"People lived here for a long time with the illusion of orphan children"

28 January 2022

The life paths of adopted children since the post-war period have been researched at the Technical University of Dresden. A conversation about roots and well-being.

Adelheid Müller-Lissner conducted the interview with the historian BettinaWärmer from the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism at the Technical University of Dresden. Heater heads the project “Belonging. The History of Child Adoption 1945-2000”. The team is still looking for parents who adopted children between 1955 and 2000 and people who were adopted during this period as study participants (contact: adoptionsstudie@tu-dresden.de ). Further information on the research project at: https://hait.tu-dresden.de/ext/forschung/forschungsprojekt-5149/

Ms.Wärmer, one focus of your project on the history of adoptions in post-war Germany is the evaluation of individual adoption stories. What makes these stories interesting for historians?

They give us an idea of ??how social ideas about family, identity, origin and foreignness changed in the second half of the 20th century. The story of Anneli Schinkel, who came to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1982 as Kim Kyong Jo and later wrote the book “Seidentochter”, shows this on the subject of “foreign adoption”.

She was adopted as a baby in the early 1980s, came to Korea for the first time in 2005 at the invitation of the local government, met her biological parents there and dealt with the tension between biological origin and cultural imprint.

How is this to be classified historically?

This story refers to the concept prevailing in the 1970s and early 1980s that the best way to help 'orphan' children from these countries was to place them with families in western countries. This idea of ??humanitarian aid has now come under criticism. The 1993 Hague Adoption Convention and the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child state that children should grow up in the country of origin whenever possible.

"Transnational" adoption, in which children were adopted primarily from Asian countries, was a "Western" phenomenon during the Cold War era. What was the situation with regard to transnational adoptions in the GDR?

The current state of research is that this practically did not exist. This was mainly due to the low status of parental and family rights in the GDR. In addition, the integration of visible "foreigners" was not intended in the GDR's population policy. Children from the Global South were allowed to grow up in the GDR, as the example of the SWAPO children from Namibia shows, but they were largely separated from the rest of GDR society in the children's home.

What do you know about "forced adoptions" in the GDR , which caused quite a stir in the media?

A preliminary study by the Center for Contemporary History Potsdam, which was published in 2018, speaks more precisely of "politically motivated adoption". A change in the law now allows access to the files, and the decision on who will conduct the main study is expected to be made this year.

The topic is extremely complicated to research, because one has to examine in each individual case what was behind the child removal. In the few cases that have been precisely reconstructed so far, an attempted or successful “escape from the Republic” often played a role. At the same time, parents were stigmatized as "asocial" - including cases that would have taken place in the old Federal Republic. It was also about ways of life that were not desired, and the SED could certainly interpret that as political.

For people whose desire to have children remains unfulfilled for a while, reproductive medicine now offers ever more refined options. Does this affect the adoption process?

From the numbers it can be seen that in the Federal Republic of Germany a peak was reached in 1978 with a good 11,000 adopted children, after which there was a continuous decline. In addition to other factors, reproductive medicine certainly also plays a role here, the success story of which began back then.

In interviews, some women have told me that before adopting, they first sought medical help. When deciding in favor of reproductive medicine, the growing realization that the pregnancy is already important for the health of the baby, for example how the mother eats, whether she takes alcohol or other drugs, also plays a role.

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How was the development in legal history?

The numbers have also declined because the 1977 adoption amendment has made the adoption process more complicated and the requirements that adoptive parents must meet have become more demanding. Many potential parents shy away from it or are excluded from the outset.

Recently, however, the adoption law has been liberalized in other respects, so same-sex couples can also adopt children together . Even today, however, the number of applications is significantly higher than that of successful placements.

How has the view of the importance of biological origin on the one hand and cultural imprint on the other changed over the decades?

There is a strong tension between two developments. Before 1977, adopted children were not considered to be “related” to the extended family and had no right to inherit from their grandparents. With the amendment to the law of 1977, the "adoption as a child" was replaced by the "adoption as a child", i.e. the adoptive family was put on an equal footing with the biological family.

At the same time, the right to know one's biological origin is gaining in importance - even if, in the case of international adoptions, this argument is initially put aside in favor of humanitarian aid, meaning that the possibility of remaining in the culture of origin initially plays no role in the definition of the child's well-being.

In my opinion, the fact that from the 1990s at the latest, knowledge of origin is also becoming more important here is due to the psychoanalytic discourse on identity and trauma on the one hand, and the growing importance of genetics on the other, which also makes this knowledge important for one's own health.

Knowledge of one's own origins is therefore becoming immensely important.

Absolutely, but you have to separate two things here: knowledge of the biological parents and information about the fact of the adoption. In the past, when a parentage certificate had to be presented with every marriage, every adoptive parent couple knew that the moment would come when the child would find out about the adoption.

However, there was heated debate about the appropriate time to tell the child. Today everyone agrees that this should be started very early. With the "Adoption Rights Movement" since the 1970s, the demand for knowledge about biological parents has gained in importance, first in the USA and later also in Germany. In the case of international adoptions , however, the names are often not known. For a long time people lived here with the illusion of “orphan children”.