The German Norwegian war children of World War II

Kjersti Ericsson, Professor, Institute of Criminology, and Eva Simonsen, Professor II, Department of Special Needs Education, University of Oslo

Women and children as symbols of national disgrace

During and shortly after World War II, an unknown number of children with German occupant soldiers for fathers and local women for mothers were born all over Europe. The German author and journalist Ebba Drolshagen cites estimates ‘ranging from 250 000 to the seemingly exaggerated total of 2 million’. 1)  

In Norway, it is estimated the birth of 10.000 – 12.000 children of native mothers and German fathers. The Nazi organisation Lebensborn e.V’ was well established in Norway during the war and tried to register all such births. The SS organisation Lebensborn e.V’ (meaning ‘well of life’) was established in 1935 with the main objective of strengthening the so-called Aryan race. In contrast to other occupied countries the organisation was a success in Norway. Numerous homes for mothers and children were established around the country. Accurate records of mothers and children with evaluations of their racial quality were kept. 2) Though the official post-war designation of children of Norwegian women and German soldiers was ‘war children’, they were mostly called ‘German brats’. Like in other occupied countries, native women who had sexual relationships with members of the German forces were regarded as sexual traitors. After the liberation, many suffered humiliating punishments and social ostracism.  3) Also in Norway, women had their hair shorn, and some were subjected to even more serious forms of sexualised violence. Several thousand women were interned in special camps. The internment was partly legitimated as a preventive measure against the spreading of venereal disease. This way, the women were stigmatized as ‘loose’ and indecent, sources of contamination, prostitutes. Many women that had formerly worked in the municipal sector were dismissed from their jobs. This also happened to women employed in the public and private sectors. Women that had married a German lost their Norwegian citizenship and were expelled from the country. Expulsion to Germany was a harsh measure, given the conditions in post-war Germany which were very difficult, with food shortage, illnesses and destructions after extensive Allied bombings. Even if the women had done nothing illegal, it might be said that they had to bear the brunt of the popular rage in the first, heated period after the liberation. For years afterwards, many of the women had to live with the stigma of being a ‘German tart’.

The stigma frequently stuck to their children as well. In Norway the children that resulted from relationships between native women and German soldiers became the objects of heated public debates. Loud voices demanded that the war children should collectively be deported to Germany, where they allegedly ‘belonged’.

The voices demanding whole-sale deportation of the war children were not those of isolated extremists. In July 1945 the government appointed a War Child Committee to suggest solutions to the supposed war child problem. According to the committee’s terms of reference, deportation en masse to Germany was to be discussed as one possible option. 4)  The committee came down unanimously against deportation to Germany. However, if the children were to stay in Norway, they had to become unambiguously Norwegian. The committee recommended that all ties with Germany should be severed, and that all signs of German connections should be deleted. The German descent of the children should be concealed and preferably forgotten.

Children of contested value

Why were a few thousand small children considered a problem? There were several reasons:

(1) Reasons of heredity. ‘People in general seem to believe that their German biological heredity dominates these children that they will grow up representing an undesirable marching and commandeering element in the population,’ the War Child Committee observed. 5) In professional circles one was more concerned with another type of heredity – ‘the chromosomes of the mother of easy virtue’. In a report, commissioned by the War Child Committee and written by a leading psychiatrist, it was presumed that among the mothers of the war children one would find ‘a disproportionate number of feebleminded persons, in addition some asocial psychopaths – partly insane. These persons have defective minds that for a great part must be considered hereditary, and there is some risk that these hereditary dispositions will become manifest in the offspring. 6)

(2) Reasons of political heritage. One was concerned that the children would develop into a fifth column, loyal to Germany; the Trojan horse of Nazism in Norway.

(3) Reasons of the best interest of the children. Many feared that these children would experience a harsh childhood, because of their hated origin.

In November 1945 the War Child Committee put forward its recommendations and proposed an act of law. Even if many of the Committee’s recommendations were not acted on, and no war child act was ever passed, this whole process contributed strongly to the construction of children of German fathers and Norwegian mothers as a separate category and a social problem. Though the life experience of war children varies, many who have been retrospectively interviewed as adults tell stories of harassment and social exclusion, both within the family, at school and in the local neighbourhood. Some were also placed in orphanages or institutions for the mentally retarded, suffering both maltreatment and negligence. 7) A quantitative study based on living condition indicators from Statistics Norway, comparing a sample of war children born 1941-1945 to all other persons born during the same years, supports the conclusion that growing up as a war child in post-war Norway has been a liability. Compared to their contemporaries, war children have a higher rate of mortality, also from suicide. They have lower income, a lower level of education and a higher rate of disability pension, not infrequently already from a relatively young age. 8)

War, nation and sexuality
The attitudes towards the war children were strongly influenced by the widespread rage against, and contempt, for their mothers. Women with sexual relations to Germans were regarded both as traitors and tarts. In the case of these women, the ideas of treason and indecency blended into each other, creating the image of the ‘German tart’. This image was fed, both by the conception of the sexuality of women as national property, and the common stereotypes of ‘loose’ and indecent women.

In her book on Danish girls with relations to German soldiers, the Danish historian Anette Warring  focuses on the idea of the reproductive capacity of women, and traditional motherhood, as ‘national resources’: biologically and culturally. 9)

Women as mothers have an essential role in the survival of the nation and in the maintenance and reproduction of the established social order. Through their sexual relations with German soldiers, the women had violated both national and sexual norms.

While Warring points to the cultural conception of women’s sexuality as national property to contextualise the reactions against Danish women with German sexual partners, the French historian Fabrice Virgili, with a slightly different angle, states that the bodies of women are seen as national territory.  10) As such, they may be conquered. A woman that voluntarily has sexual relations with an enemy soldier has treacherously surrendered part of the national territory to the enemy.

In the case of the mothers of the war children, their sexuality had been appropriated and contaminated by the Germans. Or, to use Virgili’s perspective: Their bodies had been dishonourably surrendered to the occupants. In accordance with the conception of female sexuality as the property of the nation, the mothers of the war children were traitors. In addition, they were regarded as belonging to the despicable category of ‘loose’ women.

What about the children these women gave birth to? With native fathers, the children would have been the guarantee of the future survival and prosperity of the nation. With German fathers, however, they were the fruits of sexual treason, infected with a foreign biological and cultural essence. As children of ‘indecent’ women and unwanted results of sexual activity that was seen as a threat, both to the moral order of society and to the physical health of the population, they were at risk of being associated with the ‘filth’ and ‘danger’ emanating from their mothers.

Lessons for human rights’ policy

From the fate of the German-Norwegian war children and their mothers, several lessons for future human rights’ policy may be extracted. In this context we want to highlight three points:

(1) The cultural conception of women’s sexuality as a national resource puts women in a vulnerable and dangerous position.
War and sexuality are often used as metaphors for each other. A man may be described as a ‘conqueror’ that ‘besieges’ and ‘vanquish’ women, who in their turn ‘surrender’. Unfortunately, it is not only a question of metaphors. The close connection between war and sexuality has a sinister parallel in reality. Rape of women in conquered populations has been a painful reality in most wars. Women are (mostly) the victims, but rapes are also meant to hurt men. Through war rapes the “virile” conquerors may humiliate the vanquished and rob them of their masculinity: The vanquished no longer have the power to claim ownership to ‘their own’ women. 

In our opinion, the cultural conception of the sexuality of women as a national resource and their bodies as part of national territory is very important to understand the fate of women in wars, both past and present. Cultural conceptions of this kind are deep-set, tenacious and wide-spread. They may be found across geographical and cultural borders, sometimes explicitly expressed, sometimes as unformulated, but emotionally charged dispositions.

The cultural conception of the sexuality of women as a national resource and their bodies as part of national territory gives meaning to, and facilitates, both war rapes and reprisals against women that have sexual relations with enemy soldiers during times of war. In times of peace, or relative peace, conceptions of this kind may contribute to restricting women’s freedom by framing their love and sexuality as a matter, not of their own, individual choice, but as a matter of concern to her national or ethnic group. Children born from relationships that are seen as violating the conception of women’s sexuality as a national resource may be made to suffer for years to come. This demonstrates the importance of a gender perspective in human rights’ policy, both in war and peace.

(2) The tendency to translate political and social contradictions into individual pathology may result in human rights’ violations.  
To the professional and scientific eye, the losers of the war were not simply losers of the war. Discourses were produced translating political and social contradictions into individual pathology. One striking common feature of how war children were handled in various formerly occupied countries after World War II, is the way current science and professionals of the emerging welfare states supplied scientific explanations, assessments and advice regarding the children.

The idea that war children might be congenitally defect had considerable support among professional experts in the medical field in Norway. Feeble-minded as a medical term was part of the prevailing eugenic concept of mental and moral retardation. The use of diagnostic labels suggesting some kind of inferiority manifested itself across various political contexts. In post-civil war Spain, and even in post-war Germany, professionals were called upon to resolve the national, biological, intellectual and moral quality of the children of the enemy. To prove that the Republican mothers and their children actually were ‘harmful, perverted, politically and morally poisoned elements’ as Franco himself stated, programs of psychological studies such as IQ tests, forensic examinations and racial anthropology were applied. 11) By rephrasing the political enemy in mental typologies, and Marxism as ‘sickness’, this kind of ‘treatment’ of children of the enemy became an option.

The continuity of race anthropology and eugenics as the scientific framework of assessing alien or enemy elements into the second half of the 20th century is also demonstrated in the case of Black German so called occupation children.  12) These were children of African-American occupation soldiers and German mothers born in Germany from 1946 and onward. The existence of these about 5000 children of so-called mixed origin posed German post-war society with dilemmas quite similar to those brought up in Norway in relation to the German-Norwegian war children: What about the biological, intellectual and moral quality of the children? How to decide their ‘true’ nationality? Did the children ‘actually’ belong in Germany, in America or maybe in Africa?

The issue of interdependence between science and politics, and the willingness of researchers and professionals to accept terms set by those who finance and may control their research, is mirrored anew. The war children were shuffled back and forth between the political and the medical/psychiatric domain. Their history may serve to remind us of lasting dilemmas. The tendency to translate political and social contradictions into individual pathology has, in many different contexts, resulted in serious violations of human rights.

(3) An essentialist conception of nationality may be a recipe for social exclusion, forcible assimilation or, in the worst case, ethnic cleansing.
Especially in times of national crisis, there seems to be a tendency to construct some groups living within the borders of the state as a threat. In 1905, the year when Norway gained independence from Sweden and the two nations were at the brink of war, even Swedes living in Norway were counted as members of a foreign race in the national statistics. Other groups that were regarded with suspicion were the Finnish and Sami people living in the north of Norway. From the 1870’s, there was much talk of the Finnish danger. The Finns in Norway were regarded as being implicated in supposed Finnish plans for territorial expansion in the north. To meet this threat, harsh campaigns to exterminate both Finnish and Sami language and culture were launched. Despite the recent Sami and Finnish cultural revivals, the effects of this policy of ‘Norwegianisation’ are felt even today.

An essentialist conception of nationality also manifested itself when the post-war Norwegian society was confronted with the “war child problem”:  Should they be considered Norwegian or German? The question was presented as either – or. Both – and seemed not to be an option. This way of stating the problem lent itself to only two possible “solutions”: expulsion or total assimilation. The essentialist conception of nationality behind the wish to rid the country of the war children is demonstrated in an editorial in the daily paper Lofotposten, from May 1945. Here it was claimed:

‘All these German children are bound to grow up and develop into an extensive bastard minority in the Norwegian people. They are doomed in advance by their descent to take a combative stance. They have no nation, they have no father, they just have hate, and this is their only heritage. They are unable to become Norwegians. Their fathers were German, their mothers were German in thought and action. If they are allowed to stay in this country, it would be equal to legalising the raising of a fifth column. They will eternally constitute an element of irritation and unrest among the pure Norwegian population. It is best, both for Norway and for the children themselves, that they continue their lives under the skies where they naturally belong.’

The war children were not deported. They were allowed to stay in Norway. Despite the effort of assimilation, many suffered a precarious marginalisation, they were not accepted as genuine Norwegians. Silence and shame clouded their origin, and robbed many of the opportunity to learn to know their own history and their own father. The ‘solution’ of total assimilation also had its costs that had to be born by the war children for decades to come.

1) Drolshagen, E., (2005)  Besatzungskinder and Wehrmachtskinder: Germany’s War Children. In: Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (Eds.) (2005a) Children of World War II – the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford – New York: Berg.  p.234
2)   Olsen, K. (1998) Krigens barn. De norske krigsbarna og mødrene deres. Oslo:Aschehoug,
Olsen, K. (2005) Under the care of Lebensborn. In: Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (Eds.) (2005a) Children of World War II – the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford – New York: Berg
3) Warring, A. (1994) Tyskerpiger: under besættelse og retsopgør. Copenhagen:Gyldendal.
Virgili, F. (2000) La France ’virile’: Des femmes tondues  à la libération. Paris:Payot. 
Diedrichs, M. (2005) Stigma and Silence: Dutch Women, German Soldiers and their Children. In: Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (Eds.) (2005a) Children of World War II – the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford – New York: Berg. 
4) Borgersrud, L. (2004) Staten og krigsbarna: En historisk undersøkelse av statsmyndighetenes behandling av krigsbarna i de første etterkrigsårene. Oslo: University of Oslo, Department of Cultural Studies.
Borgersrud, L. (2005) Meant to be deported. In: Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (Eds.) (2005a) Children of World War II – the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford – New York: Berg. 
5) Norges forskningsråd (1999) En hvitbok. Utvalgte offentlige dokumenter om krigsbarnsaken. p. 276.
6) op.cit. p 159.
7) Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (2005b) Krigsbarn i fredstid. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
8) Ellingsen, D. (2004) Krigsbarnas levekår. Oslo: Statistisk sentralbyrå.
9) Warring (1994).
10) Virgili (2000).
11) Richards, M. (2001) Morality and Biology in the Spanish Civil War. Psychiatrists, Revolution and Women prisoners in Málaga. Contemporary European History 10 (3).
Richards, M. (2005) Ideology and the Psychology of War Children in Franco’s Spain, 1936-1945. In: Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (Eds.) (2005a) Children of World War II – the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford – New York: Berg. 
12) Lemke Muniz de Faria, Y-C. (2002)  Zwischen Fürsorge und Ausgrenzung: Afrodeutsche ’Besatzungskinder’ im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Berlin: Metropol Verlag.
Lemke Muniz de Faria, Y-C. (2005)  Black German ’Occupation’ Children: Objects of Study in the Continuity of German Race Anthropology. In: Ericsson, K., Simonsen, E. (Eds.) (2005a) Children of World War II – the hidden enemy legacy. Oxford – New York: Berg. 

Sist oppdatert: 11.11.2008
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