as an instrument of procreation?”

A few days later Neumann leaves, and thus ends what he calls “our artificial love affair”.

Yet, despite the incentives and facilities (such as the camps Neumann experienced) and threats, the Lebensborn programme for the SS and Nazi officials did not produce the expected results. As Larry Thompson’s 1971 essay, Lebensborn and the Eugenics Policy of the Reichsführer-SS’ notes:

“The SS as a whole failed to respond to the exhortations of Himmler and other ideologues to produce more children. In fact, 61% of SS were bachelors in 1939, while the married contingent – some 93, 000 men – could muster little more than 100,000 children, or 1.1 children per family …”

By 1943, it was clear that the numbers of the future rulers of Europe/the world would not be adequate. Campaigns, therefore, began to capture the illegitimate offspring of German fathers in occupied territories in eastern and southeastern Europe.

Later, Himmler authorised securing the children of ‘racially valuable’ parents across the occupied areas. They would be placed, if they were deemed to be suitably Aryan, in German foster homes.

Himmler, always a person who could draft a note well, issued an order to make this grand Germanisation process official:

“In all cases when foreign women bear children of German men, the same should happen as in the East. Mothers and children should be registered by us and brought to Germany or made to stay there in all cases when they are considered racially valuable.

In such a case I also recommend the establishing of a children’s home for children of foreign women and German fathers, who should be brought up as Germans.”

Elsewhere, he popularised the term ‘racially valuable children’, exhorting the SS and others to:

“Make an effort to exclude the racially valuable children from the transfer and to send them to the old Reich for them to be brought up in special educational establishments …

The children will receive German names, the root of which should also be purely German. Proof of their origin will be established by a special office. All racially valuable children, whose parents have died during the war or later are to be sent to German orphanages…”

The children brought into German homes from Poland and other conquered territories were ‘Germanised’. This involved a ceremony, described by one Lebensborn staff member:

“There was always a naming ceremony, and an official from the register office was always there, and the mothers put on their best clothes and smartened up the children, and the living-room – the day room – was decorated with flowers, and it was all very solemn …

One by one each baby was given its name … and it was always a very enjoyable afternoon, with coffee and cakes, and it was really very nice indeed, with the gramophone records, and so on, it was always most enjoyable. Yes, if you want to call it that … it was an SS ceremony.”

One such naming ceremony at a Lebensborn in western Germany. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-062A-58/Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Children were the property, then, of the state. Sex was for procreation, geared towards increasing the numerical superiority of the Aryans. Kidnapping, re-culturation and reproductive totalitarianism were all grist to the Nazi mill because they were worried about numbers.

The Nuremberg indictment of the RuSHA officials noted that among their crimes were:

“[The] transfer of populations, Germanisation of citizens of other countries, deportation of Eastern workers, deportation to slave labour of members of other countries eligible for Ger­manisation, kidnapping of so-called “racially valuable” children for Germanisation, participation in the performance of abortions on Eastern workers, murder and plunder of property.”

It listed Lebensborn’s acts of ‘kidnapping of foreign children for the purpose of Germanisation’ and describes how “numerous Czech, Polish, Yugoslav and Norwegian children were taken from their parents or guardians and classified according to their ‘racial value’”.


Exhortations to certain communities to breed because they will otherwise be overrun by other communities is a political plank that marks the beginnings of a Lebensborn-like situation.

The emphasis on purity – and proscription of mixed faith and mixed community liaisons – is also a preliminary to a Lebensborn. When the purity of nations, communities and bloodlines is invoked, we should ready ourselves for reproductive totalitarianisms.

So, whenever demon demographics are evoked, it should recall Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn. Demon demographics – the numbers of ‘our’ race needs to be higher in order to rule the nation/region/world, which is full of ‘other’ subhuman races of different religious beliefs, language and cultural practices – drove the Nazi SS and its eugenics movement.

Lebensborn sought to alter social mores and moral codes around sexuality and marriage, and constructed the woman as fit for only one purpose. It redefined the family and the role of the parents, even as it sought to redefine children – of the appropriate looks and genes, of course – as national property.

Threatened by the mythic large numbers of the racial Others, Lebensborn set out to manage Aryan populations. As an instantiation of a reproductive totalitarianism scrounging off the hate for the Others, Lebensborn was Nazi Germany’s one shot at populating the Third Reich with its ‘own’.

And yet the thousand-year Reich of a pure-bred race never materialised.  This is a history lesson that we should learn.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.