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German Motherhood Medals

German Mothers Medals
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Nazi leaders were obsessed with increasing the size and health of the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") so that the German nation could dominate Europe. During the years of Nazi rule, Nazi authorities and German medical professionals tried different policies and initiatives to increase the sinking German birth rate.1

Shortly after the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, the new regime enacted legislation that increased existing criminal penalties for abortion among so-called “Aryan” Germans.2 The Lebensborn (“Fount of Life”) program was designed to discourage abortions by providing discreet maternity homes and adoption services to single “Aryan” women.3 Although Nazi policies encouraged these births outside of marriage, Nazi propaganda urged young “Aryan” Germans to marry early and have many children. Large families were the Nazi ideal, and they were promoted through written articles, visual propaganda, and the introduction of military-style awards for motherhood.4

The featured photograph shows examples of the Honor Cross of the German Mother—an award first introduced by the Nazi regime in 1938 to encourage married German women to give birth to many children.5 Women were awarded bronze for four children, silver for six children, and gold for eight children. The medals were supposedly made from these precious metals, but were actually mass-produced from cheap imitation materials instead. The awards feature black swastikas in the center of an elongated blue and white enamel cross that resembles a Christian cross. The words "DER DEUTSCHEN MUTTER" (“the German mother”) appear around the swastika, and rays of light fashioned in metal appear to shoot out from behind the cross. Though they were typically kept or displayed in a small case, the medals included a blue and white ribbon for wearing around the neck. These colors signified loyalty in other Nazi-era service awards.6

To receive one of these medals, both husband and wife had to be considered “genetically healthy” people “of German blood” who had not been deemed to be “asocial.” Only so-called “Aryan” women could be awarded the Honor Cross of the German Mother. “Non-Aryans” were excluded. So were “Aryans” diagnosed with—or with family histories of—conditions or traits that authorities considered negative and inheritable. These included blindness, deafness, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, physical and mental disabilities, and alcoholism.7

These military-style medals were awarded in public ceremonies that promoted motherhood as the Nazi ideal for women and the ultimate fulfillment of women’s roles in German society.8 These ceremonies were recorded for newsreels and reported in newspaper articles and radio broadcasts in an attempt to raise the social status of motherhood. In addition, members of the Hitler Youth and the German League of Girls were instructed to salute women wearing the Honor Cross of the German Mother in public. Despite these efforts, not all Germans respected the medals or their recipients.9

The Nazi regime did not only use propaganda to encourage large families, but it also provided financial incentives for having many children. Marriage loans given to newlyweds were forgiven if the marriage produced four healthy and “racially acceptable” children.10 Germany’s birth rate did increase during the 1930s, but Nazi policies and propaganda encouraging many children had no measurable effect on this. In fact, Germany’s birth rate during the Nazi era never reached the levels of the early years of the Weimar Republic.11

Although the overall population of Germany grew during the early 20th century, the number of newborn babies sank throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Smaller families were becoming more common and the high casualties of World War I (1914–1918) meant that many young soldiers never had any children at all.

This legislation overwhelmingly targeted women—those who sought abortions as well as midwives who provided abortions. More than 90 percent of the people charged for providing abortions in Nazi Germany from 1935–1939 were women. To learn more about the Nazi regime and abortion, see Atina Grossmann, Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Henry P. David, Jochen Fleischhacker, and Charlotte Hohn, "Abortion and Eugenics in Nazi Germany," Population and Development Review 14, no. 1 (March 1988): 81–112. Also see the related Experiencing History item, Memo on Pregnancies among Forced Laborers.

Many women who participated in the Lebensborn program were trying to avoid the existing social stigmas surrounding unmarried pregnancy and childbirth. To learn more about the Lebensborn program, see the related Experiencing History items, Brochure for the Lebensborn Program, Request to Replace Nurse Anna Hölzer, and Letter to SS Doctor Gregor Ebner.

For examples of Nazi propaganda encouraging large families, see the related Experiencing History items, "Is This Unmanly?" and "Sexually Transmitted Disease Is an Obstacle to Marriage."

It is not known to whom these particular medals belonged. For more primary sources related to Nazi attempts to regulate human reproduction, see the Experiencing History collection, Targets of Eugenics. For primary sources related to the Nazi regime's use of propaganda to encourage support for Nazi policies, see the Experiencing History collection, Nazi Propaganda and National Unity.

To learn more about the Honor Cross of the German Mother, see Michael Hughes, "Medals for Babies: The Honour Cross of the German Mother (Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter)," in Anarchy of Nazi Memorabilia: From Things of Tyranny to Troubled Treasure (London: Routledge, 2022): 72–84. For more on objects and artifacts from the era of Nazi rule, see the related Experiencing History collection, Objects of Memory.

Nazi authorities and German medical professionals tried to stop these traits from being passed to future generations of Germans through forced sterilizations and systematic mass murder. To learn more about Nazi eugenics policies and the Nazi persecution of people with disabilities, see Go╠łtz Aly, Peter Chroust, and Christian Pross, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene, translated by Belinda Cooper (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); and Melvyn Conroy, Nazi Eugenics: Precursors, Policy, Aftermath (Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2017).

For primary sources on forced sterilization and the mass murder of people with disabilities, see the related Experiencing History items, Lothrop Stoddard: "In a Eugenics Court," Letter to SS Doctor Gregor Ebner, Sterilization Order for August Alzen, Sign Language Testimony of Helga Gross, and Oral History with Robert Wagemann.

To learn more about Nazi ideals of motherhood and the regime’s expections for women, see Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossman, and Marion Kaplan, eds., When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984). Also see the related Experiencing History item, "Healthy Woman - Healthy Nation."

Although these awards were designed to celebrate and honor German mothers, some Germans referred to the recipients mockingly as members of the "Order of Bunnies" because rabbits are known to breed rapidly and produce many offspring.

These loans were designed to encourage pregnancies and births while also removing women from the labor market. They were granted to newlyweds if the woman quit her job to become a homemaker and mother. One quarter of these loans was forgiven for every healthy and "racially acceptable" child born. Michael Hughes, "Medals for Babies: The Honour Cross of the German Mother (Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter)," in Anarchy of Nazi Memorabilia: From Things of Tyranny to Troubled Treasure (London: Routledge, 2022): 73.

The German birth rate during the Weimar era was considered relatively low compared with the national birth rate before World War I. Other European countries also introduced motherhood awards in the early 20th century in attempts to increase their sinking birth rates, including France, the Soviet Union, and Fascist Italy. To learn more, see Carl Ipsen, Dictating Demography: The Problem of Population in Fascist Italy (Cambridge  University Press, 1996); David L. Hoffmann, “Mothers in the Motherland: Stalinist Pronatalism in Its Pan-European Context,” Journal of Social History 34, no. 1 (Autumn 2000): 35–54; Richard A. Soloway, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-Century Britain (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990); and Kristen Stromberg Childers, Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914–1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003). 

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Source Number N09188
Date Created
1938 to 1939
Dimensions Medal: Height: 1.730 inches (4.394 cm) | Width: 1.500 inches (3.81 cm)
Material Metal, ribbon, enamel paint.
Language(s)
German
Object Type Clothing
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