Dissertation Blog #2: From Diaries to Daddies, or Eugenics in the Nazi SS

Amy Carney's picture


From Diaries to Daddies, or Eugenics in the Nazi SS

Amy Carney


For me, it all began with a diary, a one-volume translation of selected entries by the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. I was reading it because I was looking for a dissertation topic, and I had an interest in Nazi propaganda. But this is not a diary like we typically think; Goebbels wrote it with later publication in mind, believing that people would use it as a valuable resource to understand the Third Reich. And historians certainly have made use of his diary in ways Goebbels probably could have never imagined, especially because a full German edition is now available.


But again, I was reading a selection from an older translated edition, and I was struck by his periodic references to his wife, Magda. On several occasions, he mentioned she was in the hospital. I wondered why Goebbels was not more concerned until maybe the third time he referenced his wife being in the hospital. Then it dawned on me what was going on – Magda was in the hospital having another child; they eventually had six children.


Suddenly, my interest shifted from propaganda to family life: what was family life like in Nazi Germany? There are many sources on women in Nazi Germany. They unsurprisingly focus on a woman’s role as a mother because the regime greatly emphasized the importance of motherhood. There is also some good research on children in the Third Reich. As I read and reflected on this literature, a new question came to mind – where were the men? Specifically, where were the fathers?


In looking for an answer, I found comparatively very little literature on men as husbands and fathers. With that gap in mind, I decided to delve into the role of the father in the Nazi family. In trying to figure out how to approach the topic, I started with the simplest thing – if nothing else, men are fathers biologically. I am sure none of you will be surprised to read that bringing in biology quickly led me to eugenics.


Many Nazi officials found eugenics appealing, and they sought to implement eugenic ideals after they came to power in 1933. There is a lot of really good scholarship on how the Nazis wanted to use eugenics to build a racial state. Some of these works also briefly mention the importance of eugenics to a specific branch of the Nazi party: the SS. In particular, there was a command in the SS that regulated the marriages of SS men based on eugenic principles. But none of this literature on eugenics in Nazi Germany, or even the voluminous scholarship on the SS, went into much detail about this command. So, I decided to focus on this SS marriage order.


It had been issued in December 1931 by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. The engagement and marriage command was brief. In ten short points, Himmler mandated that each SS man had to receive permission to get married. Approval or denial of an application was based on an extensive evaluation of the racial and hereditary health of an SS man and his potential wife.


Delving further into this order, I discovered two important things. First, it was praised by several leading scientists and physicians, including Germany’s premier eugenicist Fritz Lenz. In an article in Archive for Race and Societal Biology, a prominent scientific journal dedicated to eugenics, he informed the scientific community about the decision of the SS to use the principles of eugenics to guide its members. Lenz called the command “a very meritorious attempt.” [1] This praise certainly gave scientific credibility to Himmler’s command.


The second thing I discovered was that the 1931 engagement and marriage order was hardly a one-off command. Rather, it was the first order in what became a very elaborate process. Himmler, along with other SS officials, selectively used eugenics to transform the SS from an organization consisting only of men who served Adolf Hitler in the present into a racially-elite family community. In this community, SS men (along with their wives and children) were to serve as the new aristocracy of the Third Reich.


As I discovered throughout the process of researching and writing my dissertation, the use eugenics by SS leaders to establish the family community was the largest application of positive eugenics. Approving (or occasionally rejecting) marriages, however, was just the beginning. Once a couple had wed, they were encouraged through commands, rhetoric, and financial incentives to have a “child-rich” family. Here, too, SS officials relied on ideas promoted by eugenicists, many of whom suggested that child-rich meant at least four children. SS leaders believed that SS families should be the vanguard of the Third Reich, leading the way by having these child-rich families. This “victory in the cradle” was first linked with the political ascendency of the Nazi party and then later with the early success of the German military during the Second World War. Ultimately, SS couples failed to live up to the ideal of four children per marriage for a variety of reasons that eugenicists had not anticipated.


So that, in a nutshell, is what my dissertation and now published book, Marriage and Fatherhood in the Nazi SS, is all about – the creation of the SS family community and how eugenics was a core feature of this community. And as you can see from the title of my book, I never lost interest in learning about the role of men as husbands and fathers. While men, women, and children all had an important place in the SS family community, I emphasize the responsibilities each SS man had as a husband and especially as a father.


[1] Fritz Lenz, “Notizen: Ein Versuch rassenhygienischer Lenkung der Ehewahl,” Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie 26 (1932): 461.



Amy Carney is an Associate Professor of History at Penn State Behrend where she teaches courses on Modern Europe and Germany as well as the History of Science. Her current research examines the history of infertility and artificial insemination in the Third Reich.