This story starts during World War II when approximately 2 000 Afrikaners were interned by the Jan Smuts government (mainly at Koffiefontein) because of their overt sympathy for the Nazi cause and/or their involvement in ‘terrorist’ groups like the Ossewabrandwag (including men like BJ Vorster – a future South African President) which attempted to sabotage the war effort. After the Nazis lost the war, three short years later many of these Nazi sympathisers won their own home-front battle when the National Party took power in 1948 with a very narrow majority.
Deep down in some of these new Apartheid governing elite was a strong desire to help their German friends so poorly affected by the outcome of the war, and why not? It would be a humanitarian thing to do.
A plan was hatched to adopt a large number of Nazi war orphans. Under the authority of Dr Vera Buhrman and Schalk Botha, the Duitse Kinderfonds (German Children’s Fund) was established and attracted huge support the Afrikaner Nationalist elite at the time.
One of the orphans, Werner van der Merwe, many years later described the plan as “a protest declaration by a group of influential Afrikaners against the fact that the (Smuts) government opposed Nazi Germany during the war”. Herein lies the problem with it, the plan moved away from a strictly humanitarian undertaking to a political and ideological one, and there were problems with its underlying rational from the beginning.
Here’s how it began The DAHA (Deutsch Afrikanischer Hilfsausschuss) and the VNLK (Women’s Lending Committee) operating under the ‘Broederbond’ (Afrikaner Brother Bond) gathered a quarter of a million pounds between 1945 and 1957 to undertake emergency relief work in post-war Germany. Mrs. Nellie Liebenberg, founded the mission with the aim of bringing 10 000 orphans from mainly Nazi families killed during the war, and move them to South Africa.
On the one hand, one purpose of the scheme was humanitarian, a second was it enabled some from the Afrikaner far right who gave Nazi German support during the war to follow it up with some real help. The third objective, and the most important one to the mission is a little more sinister, this was to strengthen the ‘white’ Afrikaner people with a massive injection of more ‘pure’ white blood, and reconcile the white Afrikaner political dominance in South Africa. This can be found in the prerequisite sought from the orphans to be brought to South Africa – the children had to be white, healthy, Protestant, ‘pure aryan’ German (not Jewish or other) and aged between 3 and 8 years old.
The very ambitious plan to bring out 10 000 such children to enshrine white South Africa with a ‘fountain of white youth’ however ran into problems. This mission by the then ‘opposition’ party took root whilst the Jan Smuts was still in government, The Afrikaner nationalists were very excited about their new plan, but the Smuts foresaw that the underpinning rational spelt bad news for South Africa destined to deeper race politics, he was of the opinion that the project could create problems – and he would unfortunately be proved right.
In the interim in 1947, the secretary of the ‘German Children’s Fund’, Schalk Botha, and a physician, Dr. Vera Bührmann, travelled to Germany to inspect possible children who met the the nationalists criteria of 10 000 ‘white protestant’ children. However, they arrived too late and most children were already earmarked for foster care elsewhere by post war agencies in Germany.
They could only locate 83 children between the ages of 2 and 13 who met the criteria and who were available, mainly from the Schleswig-Holstein region.
Back home in South Africa, the National Party had ousted Jan Smuts’ party in May 1948 and the way was clear for the mission. The Afrikaner press carried advertisements for volunteer parents. Only Afrikaans speakers and members of the Dutch Reformed Church were eligible to adopt a child. Four hundred and fifty parent couples expressed interest in adopting a child. With limited numbers, preference was given to families regarded as ‘Afrikaner elite’. The orphans arrived in Cape Town on the 8th September 1948. Some travelled by train to Pretoria, and welcomed there by the Kappiekommando – a woman’s brigade strictly of ‘Boer’ heritage (known for wearing the traditional black Dutch ‘kappie’).
Socialisation, nurture and not nature dictates the outcome of children. No human being is ‘born bad’ because of their biological parent’s political or ideological disposition, countless studies into the children born to true Nazi butchers and criminals have proven that there is no connection whatsoever in their DNA or personality to behave like their parents – they are not born with a ‘evil’ DNA streak mapped with a political ideology. How children behave and think, and how they become politicised into a ideology is very much a product of how they are reared into a society, and how their society influences them.
The same can be said of these orphan children in the right environment, being brought up in well to do, by the Afrikaans elite, some of these children were to become outstanding citizens, some of the best South Africa was to produce. This immigration scheme is however an interesting episode in the Afrikaner’s cultural history, especially since the orphans made a contribution to South Africa in recent years out of proportion to their limited numbers.
Marietjie Malan, one of the orphans was the most famous, and became the darling off the Afrikaans media, especially because she was adopted by the new Prime Minister, Dr. D.F. Malan. Today’s story carries as its master picture a picture of Marietjie and her adopted father (from the DF Malan Archive).
Dr. D.F. Malan, as a leader of National Party, wrote to the The German Children’s Fund to express his interest in adopting a child. It went without saying that the application of a person of his stature would be successful, since such a high-profile adoption would advance the cause.
Prior to and during the war, Dr DF Malan was strongly in support of Nazi Germany, albeit he officially chose ‘neutrality’ and his views of groups like the Ossewabrandwag and South African ‘Nazi’ Gryshemde (Grey Shirts) were somewhat negative, he never abided their violent approach to change, but he did form a loose political association between them and the National Party.
Maria Malan, his wife, as soon as the orphans arrived in Cape Town, was at the centre where the orphans were to be housed and the first to choose a child. Marietjie was a small four-year-old girl who caught her attention. To Maria, it was a ‘spiritual birth’ to the new child. To the little girl, however, the experience was traumatic – especially as she was separated from her younger brother.
Marietjie, would however soon wrap her new father around her little finger. Members of the press, accustomed to running into a brick wall when they attempted to interview D.F. Malan, witnessed Malan’s stern features softening when Marietjie appeared. She was the only person who was able to circumvent Maria’s strict rule that Malan was generally not to be disturbed, Yet, while Malan strolled and played with his new daughter the outcome of Malan’s intense race politics such as this adoption program was beginning to play out in South Africa.
Hundreds of thousands of returning WW2 military veteran’s in ‘Torch Commando” led by WW2 flying ace and Afrikaner hero ‘Sailor Malan’ began defying his policies (a distant cousin of his) and the ANC Defiance Campaign, with a orchestrated campaign of Black civil disobedience, which began shortly afterwards.
Given this elitist upbringing, notably, these German war babies, produced other significant South Africans. A few followed paths which took them away from their politicised youths.
Werner Nel became an internationally renowned operatic baritone, and later a professor of music at Potchefstroom University. He even went on to receive the South African Academy of Science and Art award, the Huberte Rupert Prize for classical music.
Other predominant South Africans include; Professor Eike de Lange, Professor Siegfried Petrick (Veterinary Science) and Professor Werner van der Merwe (History).
Some very bad
However, for all the good and great South Africans rescued by The German Children’s Fund, the socialisation of some into ‘far right’ Nazi sympathising Afrikaner families played a significant role in formulating their political identities. Identities which will forever taint what was deemed as a humanitarian mission. Especially those adopted by former members of the Ossawabrandwag and South African Nazi Party ‘Grey Shirt’ members.
Another factor underpinning this was that the National Party seemed to hold Germanic scientific prowess in great esteem and tried hard to attract German chemists and biologists to South Africa, with some success. One controversial appointment was the German geneticist Professor Peter Geertshen who headed a wolf-breeding programme, with the idea of creating a animal which would be trained to track down and kill terrorists.
Some of the orphans even had a tough time. Future pig farmer Herbert Leenen found himself used as no more than a farm labourer by his new family and eventually broke ties with his new “parents”.
Forever Tainted – Lothar Neethling
The most stand out adopted child, who has by default tainted the entire program was General Lothar Paul Neethling. His history has forever stoked the controversy of nature versus nurture, as his story inadvertently brought to South Africa – the very DNA of the German Nazi Party.
Lothar Paul Neethling, who at the time of his adoption went by his biological parents’ name Tietz. The Tietz children all went to different families. Unusual, given that the original idea was also that only children aged two to eight would be included, but during her German travels, Buhrman took pity on a bright young Prussian teenager, Lothar Paul Tietz, whose brother and sister had made the cut.
Lothar Paul Tietz was thirteen-years old, and the eldest of the group of orphans – in fact he was regarded as the ‘head boy’ of the group because of his age and maturity.
As a thirteen year old Lothar had vivid memories of the traumas of the war, losing his parents, nazification, leaving his country and being seperated from his siblings, and he was desperate for a sense of order.
How their parents were killed is not known, but towards the end of the war the Tietz siblings were moved to an orphanage in Elbing, where Buhrman met them. This tall, polite 13-year-old impressed her, but lurking within him was five years experience of National Socialist education and he had also been exposed to the Hitler Youth.
Lothar Tietz was cherry-picked for adoption by the Pretoria-based Chairman of the German Children’s Fund, Dr J.C. Neethling. Lothar’s new father was notorious, he was interned for pro-Nazi activities during the war, was a South African Nazi Party ‘Grey Shirt’ and then a leading ‘Black Shirt’ within the organisation – radical and from South Africa’s far right he was also a leading Ossewabrandwag functionary.
Lothar adopted the surname ‘Neethling’ and said of the experience that it was a “big adventure”, and once he arrived in South Africa he was prepared to cut his ties with Germany, and was “pleased to adopt my new fatherland”.
He did his utmost to ingratiate himself with his hosts by becoming a better Afrikaner than his classmates – excelling in rugby and at school, and absorbing every nuance of Afrikaner culture – and he was rewarded accordingly, being viewed as a fine example of the Aryan ideal and the ‘Kinderfonds’ experiment.
Lothar Neethling moved so effortlessly through the ranks. He rose to the number two position in the South African Police – as chief deputy commissioner, scientific and technical services.
He also became a respected scientist in his own right, earning two doctorates in forensics – one from the University of California – and was honoured by several prestigious international scientific associations. He became a member of the Afrikaans Academy of Arts and Science and his scientific work earned him awards including a golden award from AAAS and a medal from the Taiwanese government. In 1971, Neethling founded The South African Police’s forensic unit. His work in the unit earned him seven SAP awards and three years later he was appointed Chief Deputy Commissioner.
But in November 1989 Captain Dirk Coetzee, the former commander of ‘the Vlakplaas’ South African Police ‘death squad’, pulled the plug on the ‘hit squads’ with a newspaper scoop. Among his allegations was that Neethling used the police forensic laboratories he controlled to supply him with “knock-out drops” for the murder of African National Congress (ANC) suspects. He alleged that he would collect the poison – known to him as Lothar’s potion, from Neethling’s home or from his laboratory, and administer to it to ANC suspects.
Lothar Neethling immediately sued newspapers carrying the story for libel. At the trial his case back-fired and Judge Johann Kriegler declared that Gen. Lothar Neethling was indeed, a poisoner.
Not deterred by this verdict Gen. Lothar Neething took his case to the Appellate Division, the court found that both Neething and Coetzee were poor witnesses, but could find sufficient onus of proof and Gen. Lothar Neething won his case.
Later, the Truth and Reconciliation commission was to bring out more accusations against Gen. Lothar Neething Former state functionaries who appeared before the truth commission not only confirmed the role played by Neethling’s laboratories in the production and supply of poisons to assassinate anti-apartheid activists, but also revealed he was the number-two man in Dr Wouter Basson’s biological and chemical warfare programme.
After been ordered to pay Neethling’s court settlement from the Appellate Court trial, the Vrye Weekblad (one of the newspapers at the centre of the controversy) was forced into bankruptcy and closed in February 1994. The newspaper’s editor, Max du Preez maintained that Neethling had lied in court and, after TRC hearings in September 1997, he laid criminal charges of murder, perjury and fraud against Lothar Neething. However, according to Du Preez, his charges against Lothar Neethling were never thoroughly investigated.
In a hail of controversy, charges and allegations, Lothar Neething died of lung cancer in Pretoria on 11 July 2005, aged 69. Whether the allegations were founded or not, his legacy and that of the National Party’s German WW2 orphan program would be forever tarnished.
In the end, what this child adoption program proved was that political ideology for ‘race’ enhancement underpinning what is a humanitarian mission, can never really be condoned. The ‘political’ hot potato it created, albeit relatively ‘buried’ in the annuals of history will always resurface, and whether we like it or not, it will aways be yet another pointer to the absurdity of Apartheid and the underpinning far right nationalism which brought it about. Regardless of all the good and wellbeing it brought to children very much in need.
References: van der Merwe, Vir ‘n ‘Blanke Volk’: Die Verhaal van die Duitse Weeskinders van 1948 (Johannesburg: Perskor-Uitgewery, 1988), 1998 Mail and Gardian arickle and Wikipedia. Photos of Dr Malan from the Malan historical family archive.