Do Mothers have a Right to Secrecy rather than Privacy?

Reflections on Family Secrecy around Danish German Children Born of War

Martina Koegeler-Abdi

Danish mothers often hid the identity of a biological father from their child, if the father in question was a German soldier during the WWII Occupation. Even as adults many of these children born of war (chibows) did not know about their fathers’ identities. Sometimes children would develop suspicions, based on gossip and rumors circulating around them. Mothers, though, in most cases chose to bury this secret.[1] In this situation mothers and children face an ethical dilemma. A mother’s right to privacy about these deeply personal (and, back then, often shameful) experiences comes up against the child’s right to information about their biological father. This ethical dilemma is also not easily resolved by the mere fact of revelation.

Lotte Tarp, a Danish actress and child born of war, describes in her memoir – det sku’ nødig hedde sig (1999) how secrecy around her German father’s identity burdened her relationship with her mother Åse. Once she finally confronted her mother as an adult woman and learned the truth, however, the burden did not disappear. On the contrary, when Lotte started to search for her biological family on her own, Åse became uneasy and did not actively support the search. By uncovering her family secret, Lotte was intruding into and taking part in her mother’s private history, making it her own.[2]  

How we understand secrecy and privacy here matters. They are not identical concepts, but closely tied to each other. In most general terms, both concepts limit access to information for others. Secrecy can be seen as an intentional act of withholding or concealing information and privacy as a personal right that does not require any specific action on behalf of the subject itself. Privacy, though, also entails a normative claim over the behavior of others. We are not supposed to actively seek out private information about somebody else.[3] While this claim may be easily justified between a general public sphere and an individual, within a family rights to privacy are much less straight-forward.

Historian Deborah Cohen has shown that secrecy and privacy were two sides of the same coin in 19th century (middle-class) British family life. One could not exist without the other, as secrecy facilitated privacy for family affairs and respect for private spheres made secrecy easier. Cohen further argues that in many cases the acceptance of stigmata within families lead to a wider, societal de-stigmatization of the given secret and to the rise of the right to personal privacy in the public sphere—giving way to what Cohen calls our current confessional tell-it-all culture that demands an end to family secrecy. Privacy remains highly valued today, even though the age of social media and smart homes is currently changing our relation to personal privacy yet again. Overall, though, secrecy still tends to be seen as a problem and privacy as a good.[4]   

This binary view neither captures the ambiguous relation between the two concepts, nor does it apply to all kinds of family secrets in the same way.  The stakes of privacy within reproductive secrecy, that is, hidden information about biological relations and family members, are particularly high. Kinship can take many forms, but Carol Smart notes that in Euro-American contexts biological connections continue to be constitutive of relationships. Uncovering reproductive family secrets can change perceptions of one’s identity as well as of one’s legal status.[5]  The challenges of chibow family secrecy thus resonate here with ethical questions arising from Assisted Reproductive Technology or Adoption cases as well.

In the Danish context the German Occupation was a distinct historical event and the silences around the identities of German fathers often continued well into the 1990s. Many mothers only shared their secret with their children late in life or not at all. Even though the former stigma around having a German soldier as a father diminished with time, mothers rarely followed the trend toward confessional culture. And such persistent silences within families could pose significant challenges to those chibows who, growing up and as adults, felt the need to find their biological fathers. Not knowing one’s roots could be very difficult.[6]

During and shortly after the Occupation a mother’s decision to hide the identity of a German father from a child served to ward off social retributions. But for how long could this concealment be justified? Bjarne Schmidt, another Danish chibow in search of information about his biological father as an adult man, approached a Danish court in Aalborg in the 1990s to gain access to his paternity case file from the war period. The judge refused the request, noting that such access would have harmed his mother as he might use this information against her.[7] Here, the court set the privacy of the mother in absolute and normative terms. According to the court, the child should not look for the mother’s hidden histories. This decision solves the above-mentioned ethical dilemma in a particular way. It affirms the mother’s right to personal privacy far past the vulnerable situation after the war and negates the adult child’s personal right to know their biological father at the same time.

Cohen complicates the simplistic good privacy/bad secrecy binary from a historical perspective, but I believe we need a more specific understanding of how privacy and secrecy are modulated through power dynamics within families to theorize family secrecy for children born of war. The crux here seems to be that the right to maternal privacy applies to society at large, but that there comes a point when it does not apply anymore to children within the micro-cosmos of the family. It is not possible, of course, to say when this point arrives within the context of each family. But maybe a different theoretical approach to the dynamics between secrecy and privacy can help us understand these developments better. In the following, I suggest turning to theories on state secrecy as one way of offering an alternative perspective on the ethical dilemma between mothers and chibows sketched out above.

While not identical, there are relevant parallels in state and family secrecy that can inform each other on questions of authority and accountability in hiding information. Just like family secrecy, state secrecy is often considered harmful or repressive, and most democratic theory does not see any place for secrecy in politics. In her recent defense of state secrecy Dorota Mokrosinska disputes this general dismissal of secrecy.  She argues that democratic states can benefit from and have the right to restrict information—within certain limits: state secrecy is not a default option, but a special right granted through a democratic decision process.  If citizens know information is hidden, they are also able to hold governments accountable for these actions, especially once the pressing need for secrecy has subsided.[8] If governments conceal actions in the name of privacy, though, they could conduct “deep secrecy” fully hidden from public view and scrutiny. Practices of state secrecy offer at least the possibility of accountability and thus a more legitimate way of hiding information if situations require confidential state actions. In this view, states thus rather have a right to secrecy than privacy.[9]

Do Danish mothers then also have a right to secrecy rather than privacy toward their children born of war? Secrecy does not solve the underlying ethical dilemma between the conflicting needs of a mother’s right to bury difficult experiences and a child’s right to knowing its roots. However, perhaps secrecy can help manage a form of co-existence of these needs in ways privacy cannot. The crucial difference in the respective legitimacy of state privacy and state secrecy lies in their relation to liberty rights: The liberty to hide information must coexist with the liberty to seek out this knowledge to be democratically and ethically acceptable for states.[10]

I would like to extend this argument to family secrecy. Also within families a mother’s normative claim to privacy can be problematic, if it expects chibows to refrain from searching for their biological fathers. Secrecy still impacts the child, but it does not foreclose a search as such. Adult children born of war can seek out information independent from their mother’s willingness to share details—allowing for a modicum of co-existence between conflicting needs.

Works Cited

Cohen, Deborah. Family Secrets – The Things We Tried to Hide. Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.

Mokrosinska, Dorota. “Why states have no right to privacy, but may be entitled to secrecy: A non-consequentialist defense of state secrecy.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 11, no. 1 (2018): 1-30.

Tarp, Lotte. – det sku’ nødig hedde sig. Falun: Bogklubben 12 Bøger, 1999.

Schmidt, Bjarne. “Bjarne Schmidt, fodt den 8. april 1944.” In Horeunger og helligdage – tyskerbørns beretninger. Edited by Arne Øland, 141-58. Schønberg: Schønbergske Forl, 2001.

Smart, Carol. “Families, Secrets and Memories.” Sociology 45, no. 4 (2011): 539-53.

Warren, Carol and Barbara Laslett. “Privacy and Secrecy: A Conceptual Comparison.” In Secrecy: A cross-cultural perspective. Edited by Stanton K. Tefft, 25-34. NY: Human sciences press, 1980.

Øland, Arne, ed. Horeunger og Helligdage – Tyskerbørns Beretninger. Schønberg: Schønbergske Forl, 2001.


[1] Arne Øland. Horeunger og Helligdage – Tyskerbørns Beretninger, p. 18-19.

[2] Lotte Tarp. – det sku’ nødig hedde sig, p. 155. 

[3] Carol Warren and Barbara Laslett. “Privacy and Secrecy: A Conceptual Comparison.” p. 27.

[4] Deborah Cohen. Family Secrets – The Things We Tried to Hide, p. xii-xvi.

[5] Carol Smart. “Families, Secrets and Memories,”p.543.

[6] Arne Øland. Horeunger og Helligdage – Tyskerbørns Beretninger

[7] Bjarne Schmidt. “Bjarne Schmidt, fodt den 8. april 1944.” p. 148-9.

[8] Dorota Mokrosinska. “Why states have no right to privacy, but may be entitled to secrecy: A non-consequentialist defense of state secrecy,” p. 24-6.

[9] Ibid, p. 6-11.

[10] Ibid, p. 13.