For the “German Girls,” as they came to be called—the approximately 50,000 women in Norway who had consorted, or were rumored to have consorted with Nazi soldiers during the country’s occupation, and were later denied jobs, socially shunned, physically attacked or deported because of it—Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg has issued a formal apology. As the BBC reports, the announcement came at an event this week marking the 70th anniversary of the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights.
“[Norwegian authorities] violated the fundamental principle that no citizen can be punished without trial or sentenced without law,” Solberg said on Wednesday. “For many, this was just a teenage love, for some, the love of their lives with an enemy soldier or an innocent flirt that left its mark for the rest of their lives. Today, in the name of the government, I want to offer my apologies.”
As Emily Sullivan at NPR reports, while trysts between locals and occupying armies are not uncommon during wartime, in Norway the situation was different. The Nazis encouraged soldiers occupying the Nordic nation to have children with local women, part of Heinrich Himmler’s designs to engineer an Aryan super race composed of German and Nordic genetics. It’s estimated that about 12,000 children were born to Norwegian mothers and Nazi German soldiers.
Approximately half of these babies, it is believed, were part of something called the Lebensborn or “fount of life” program that was designed specifically to propagate more Aryan babies. As Erin Blakemore writes over at Timeline, Himmler offered women impregnated by S.S. officers, who could prove their children were “racially pure,” special subsidies and treatment. Throughout Norway, there were at least eight Lebensborn homes where the babies could be birthed, something that Iliana Magra at The New York Times calls a “relatively large number.”
These children, along with their mothers, faced many forms of discrimination after the war. Women who married German soldiers and their children were stripped of their Norwegian citizenship, interned and deported to Germany. Many of the offspring who remained were abused, attacked and confined to mental institutions because of their parentage. Some, like Anni-Frid Lyngstad, a member of the band ABBA who is the daughter of a German father, fled Norway for Sweden with her mother to escape the rampant persecution.
While the Norwegian government issued an apology to the children in 2002 and offered them compensation, it’s taken another 15 years for it to acknowledge the mothers. Magra for the Times reports that this reassessment of history became feasible as the last members of the World War II generation, who considered the women collaborators or traitors, have aged out of political power.
“We cannot say women who had personal relations with German soldiers were helping the German war effort,” Guri Hjeltnes, director of the Center for Holocaust and Minorities Studies, tells the AFP. “Their crime was breaking unwritten rules and moral standards. They were punished even more harshly than the war profiteers.”
Norway was not alone in persecuting “horizontal collaborators,” as these women were crudely called. Violent purges of women occurred in other occupied countries. Take France, for instance. As Ann Mah at TIME reports, following the Allied liberation of the country, the public began attacking women who had entanglements with Nazi soldiers, as part of the center of a larger purge called the épuration sauvage. About 20,000 women accused of sleeping with the enemy had their heads shaved; others were covered in tar, physically assaulted, stoned, spat upon and shunned. As many as 6,000 people considered collaborators, including many women, were killed.