The Nazi regime in Germany sought to influence and control nearly every institution in society. Because of the totalitarian nature of the regime, institutions in the society became infused with Nazi ideals and therefore willing to engage in the pursuit of Nazi goals. The family in Nazi Germany was considered to be “the foundation of the state” (Mosse 34), which was one of the main reasons that consolidating control over its enterprises was considered to be absolutely crucial to the maintenance of the regime.
Because the family was seen as “the primordial cell of the Volk” (Pine 8), its structure and health, as well as its conformity to Nazi ideals, were prerequisite to establishing a well-populated, healthy, and subservient nation. The importance of the family in pursuing the goals of the state can also be seen in the area of eugenic reform, which was undertaken with all the intensity of a people striving to become a “master race. ” In all aspects of society, the Nazi ideal of the health and well-being of the Volk often trivialized or disregarded individual concerns, privacies, and even basic human rights.
Before examining the ways in which the Nazis redefined family life, an understanding of the role of the family in Weimar Germany is necessary. The Family in Weimar Germany The family in Weimar Germany was generally considered to be an independent entity, with the freedom to procreate as it pleased. As one scholar points out, the role of the family in Weimar Germany was “the last place of refuge for the individual against the encroachment of state intervention” (Panayi 212). Therefore, the sphere of the family was private, as were its decisions regarding reproduction.
The evidence of this can be seen in the tolerance of the regime toward bachelorhood and childless marriages, as well as the absence of any extensive tax plans favoring families with children (Panayi 201). This shows that during the Weimar era, individual choice regarding family was encouraged. Also during the Weimar era, birth control centers and marriage and sexual counseling centers were set up to provide information, contraception and advice to those who needed it (Panayi 208).
This, together with the relaxation of abortion laws that occurred during the Weimar era (Panayi 208), shows the independence and freedom that was accorded to the family to make its own individual choices concerning procreation. Unfortunately, the privacy granted the family during the Weimar era disintegrated rapidly with the rise of National Socialism. This was due, in part, to the meteoric rise of the science of eugenics, which sought to improve the race through selective breeding. The Importance of Eugenics
The science of eugenics can be defined as the attempt to control human evolution. This is accomplished through the use of both positive and negative eugenics. While positive eugenics seeks to promote healthy or “fit” bloodlines through incentive programs such as tax breaks for families with children or other awards, like the Honor Cross of German Motherhood, negative eugenics aims at eliminating unhealthy, diseased or otherwise “unfit” bloodlines from the genetic pool through methods such as the involuntary sterilization of mental patients (Kevles 85).
The rise of eugenics as a science had much to do with the declining birthrates experienced by many nations after World War I, and the Nazis embraced eugenics as the very basis of their political ideology. Nazi ideology and the principles of eugenics shared in common the belief in the primacy of the health and well-being of the majority over that of the individual, which is important in understanding the links between the two.
In the attempt by the Nazi government to control the destiny of the German people through the science of eugenics, the institutions of marriage and family were transformed by the urgency and importance of raising the birthrate. Because eugenics aimed at reforming or controlling reproduction, an understanding of the ways in which the Nazis sought to achieve eugenic reform is crucial to understanding the ways in which the role of the family as well as family life was redefined in Nazi Germany.
For instance, when studying the legal measures enacted by the Nazis with regard to the family, it is important to keep in mind that many of them were instituted with an eye toward eugenic reform. Eugenic Measures Affecting the Family A prime example of the type of eugenic legislation affecting the family was the Law for the Protection of the Hereditary Health of the German People, or the Marriage Health Law, passed in October 1935.
This law required that any couple wishing to marry obtain a health certificate proving that both parties were “fit” enough to make a positive contribution to the German Volk through their offspring (Pine 16). The passage of this law effectively denied the rights of people to marry whom they chose and shifted the marriage institution from a private domain to a state-sponsored one. In 1938, clauses were added to the Marriage Health Law allowing the reasons of “premature infertility” and “refusal to procreate” as grounds for divorce (Pine 18).
This shows that the Nazi regime considered reproduction to be the primary function of a marriage. Indeed, a quote from Hitler confirms this: “Marriage cannot be an end in itself, but must serve the one higher goal, the increase and preservation of the species and the race” (qtd. in Panayi, 205). In this way, the Nazis brought the function of the family into the realm of the state. Another example of the negative eugenic measures that sought to control the reproductive function was the passage of the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in July 1933.
The law required the sterilization of all people deemed unworthy of procreation due to conditions involving physical deformities or mental anomalies such as manic depression or schizophrenia. The law effectively gave the state a degree of legal control over reproduction, and indeed, was instituted in order to establish the “primacy of the state over the sphere of life, marriage, and family” (qtd. in Pine, 13). Economic reform was an important area in which the influence of positive eugenics flourished.
Tax breaks for families with children were increased, to the point that if a family had six children, their income tax was cut by one hundred percent (Kirkpatrick 153). Marriage loans were granted to couples, on the condition of their political reliability and overall “fitness,” whose repayment amounts were cut by twenty five percent for each child born (Kirkpatrick 153). Subsidies and grants for large families were implemented (Kirkpatrick 154), as were reductions of fares and fees, such as those pertaining to education or transportation (Kirkpatrick 156).
Other incentives offered not financial compensation, but prestige and honor; the Honor Cross of German motherhood, issued in bronze for four children, silver for six children, and gold for eight or more children, is a prime example (Proctor 120). The issue of abortion, and birth control in general, is significant in terms of both positive and negative eugenics, because it was used as a tool for both. On the one hand, Nazi Germany oversaw the increasing stringency of abortion laws and the outlaw of birth control.
The penalties for performing abortions were heightened and the amount of arrests doubled (Koonz 186), as the Nazis considered not only women (eugenically “fit” women, of course) who sought abortion, but also those that accommodated her to be guilty of “racial treason” (Proctor 121). On the other hand, the Nazis granted “permissibility of abortion on eugenic grounds” (qtd. in Proctor, 122), which was often not merely allowed, but forced. These are but a few of the legal measures the Nazis implemented that sought to expand Nazi control over reproduction for eugenic purposes, and which therefore affected family life in general.
Another important means through which the Nazis attempted to consolidate their control over the family sphere was the creation and use of propaganda. The Role of Propaganda In a government-sponsored campaign to raise the birthrate of a nation, there is only so much that can be done legally. For instance, the legislation discussed above sought to improve Germany’s birthrate through incentives appealing to financial or prestigious concerns, as well as through negative eugenic measures, like sterilization, but it could not very well force people to have children.
Because the Nazi regime was limited in terms of the punitive damages it could inflict on childless women or couples, the use of propaganda rose as a means of psychological coercion in the attempt to raise the declining birthrate. The Nazi use of propaganda to encourage a higher birthrate was primarily aimed at women and it often took the form of press or radio messages urging women to have more children and attempting to “impress German women with the importance of childbearing as a privilege and a duty” (Kirkpatrick 162).
For instance, the Nazis charged the Weimar era with undermining the value of family through portrayals in films and plays of single, childless people living luxuriously (Pine 103). The Nazis corrected this problem by promoting the ideal of the kinderreich family (a family with four or more children) in their cinema and plays. Even art resonated with the spirit of the Nazi family ideal; painters were encouraged to include at least four children in their family portraits (Kirkpatrick 162).
Newspapers regularly included articles intended to raise the status and prestige of large families by reporting on them in a way that both glorified them and accorded them great honor (Pine 101). Clever rhymes were circulated in print and amongst women’s organizations, such as the following, which was directed “To the Employed Woman”: “A job will not bring happiness near; the home alone is your proper sphere” (Kirkpatrick 211). Slogans for the movement were created, of which the following is a good example: “To be called German-be kinderreich! ” (Pine 98)
Another important method of spreading propaganda was the formation of organizations whose explicit purpose was the indoctrination of women with the Nazi ideals of family. For instance, the Mutter und Kind, a far-reaching agency established to provide welfare for mothers and small children, was imbued with Nazi ideals and sought to further impress them upon women. The three main goals of the Mutter und Kind were “population policy, health promotion, and educational measures” (Pine 23), and were achieved through the creation and proliferation of advice centers, recuperation homes for new mothers, and nurseries for young children.
These organizations were part of an overarching propaganda campaign whose primary goal was to raise the birthrate by convincing women that childbirth was their ultimate duty and honor in the Third Reich, as well as their ultimate spiritual fulfillment as women. Another desired effect of the campaign was the stigmatization of women and couples that chose to remain childless. The Control of Children Children were of prime importance to the Nazi regime in the context of eugenic reform, which manifested in the struggle to raise the birthrate.
We have seen how the role of the family was redefined through the Nazi preoccupation with eugenics and the presumed need for more children with which to populate the race. Another key factor in understanding how the Nazis redefined family is the enormous importance that was accorded to the indoctrination of the youth by the regime, as is apparent in this quote by Hitler: “When an opponent says, ‘I will not come over to your side’, I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already…
You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time, they will know nothing else but this new community” (qtd. in Pine, 57-58). The importance of children obviously did not lie in their mere existence, but in their loyalty to the Nazi state. The primary means through which the Nazi regime sought to indoctrinate German youth was the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, and its female counterpart, the Bund Deutscher Maden, or League of German Girls.
These organizations were expressly created to fulfill the Nazi goal of indoctrination of the youth, which is made apparent by this quote from a decree made by Hitler in December 1936: “The whole German youth, outside of home and school, is physically, spiritually and morally to be educated in the Hitler Youth in the spirit of National Socialism to the service of Volk and Volk community” (“History of the Hitler Youth”). The effects of the youth groups on family life were often detrimental, especially if the parents did not agree with the teachings of the Nazis.
Henry Metelmann, a previous member of the Hitler Youth, recalls the chasm that was formed between he and his parents as a result of his participation and subsequent indoctrination. His father, an ardent opponent of the Nazi party, gives him an emotional speech revealing his reasons for disliking the Nazis, as well as his fears of being taken to a concentration camp as a result of his political dissent; he tells his son “If you go out now and tell any of the little nazis what I just have told you, they would come and take me too ”, to which his son declares: “We were a good, close family.
I promised him that I would never, never report on him, whatever he said, however much it might anger me… But what a horrible strain it put on all of us” (Metelmann 113). This book provides a picture of a family being torn apart by the Nazi attempt to consolidate their control over children. In addition to “damaged family solidarity by splitting parents from children” (Koonz 159), the Nazi youth groups also disrupted family life by challenging the authority of parents. For instance, as one teacher recalls: The youth organizations, particularly the Hitler youth, have been accorded powers of control, which enable very boy and girl to exercise authority backed up by threats. Children have been deliberately taken away from parents who refused to acknowledge their belief in National Socialism. The refusal of parents to “allow their children to join the youth organization” is regarded as adequate reason for taking the children away (“Hitler Youth”). The authority of youth group leaders took precedent over that accorded to parents in the Third Reich. Above all, the message was impressed upon children that their ultimate loyalty belonged to the Fuhrer, which caused the disruption and disintegration of the traditional family structure and role. Conclusion
The Nazis sought to influence or control nearly every institution in society, not the least of which was the family. Control of the family was essential to the maintenance of the Nazi regime because of the enormous importance of eugenic reform to Nazi ideology. Because the Nazis wanted to control the reproduction of the nation, imbuing the family with Nazi ideals was necessary. The importance of eugenic reform was crucial in understanding how the Nazis redefined the role of families through legal measures as well as propaganda. It is also important to recognize the magnitude of the value placed on controlling the children of Nazi Germany.
The Nazi regime recognized the necessity of indoctrinating its youth with its ideology if it wished to raise a nation of loyal followers and helpers. This indoctrination of the youth often had a destructive effect on family life, as it caused rifts to form between children and their parents. It was precisely because the Nazis recognized the value of controlling the family that the family institution was corrupted through the destructive influence of Nazi indoctrination, as well as the shift from the family as a private entity to the family as a tool of the state.