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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 16:21 GMT
Norway's "lebensborn"
Oslo Palace
From Oslo, where tourists now wander, the Nazis ruled Norway during World Way Two
More than half a century after hostilities ended, World War Two is still very much with us, and its violent convulsions are strong enough even to disturb a calm and well ordered country like Norway. Julian Pettifer travels to Norway, which is only now beginning to acknowledge a shameful history.

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Of course, Norwegians have exceptional reasons not to forget the war. They endured five years of harsh Nazi occupation. Their legitimate government was forced into exile, as a puppet administration under Vidkun Quisling took over the reins of power.

Nazi Occupation

Those dark years of oppression are commemorated in a Resistance Museum housed in a 17th century castle in the centre of Oslo.

Resistance Museum
Norway's Resistance Museum housed in an old protected castle

I visited the museum and a very moving experience it was. Particularly upsetting was the knowledge that within the walls of the castle resistance fighters, had been imprisoned and executed.

But there is one group of war victims whose story is not recorded at the museum and whose fate, until recently, has remained obscure.

Only now are they emerging from the shadows and starting to remind Norwegians of a shameful aspect of their history. They are known as "the war children" or, as the Nazis called them "the lebensborn".

With up to half a million German troops stationed in Norway, it was inevitable that between 1940 and 1945 relationships would develop between these young men and Norwegian women.

As a result of the liaisons, many children were born. At least 8000 are recorded but there were certainly more. I met a number of them, now in their 50s and 60s, and listened to their life stories.

The lebensborn

One of the most disturbing was related to me by Gerd Fleischer. Gerd explained that the Nazis called the war children "lebensborn" - meaning "source of life"- because their twisted racial policies classified blonde, blue-eyed Nordic people as desirable breeding stock.

The most amazing thing was that his (her father's) German wife was the spitting image of my mother

Gerd Fleischer

The SS, which ran the lebensborn programme, provided special mother-and-baby homes where the chosen were treated as pampered recruits to the ranks of the master race.

Several hundred of the children were sent off to Germany to be adopted or to be cared for by the families of their fathers. But as Gerd Fleischer pointed out, the SS valued not all Norwegian women.

Rejected by Lebensborn

Her mother did not qualify for special treatment since she was of part Sami (Lapp) ancestry; so for the first few years of her life Gerd remained with her mother, in their village, and had a relatively untroubled childhood. Then matters changed for the worse.

Following the liberation of Norway and the departure of the occupying forces, there was a strong reaction against Germany and all things German. That included the war children.

Gerd Fleischer
Gerd Fleischer

At school, Gerd was called "German whore". She had no idea what the words meant and had to ask her mother. She was systematically beaten and bullied; but far worse was to come.

Her mother married a former resistance fighter - "a Norwegian patriot who hated me", Gerd recalls; and now the beating and bullying was part of home life too. At the age of thirteen, she ran away. How she survived, made a living and put herself through school, she is not sure.

She remembers being homeless, lonely and often hungry. The social welfare organisations knew about her plight but did nothing to help her.

At the age of 17, she left Norway and didn't return for eighteen years. During her absence she did many things and exorcised many demons. She traced her German father, who at first denied any knowledge of her or her mother.

"The most amazing thing" says Gerd "was that his German wife was the spitting image of my mother. He had managed to find her double". Only by taking her father to court did she force him to acknowledge his responsibilities.

Return to Norway

By the time she returned to Norway, bringing with her two little boys - street children she fostered in Mexico- Gerd was determined to seek justice for the war children.

She is now a member of a lebensborn organisation that accuses post-war Norwegian governments of wilful neglect, permitting- and attempting to conceal - a level of abuse that has shocked the nation.

On a frosty night she took me to meet other members of her group who share a range of miserable childhood experiences. Among the stories I heard that night, perhaps the most wretched was that of Paul Hansen.

Institutionalised

To understand what happened to Paul is to realise how deeply embarrassed post-war Norwegian governments were by the war children and how passionately they wanted to forget them.

They tried at first to have all the kids sent to Germany. That failed because Germany was ruined and starving; so they thought seriously of transporting them to Australia.

When that didn't work out, many were hidden away in institutions. Some went to children's homes; but Paul Hansen was committed to a mental hospital.

Paul Hansen
Paul Hansen

The justification for this was based on some "science" that is worthy of the Nazis. Government scientific advisers reasoned that for Norwegian women to consort with German soldiers, they must have been mentally retarded; and if the mothers were so afflicted, then so also were their children.

Paul found himself locked up with children so sick that some were incontinent and incapable of feeding themselves. By the time he was released, he had lost any chance of a proper education.

He now works as a cleaner and janitor at a university and he is one of the first group of war children to take legal action against the Norwegian Government that, they say, failed to protect them.

Verdict: No compensation

During my visit to Norway, the plaintiffs were hugely disappointed to learn that this first case has been thrown out; but they have not given up.

Although the judge ruled that they could not find compensation through the courts, he did suggest that it could be a matter for Parliament; and MPs have already shown interest in taking up the matter. A settlement that would help all the war children may at last be on the horizon.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen
Web Exclusive
Gerd Fleischer
At school Gerd demanded to retain her real name
Gerd Fleischer
Leaves home and then Norway
Finds her father in Germany and takes him to court
Finds her father
Gerd Fleischer
Blames the Norwegian Government
Gerd Fleischer
Disappointed by courts decision
See also:

05 May 00 | Correspondent
04 Feb 03 | Correspondent
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