Mothers for the fatherland

Master Race - The Origins of Nazi Genocide
February 16, 1996

Master Race is the elaborated version of two BBC2 documentaries, A Child for Hitler and The Stolen Child. Both films dealt with Nazi attempts to increase the stock of "Aryans" in the population. First through the SS Lebensborn ("Well of Life") maternity homes in Germany and elsewhere, and second by the systematic kidnapping of racially valuable children in occupied Europe.

The book sets these policies in the broader context of international eugenic thought and practice, concluding with a brief hortatory chapter on the renaissance of these ideas in the work of American social "scientists" whose tasteless and politically autistic investigations into race and intelligence have stimulated much media interest.

The Lebensborn homes were designed to enable racially selected women to give birth in relative comfort, with adoption facilities for those who no longer wanted their children and for whom abortion was illegal. The destigmatisation of illegitimacy, encouraged elsewhere by the universalisation of the epithet Frau, was a product of Himmler's revolutionary contempt for conventional bourgeois morality and his collectivist concern to increase the numbers of certain types of people by any means possible rather than of any sentimentality towards single mothers. Popular rumours to the effect that the homes were glorified stud-farms were probably untrue. A sort of clinical earnestness obfuscated a large number of one-night stands with soldiers and SS men whose photographs and pencilled sweet-nothings were recently disinterred from beneath the floorboards.

The 7,500 babies born in these homes between 1936 and 1943 made little impact on the secular drift towards modern western familial norms (married SS men made a poor showing in 1939 with an average of 1.5 children) so the Nazis resorted to the cruder expedient of abducting other people's children.

Answering his own rhetorical question of "How can you be so cruel as to take a child away from its mother?" Himmler took his usual anti-individualist, greater-necessity approach to moral questions: "How can you be so cruel as to leave a brilliant future enemy on the other side, who will kill your sons and your grandsons?" For the children, these policies resulted in a lifelong identity crisis. Take Alojzy Twardecki. Abducted at the age of five, during what was touted as a "holiday", he was renamed Alfred Hartmann, with his papers recording that his parents were dead. He was then adopted by a German family in the Rhineland, renamed Alfred Binderberger, and quickly became a normal German child, replete with a picture of Hitler in his bedroom. In 1949 his Polish mother traced him. A letter from her brought the shocking news that he might have some affinity with people he hitherto associated with sick and dirty slave labourers. It was only in 1953 that Alfred decided as a result of adolescent difficulties with his German parents to visit Poland. He stayed. There was not much choice, since the Stalinist regime in Poland confiscated his passport and tricked him into signing a form he could not read that declared he was a Polish citizen.

The corollary of these crude policies was the systematic annihilation of the unfit and the racially alien. Henry Friedlander guides us surely through the escalation of Nazi policy from compulsory sterilisation via so-called "euthanasia" and on to the Final Solution of the Jewish and Gypsy Questions. Based on a large body of original source material, the book is nonetheless colourlessly written, descriptive rather than analytical, with interminable attention to administrative arrangements, but rather pusillanimous in tone towards those Germans (particularly the Christian churches) who did their best under appalling circumstances to resist these policies. What does he expect handfuls of isolated religious or pastors to have done in the face of a regime that could stitch them up for sexual impropriety through the simple expedient of handing out chocolate to encourage young patients to denounce them or could liquidate their institutions simply by altering their charitable tax status? Weak on Weimar antecedents - the roles of psychiatry in defining submarginal, incurable groups, or of a vulgar economism in rendering patients expendable, are hardly considered - the book also adds little to what is already known about the origins of the Final Solution.

Outstanding on the deliberate targeting of Jewish asylum inmates, Friedlander is also better than most on the managerial perpetrators, described as "dull and uninteresting men and women". Like many recent English and German writers on the subject, he is also cogently dismissive of the fashionable mystification of physicians, whether as "angels of death" (Mengele hardly had a monopoly of murder in Auschwitz) or as misguided but basically idealistic "medicalised killers" (the difference between the smooth Karl Brandt and the thuggish Friedrich Mennecke was one of social class and manners rather than ideological outlook). He is also sceptical about the universalising tests of Stanley Milgram, observing that "there is a fundamental difference between the antiseptic experimental setting and the grisly reality of the killing fields and the killing centers I In Milgram's social science experiment, the subjects might have lacked the imagination to understand the pain they could inflict, but the Nazi killers, even if they were entirely lacking in imagination, could not avoid knowing what they were doing." As he says: "Those killers belonged to that time and place."

Despite its title, the book's discussion of the origins of the Final Solution is extremely attenuated, as if, understandably enough, the author, himself an Auschwitz survivor, had supped so full of horrors that he could no longer prolong his analysis. God knows, one sympathises with him after reading this catalogue of deceit and inhumanity. However, the book's abrupt conclusion might equally be a reflection of the fact that these policies are only partially explicable in terms of medicalised mass murder; one could just as well highlight the dehumanising nature of camps, replete with antecedents and contemporary Bolshevik parallels, the peculiar savagery and moral brutalisation of the quasi colonial war in the East, or, indeed, to be old-fashioned, a pertinacious strain of antisemitism that saw Jews (and others) as parasites whom it was necessary to exterminate. One of the pitfalls of studying any group of educated professionals is that one forgets their place in the order of things; in this case a considerable way below Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann and Globocnik whose motivation is rather less transparent than the amorality, careerism, greed, and social insecurity of the Lumpenintellektueller.

Michael Burleigh is distinguished research professor in European history, University of Wales, Cardiff.

Master Race: The Lebensborn Experiment in Nazi Germany

Author - Catrine Clay and Michael Leapman
ISBN - 0 340 58978 7
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £20.00
Pages - 211

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