The extent to which the Third Reich pursued its eugenic aims has not been explored in literature as much as it should be, which makes Jennifer Coburn’s new historical novel an important read for anyone looking to learn more. Through three distinct but intersecting viewpoints, The Cradles of the Reich focuses on Lebensborn, a Nazi-sponsored project dedicated to increasing the number of Aryan children in Germany. By evoking the emotional devastation and moral quandaries of these fictional characters, Coburn brings this project of “racial hygiene” from the realm of the unbelievable into the harsh light of reality. It’s hard to deny the truth after being immersed in it.
The Cradles of the Reich follows Gundi, a member of the resistance who is pregnant with her Jewish lover’s child; Hilde, a girl eager to climb the ranks of the Reich, even if that means sleeping with an older, married SS member; and Irma, a nurse at Heim Hochland, the Lebensborn maternity home where most of the novel takes place. Each of these characters must contend with their own ethics under the influence of Nazi propaganda and the consequences that come with resisting what they’ve been told to think.
Leading Nazi party members once called Nazism “applied biology,” and the Lebensborn birthing project exemplifies this ideology. One of the most shudder-inducing moments of the book takes place at the beginning, when the sinister Dr. Ebner violates Gundi as a part of an “examination” to determine the health of her baby. Afterwards, he tells her, “Gundi, do you know why we measured you? … It turns out that you are a perfect specimen of German womanhood.” The word “specimen” demonstrates the way Nazism turned human beings into scientific studies.
Heim Hochland itself is a fascinating, and horrifying, setting. Even in such a brutal atmosphere, the girls chatter and gossip like anyone their age, of any time, would. Irma’s fondness for the girls, and for children in general, reveals the complex inner lives of those who participated in the antisemitism of the Third Reich. Each of the main characters has a secret of her own, which makes the novel gripping and suspenseful. And the historical detail never bogs down the plot or character development.
The Cradles of the Reich is both educational and deeply moving, showcasing aspects of Nazi Germany that often go undiscussed. Coburn humanizes, without condoning, the women that willingly played a role in the Nazi project of eugenics — as well as those who had no choice yet still managed to resist.
Ariella Carmell is a Brooklyn-based writer of plays and prose. She graduated from the University of Chicago, where she studied literature and philosophy. Her work has appeared in Alma, the Sierra Nevada Review, the Brooklyn review, and elsewhere.