The German Experiment That Placed Foster Children with Pedophiles
With the approval of the government, a renowned sexologist ran a dangerous program. How could this happen?
In 2017, a German man who goes by the name Marco came across an article in a Berlin newspaper with a photograph of a professor he recognized from childhood. The first thing he noticed was the man’s lips. They were thin, almost nonexistent, a trait that Marco had always found repellent.
He was surprised to read that the professor, Helmut Kentler, had been one of the most influential sexologists in Germany. The article described a new research report that had investigated what was called the “Kentler experiment.” Beginning in the late sixties, Kentler had placed neglected children in foster homes run by pedophiles.
The experiment was authorized and financially supported by the Berlin Senate. In a report submitted to the Senate, in 1988, Kentler had described it as a “complete success.”
Marco had grown up in foster care, and his foster father had frequently taken him to Kentler’s home. Now he was thirty-four, with a one-year-old daughter, and her meals and naps structured his days. After he read the article, he said, “I just pushed it aside. I didn’t react emotionally. I did what I do every day: nothing, really. I sat around in front of the computer.”
Marco looks like a movie star—he is tanned, with a firm jaw, thick dark hair, and a long, symmetrical face. As an adult, he has cried only once. “If someone were to die in front of me, I would of course want to help them, but it wouldn’t affect me emotionally,” he told me. “I have a wall, and emotions just hit against it.” He lived with his girlfriend, a hairdresser, but they never discussed his childhood. He was unemployed. Once, he tried to work as a mailman, but after a few days he quit, because whenever a stranger made an expression that reminded him of his foster father, an engineer named Fritz Henkel, he had the sensation that he was not actually alive, that his heart had stopped beating, and that the color had drained from the world. When he tried to speak, it felt as if his voice didn’t belong to him.
Several months after reading the article, Marco looked up the number for Teresa Nentwig, a young political scientist at the University of Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research, who had written the report on Kentler. He felt both curious and ashamed. When she answered the phone, he identified himself as “an affected person.” He told her that his foster father had spoken with Kentler on the phone every week. In ways that Marco had never understood, Kentler, a psychologist and a professor of social education at the University of Hannover, had seemed deeply invested in his upbringing.
Nentwig had assumed that Kentler’s experiment ended in the nineteen-seventies. But Marco told her he had lived in his foster home until 2003, when he was twenty-one. “I was totally shocked,” she said. She remembers Marco saying several times, “You are the first person I’ve told—this is the first time I’ve told my story.” As a child, he’d taken it for granted that the way he was treated was normal. “Such things happen,” he told himself. “The world is like this: it’s eat and be eaten.” But now, he said, “I realized the state has been watching.”
A few weeks later, Marco phoned one of his foster brothers, whom he calls Sven. They had lived together in Henkel’s home for thirteen years. He liked Sven, but felt little connection to him. They had never had a real conversation. He told Sven he’d learned that they had been part of an experiment. But Sven seemed unable to process the information. “After all those years, we had gotten out of the habit of thinking,” Marco said.
As a young boy, Marco liked to pretend he was one of the Templars, an order of knights that protected pilgrims to the Holy Land. He was a lively child who occasionally wandered around his Berlin neighborhood unsupervised. At five, in 1988, he crossed the street alone and was hit by a car. He was not seriously injured, but the accident attracted the attention of the Schöneberg youth-welfare office, which is run by the Berlin state government. Caseworkers at the office observed that Marco’s mother seemed “unable to give him the necessary emotional attention.”
She worked at a sausage stand, and was struggling to manage parenthood on her own. Marco’s father, a Palestinian refugee, had divorced her. She sent Marco and his older brother to day care in dirty clothes, and left them there for eleven hours. Caseworkers recommended that Marco be placed in a foster home with a “family-like atmosphere.” One described him as an attractive boy who was wild but “very easy to influence.”
Marco was assigned to live with Henkel, a forty-seven-year-old single man who supplemented his income as a foster father by repairing jukeboxes and other electronics. Marco was Henkel’s eighth foster son in sixteen years. When Henkel began fostering children, in 1973, a teacher noticed that he was “always looking for contact with boys.”
Six years later, a caseworker observed that Henkel appeared to be in a “homosexual relationship” with one of his foster sons. When a public prosecutor launched an investigation, Helmut Kentler, who called himself Henkel’s “permanent adviser,” intervened on Henkel’s behalf—a pattern that repeats throughout more than eight hundred pages of case files about Henkel’s home. Kentler was a well-known scholar, the author of several books on sex education and parenting, and he was often quoted in Germany’s leading newspapers and on its TV programs. The newspaper Die Zeit had described him as the “nation’s chief authority on questions of sexual education.”
On university letterhead, Kentler issued what he called an “expert opinion,” explaining that he had come to know Henkel through a “research project.” He commended Henkel on his parenting skills and disparaged a psychologist who invaded the privacy of his home, making “wild interpretations.” Sometimes, Kentler wrote, an airplane is not a phallic symbol—it is simply a plane. The criminal investigation was suspended.
Marco was impressed by Henkel’s apartment. It had five bedrooms and was on the third floor of an old building on one of the main shopping streets of Friedenau, an upscale neighborhood popular among politicians and writers. Two other foster sons lived there, a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-four-year-old, neither of whom was particularly friendly to Marco. But he was delighted to discover an armoire in the hallway that held a cage with two rabbits that he could play with and feed. In a report to the youth-welfare office, Henkel noted that Marco was “excited about almost everything that was offered to him.”
Every few months, Henkel drove nearly two hundred miles with his foster children to see Kentler in Hannover, where he taught. The visits were an opportunity for Kentler to observe the children: to “hear what they say about their past; their dreams and fears; to know their wishes and hopes, to see how they each develop, how they feel,” Henkel wrote. In a photograph taken during one of their visits, Kentler wears a white button-up shirt with a pen in the pocket, and Marco sits at a dining-room table beside him, looking bored and dazed.
Marco had been living with Henkel for a year and a half when Sven moved in. The police had found him in a subway station in Berlin, sick with hepatitis. He was seven years old, begging for money, and he said that he had come from Romania. Noting that Sven had “likely never experienced a positive parent-child relationship,” the youth-welfare office searched for a foster home in Berlin. “Mr. Henkel seems to be ideally suited to this difficult task,” doctors from a clinic at the Free University of Berlin wrote.
The two boys took on different roles in their new family. Sven was the good son, docile and loving. Marco was more defiant, but at night, when Henkel came into his room asking to cuddle, or waited for him while he brushed his teeth before bed, he had to comply. “I just accepted it out of loyalty, because I didn’t know anything else,” Marco told me. “I didn’t think what was happening was good, but I thought it was normal. I thought of it a little bit like food. People have different tastes in food, the way some people have different tastes in sexuality.” If Sven’s bedroom door was open and he wasn’t there, Marco knew what was happening, but the two boys never talked about what Henkel did to them. “It was an absolutely taboo subject,” Marco said.
One night, Marco took a knife from the kitchen and slept with it under his pillow. When Henkel approached his bed and discovered the blade, he withdrew quickly, called Helmut Kentler, then handed the phone to Marco. “There’s a devil behind my wall,” Marco tried to explain. Kentler had a calming, grandfatherly presence. He assured Marco that there was no such thing as devils, and Marco agreed to surrender the knife.
Marco’s mother and brother were allowed to visit roughly once a month, but Henkel often cancelled the visits at the last minute, or cut them short, saying that they were disruptive. Afterward, Marco would sometimes urinate in his bed or lose focus in school, writing numbers and letters backward. “It was as if he wanted to say: there is no point in anything,” Henkel wrote. Kentler warned the youth-welfare office that Marco’s “educational successes are ruined by a few hours of being with his mother.” Marco’s father was not allowed to see him at all, because Henkel reported that Marco said that his dad had beaten him. Marco was so terrified of his father, Henkel said, that he suffered from “fearful fantasies when he noticed people of Arab appearance on the street.”
Marco’s teachers recommended that he see a child therapist, who was supposed to meet with him for two hours a week. But the therapist said that Henkel was holding Marco “prisoner”—Henkel always sat close by, in an adjacent room. Marco remembers that, once, after a session began without Henkel’s realizing it, he barged into the room and hit the therapist in the face. When a school psychologist referred Sven for counselling, too, Henkel would not allow him to take any psychological tests, according to records. “Not with me!” he shouted. “If you all want to make a ‘case’ out of [Sven], then do it without me.” (Sven seemed upset by the outburst, asking Henkel, “Does that mean you want to give me away?”)
In a letter, Kentler advised the youth-welfare office that, if a psychological assessment had to be done, he would perform it. “Insights beyond my findings are not to be expected,” he wrote. He acknowledged that Henkel could appear “harsh and hurtful,” but “I ask you to consider that a man who deals with such seriously damaged children is not a ‘simple person,’ ” he wrote, in another letter. “What Mr. Henkel needs from the authorities is trust and protection.”
When Marco was nine, his mother petitioned a district judge in Berlin to allow her to spend more time with him. Marco’s father told the youth-welfare office that he could not understand why Marco was growing up in a “strange family,” deprived of an Arabic education. He also “made massive accusations against the foster father’s behavior,” a caseworker wrote. But Marco’s mother had signed an agreement stating that she would “always be guided by the best interests of my child,” and that determination was made by the youth-welfare office.
A hearing was held in March, 1992, a month before Marco turned ten. The judge asked to speak privately with Marco, but Henkel stood directly outside the room and said, “If you are being threatened, call out!” Marco sounded as if he had been coached. He told the judge that his foster father, whom he called Papa, loved him, and his birth family did not. When the judge asked if he still wanted his mother to visit, he responded, “Not often.” He said that once a year would be better, and insisted that “Papa should be there.” He explained that he was afraid of his biological father, and now that he was with Papa he was no longer scared. “Only sometimes at night,” he added.
After the hearing, Kentler sent a letter to the judge, saying, “For the best interests of the child, I consider it absolutely essential that contact with the family of origin—including the mother—be completely suspended for the next two years.” Kentler also emphasized that Marco needed distance from the men in his family, because they set a bad example. He said that Marco’s mood changed when he spoke about his father. Though Kentler had never met Marco’s dad, he characterized him as authoritarian, abusive, and macho. He also disapproved of Marco’s fifteen-year-old brother, who was six feet four and weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds. The boy “gives the (false) impression of strength and superiority,” Kentler wrote, and was already molding himself in his father’s image; he was “addicted to being the big man.”
Kentler’s career was framed by his belief in the damage wrought by dominant fathers. An early memory was of walking in the forest on a spring day and running to keep up with his father. “I had only one wish: that he should take my hand and hold it in his,” Kentler wrote in a parenting magazine in 1983. But his father, a lieutenant in the First World War, believed in a “rod and baton pedagogy,” as Kentler put it. Kentler’s parents followed the teachings of Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, a best-selling German authority on child care who has been described as a “spiritual precursor of Nazism.” Schreber outlined principles of child rearing that would create a stronger race of men, ridding them of cowardice, laziness, and unwanted displays of vulnerability and desire. “Suppress everything in the child,” Schreber wrote, in 1858. “Emotions must be suffocated in their seed right away.” When Kentler misbehaved, his father threatened to buy a contraption invented by Schreber to promote children’s posture and compliance: shoulder bands to prevent slouching; a belt that held their chest in place while they slept; an iron bar pressed to their collarbone, so they’d sit up straight at the table. If Kentler talked out of turn, his father slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “When the father talks, the children must be silent!”
Kentler was ten during Kristallnacht, in 1938, when Nazi Storm Troopers raided Jewish temples, stores, and houses. Kentler’s family was living in Düsseldorf, and Kentler was awakened by the noise of shattering glass. He came out of his bedroom and saw his father in a nightdress, holding the phone. “In his loud, dominant voice, my father called for a police deployment because someone had broken into our building,” Kentler wrote in “Borrowed Fathers, Children Need Fathers,” a 1989 book about parenthood. “It was a longer conversation, during which my father became ever quieter, and ultimately he timidly hung up the receiver, stood there like he had collapsed and quietly said to my mother, who had been standing next to him for some time: ‘They’re going after the Jews!’ ”
Soon, the doorbell rang. A Jewish family—a mother, father, and three children—who lived in the apartment below stood at the door. Their apartment had been destroyed, and they asked if they could spend the night with the Kentlers. “No, that will really not be possible here,” Kentler’s father said. He shut the door. Kentler glimpsed his father’s nightshirt climbing just above his knee, revealing his soft naked legs. “My whole father suddenly seemed laughable to me,” he wrote.
Shortly afterward, Kentler’s father was called back to active duty. He rose to the rank of colonel, and moved his family to Berlin, where he worked at the High Command of the army of Nazi Germany. “My father’s authority was never based on his own accomplishment, but on the large institutions in which he snuck into, that rubbed off on him,” Kentler wrote. He was seventeen when the Nazis were defeated and his father came home, “a broken man,” Kentler wrote. “I never again obeyed him and I felt terribly alone.”
The postwar years in West Germany were marked by an intense preoccupation with sexual propriety, as if decorum could solve the nation’s moral crisis and cleanse it of guilt. “One’s own offspring did penance for Auschwitz,” the German poet Olav Münzberg wrote, “with ethics and morality forcefully jammed into them.” Women’s reproductive rights were severely restricted, and the policing of homosexual encounters, a hallmark of Nazism, persisted; in the two decades after the war, roughly a hundred thousand men were prosecuted for this crime. Kentler was attracted to men and felt as if he “always had one leg in prison,” because of the risks involved in consummating his desires. He found solace in the book “Corydon,” by André Gide, a series of Socratic dialogues about the naturalness of queer love. “This book took away my fear of being a failure and of being rejected, of being a negative biological variant,” he wrote in a 1985 essay called “Our Homosexuality.” But nothing could be done to remedy his relationship with his parents. “They no longer loved me,” he wrote.
In 1960, Kentler got a degree in psychology, a field that allowed him to be “an engineer in the realm of the . . . manipulatable soul,” he said at a lecture. He became involved in the student movement, and at a meeting of the Republican Club, a group established by left-wing intellectuals, he publicly identified himself as gay for the first time. Not long afterward, he wrote, he decided to turn “my passions into a profession (which is also good for the passions: they are controlled).” He earned a doctorate in social education from the University of Hannover, publishing his dissertation, a guidebook called “Parents Learn Sex Education,” in 1975. He was inspired by the Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who had argued that the free flow of sexual energy was essential to building a new kind of society. Kentler’s dissertation urged parents to teach their children that they should never be ashamed of their desires. “Once the first feelings of shame exist, they multiply easily and expand into all areas of life,” he wrote.
Like many of his contemporaries, Kentler came to believe that sexual repression was key to understanding the Fascist consciousness. In 1977, the sociologist Klaus Theweleit published “Male Fantasies,” a two-volume book that drew on the diaries of German paramilitary fighters and concluded that their inhibited drives—along with a fear of anything gooey, gushing, or smelly—had been channelled into a new outlet: destruction. When Kentler read “Male Fantasies,” he could see Schreber, the child-care author whose principles his parents had followed, “at work everywhere,” he wrote. Kentler argued that ideas like Schreber’s (he had been so widely read that one book went through forty editions) had poisoned three generations of Germans, creating “authoritarian personalities who have to identify with a ‘great man’ around them to feel great themselves.” Kentler’s goal was to develop a child-rearing philosophy for a new kind of German man. Sexual liberation, he wrote, was the best way to “prevent another Auschwitz.”
The trials of twenty-two former Auschwitz officers had revealed a common personality type: ordinary, conservative, sexually inhibited, and preoccupied with bourgeois morality. “I do think that in a society that was more free about sexuality, Auschwitz could not have happened,” the German legal scholar Herbert Jäger said. Sexual emancipation was integral to student movements throughout Western Europe, but the pleas were more pitched in Germany, where the memory of genocide had become inextricably—if not entirely accurately—linked with sexual primness. In “Sex After Fascism,” the historian Dagmar Herzog describes how, in Germany, conflicts over sexual mores became “an important site for managing the memory of Nazism.” But, she adds, it was also a way “to redirect moral debate away from the problem of complicity in mass murder and toward a narrowed conception of morality as solely concerned with sex.”
Suddenly, it seemed as if all relationship structures could—and must—be reconfigured, if there was any hope of producing a generation less damaged than the previous one. In the late sixties, educators in more than thirty German cities and towns began establishing experimental day-care centers, where children were encouraged to be naked and to explore one another’s bodies. “There is no question that they were trying (in a desperate sort of neo-Rousseauian authoritarian antiauthoritarianism) to remake German/human nature,” Herzog writes. Kentler inserted himself into a movement that was urgently working to undo the sexual legacy of Fascism but struggling to differentiate among various taboos. In 1976, the magazine Das Blatt argued that forbidden sexual desire, such as that for children, was the “revolutionary event that turns our everyday life on its head, that lets feelings break out and that shatters the basis of our thinking.” A few years later, Germany’s newly established Green Party, which brought together antiwar protesters, environmental activists, and veterans of the student movement, tried to address the “oppression of children’s sexuality.” Members of the Party advocated abolishing the age of consent for sex between children and adults.
In this climate—a psychoanalyst described it as one of “denial and manic ‘self-reparation’ ”—Kentler was a star. He was asked to lead the department of social education at the Pedagogical Center, an international research institute in Berlin whose planning committee included Willy Brandt, who became the Chancellor of Germany (and won the Nobel Peace Prize), and James B. Conant, the first U.S. Ambassador to West Germany and a president of Harvard. Funded and supervised by the Berlin Senate, the center was established, in 1965, to make Berlin an international leader in reforming educational practices. Kentler worked on the problem of runaways, heroin addicts, and young prostitutes, many of whom gathered in the archways of the Zoo Station, the main transportation hub in West Berlin. The milieu was memorialized in “Christiane F.,” an iconic drug movie of the eighties, about teen-agers, prematurely aware of the emptiness of modern society, self-destructing, set to a soundtrack by David Bowie.
Kentler befriended a thirteen-year-old named Ulrich, whom he described as “one of the most sought-after prostitutes in the station scene.” When Kentler asked Ulrich where he wanted to stay at night, Ulrich told him about a man he called Mother Winter, who fed boys from the Zoo Station and did their laundry. In exchange, they slept with him. “I said to myself: if the prostitutes call this man ‘mother,’ he can’t be bad,” Kentler wrote. Later, he noted that “Ulrich’s advantage was that he was handsome and that he enjoyed sex; so he could give something back to pedophile men who looked after him.”
Kentler formalized Ulrich’s arrangement. “I managed to get the Senate officer responsible to approve it,” he wrote in “Borrowed Fathers, Children Need Fathers.” Kentler found several other pedophiles who lived nearby, and he helped them set up foster homes, too. At the time, the Berlin Senate, which governs the city—one of sixteen states in the country—was eager to find new solutions to the “life problems of our society,” in order to “confirm and maintain Berlin’s reputation as an outpost of freedom and humanity,” Kentler wrote.
In 1981, Kentler was invited to the German parliament to speak about why homosexuality should be decriminalized—it didn’t happen for thirteen more years—but he strayed, unprompted, into a discussion of his experiment. “We looked after and advised these relationships very intensively,” he said. He held consultations with the foster fathers and their sons, many of whom had been so neglected that they had never learned to read or write. “These people only put up with these feeble-minded boys because they were in love with them,” he told the lawmakers. His summary did not seem to provoke concerns. Perhaps the politicians were receptive because the project seemed to be the opposite of the Nazis’ reproductive experiments, with their rigid emphasis on propagating certain kinds of families, or perhaps they were unconcerned because, in their opinion, the boys were already lost. In the sixties and seventies, the political élite were suddenly taking an interest in the lower class, but their capacity for identification was apparently limited.
If there were ever files in the city’s archives documenting how Kentler’s project came to be approved—or how, exactly, he located the men who served as foster fathers—they have been lost or destroyed. When Kentler publicly discussed his experiment, he offered details about only three foster homes. But, in a 2020 report commissioned by the Berlin Senate, scholars at the University of Hildesheim concluded that “the Senate also ran foster homes or shared flats for young Berliners with pedophile men in other parts of West Germany.” The fifty-eight-page report was preliminary and vague; the authors said there were about a thousand unsorted files in the basement of a government building that they had been unable to read. No names were revealed, but the authors wrote that “these foster homes were run by sometimes powerful men who lived alone and who were given this power by academia, research institutions and other pedagogical environments that accepted, supported or even lived out pedophile stances.” The report concluded that some “senate actors” had been “part of this network,” while others had merely tolerated the foster homes “because ‘icons’ of educational reform policies supported such arrangements.”
Marco remembers Kentler and his foster father talking for hours on the phone about politics. The intensity of their conversations surprised him, because Henkel was laconic at home, rarely speaking in full sentences. Marco and Sven didn’t talk to each other, either. Marco spent all of his free time in his room, on an Amiga computer, playing SimCity and Mega-Lo-Mania. Both boys kept their doors closed. Once, when the neighbors played loud music, breaking the silence in their apartment, Henkel told the boys that he wanted to drill holes in two microwave ovens and then aim the radioactive waves toward each other, at just the right angle, to give the neighbors a heart attack.
Marco’s mother lost her plea for more access to her son. She was still allowed visits every few weeks at the youth-welfare office, but the meetings went increasingly badly. During the first visit after the court hearing, Marco told his mother that he didn’t want to see her, because she didn’t get along with his foster father. “While he was saying this, he did not make eye contact with his mother,” a social worker wrote. At the next visit, three weeks later, he refused to accept his mother’s gift—pens and a pad of paper—or to answer her questions. He repeatedly asked to leave, until his mother reluctantly agreed. She was “visibly shaken and cried,” the social worker wrote. “She no longer knows what to do.” The next day, Henkel called the youth-welfare office and said that he would support Marco “in demonstrating his rejection of his mother.”
A year and a half later, Marco’s father informed the youth-welfare office that he was moving to Syria and wanted to say goodbye to his son. There is no record of anyone responding. Marco’s opinion of his parents became overlaid with the insults he’d heard from Henkel and Kentler. He imagined his mother as a lazy woman who spent her days eating sausages, his father as a violent patriarch. It wasn’t until two decades later that he grasped that his parents had fought to have a relationship with him.
Some nights, when Marco was eating dinner with Sven and Henkel, he would have the sensation that he was among strangers. “Who are you people?” he asked once. Henkel responded, “It’s me—your father.”
When Marco was eleven years old, a new foster son, Marcel Kramer, moved in. Kramer was a small boy with dimples, crooked teeth, and a sweet, open smile. He was half a year younger than Marco and had spastic quadriplegia, a congenital condition that left him unable to walk, talk, or eat on his own. Marco and Sven became Kramer’s caretakers, feeding him strawberry-flavored milk with a spoon and removing mucus from his lungs with a suction hose. When they went to Henkel’s house in Brandenburg, west of Berlin, Marco pushed Kramer for hours on a tire swing. Kramer was the first person in years for whom Marco had felt love.
At school, Marco had no close relationships. Henkel encouraged him to misbehave, rewarding him with computer games if he spat, talked out of turn, or overturned chairs. He skipped class and rarely did his homework. He ended up switching schools seven times, which, he now believes, was Henkel’s plan.
For years, Marco tolerated Henkel, but, as he began going through puberty, he said, “I started to hate him.” He spent an hour each day lifting weights, so that he would be strong enough to defend himself. One night, when Henkel tried to fondle him, Marco hit his hand. Henkel seemed startled but didn’t say anything. He just walked away.
Henkel stopped trying to sexually molest Marco, but he became punitive. At night, he locked the door to the kitchen so that Marco couldn’t eat. (“His greed when eating was noticeable,” Henkel once wrote.) He also hit Marco. “Go on, let off some steam,” Marco sometimes said, taunting Henkel. “He said he wasn’t hitting me—he was hitting the devil inside of me,” Marco told me.
When Marco turned eighteen, he was legally free to leave Henkel’s home, but it didn’t occur to him to move out. “It’s very hard to describe, but I was never raised to think critically about anything,” he said. “I had an empty mind.”
One day, Kramer developed the flu. In the course of forty-eight hours, his breathing became increasingly labored. For years, Marco had checked on Kramer several times each night, to make sure that he was breathing. Now he was so worried that he lay in bed beside him. Henkel had always resisted calling doctors for the boys. By the time he gave in, Kramer could not be resuscitated. “It happened in front of my eyes,” Marco said. “I was looking into his eyes when he died.”
The foster-care files contain only a brief note documenting Kramer’s death. “Call from Mr. Henkel, who says that Marcel died unexpectedly last night,” an employee at the youth-welfare office wrote, in September, 2001. “Previously there were no signs of an infection.” A subsequent note says that Henkel, who was sixty, was looking to take in another child.
After Teresa Nentwig’s report on Kentler, in 2016, she planned to write her habilitation thesis, a requirement for a career in academia, on Kentler’s life and work. But there were many setbacks. Relevant files in the city archives of Berlin were missing, unsorted, or sealed. Friends and colleagues of Kentler, who had died in 2008, told Nentwig that they didn’t want to talk. “Some said that Kentler is a very good man and he has done only things which are good,” Nentwig told me.
Nentwig gives the impression of being a methodical and undramatic scholar, the type who never misses a deadline. In the summer of 2020, when we first spoke, she told me, “I have no future in the university, because it is very hard to have success with this sort of subject. I am criticizing the academic world.” I assumed that, as ambitious people tend to do, she was motivating herself with a fear of worst-case scenarios. But the next time I spoke with her, this spring, she had taken a job with a regional State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a German intelligence agency that monitors anti-democratic threats. Her university contract had not been renewed, and she blamed the premature end of her academic career in part on her decision to research Kentler. “I’m a political scientist,” she said, “and people were always asking, ‘What is political about this topic?’ ”
Nentwig and her former university are now splitting the cost, some six thousand euros, for a German academic press to publish what would have been her thesis. In the book, which comes out in September, she reveals that Kentler, the single father of three adopted sons and several foster children, appeared to be conducting his own, informal version of the experiment that the Berlin Senate had authorized. Karin Désirat, the co-author of a book called “Sex—Lust and Life,” told Nentwig that two of Kentler’s foster sons had come to her for therapy and divulged that Kentler had sexually abused them. Désirat “owed a lot to Kentler,” she said—he had helped her get her first teaching position—and she did not want to get involved. She referred the boys to another therapist. The boys preferred to keep their abuse private, she said, because they “didn’t want to lose the positives of Kentler’s care—that they had enough to eat and that they were taken care of and things like that.” Kentler’s experiment seemed to rest on the idea that some children are fundamentally second class, their outlook so compromised that any kind of love is a gift, a proposition that his colleagues apparently accepted, too. (Désirat said that she eventually broke off contact with Kentler, concluding that his behavior had been “creepy.”)
Gunter Schmidt, a former president of the International Academy of Sex Research, which attracts the field’s leading researchers, was friends with Kentler for more than twenty years. “I honestly had respect for it,” he told Nentwig of the experiment. “Because I thought, These are really young people who are in the worst situation. They probably have a long history at home, they had miserable childhoods and someone is looking after them. And if Kentler is there it’ll be fine.” He added, “And the Berlin Senate is also there.” When Kentler was fifty-seven, he wrote Schmidt a letter explaining why he was aging happily, rather than becoming lonely and resigned: he and his twenty-six-year-old son were “part of a very fulfilling love story” that had lasted thirteen years and still felt fresh. To understand his state of mind, Kentler wrote, his friend should know his secret.
For much of his career, Kentler spoke of pedophiles as benefactors. They offered neglected children “a possibility of therapy,” he told Der Spiegel, in 1980. When the Berlin Senate commissioned him to prepare an expert report on the subject of “Homosexuals as caregivers and educators,” in 1988, he explained that there was no need to worry that children would be harmed by sexual contact with caretakers, as long as the interaction was not “forced.” The consequences can be “very positive, especially when the sexual relationship can be characterized as mutual love,” he wrote.
But in 1991 he seemed to rethink his opinion, after his youngest adopted son, the one he praised in the letter to Schmidt, committed suicide. Then he read the paper “Confusion of the Tongues Between Adults and the Child (The Language of Tenderness and of Passion),” by Sándor Ferenczi, a Hungarian psychoanalyst and a student of Freud. The paper describes how sexualized relationships between adults and children are always asymmetrical, exploitative, and destructive. Ferenczi warns that to give children “more love or love of a different kind” than they seek “will have just as pathogenic consequences as denying them love.” Children’s “personalities are not sufficiently consolidated in order to be able to protest,” he writes. They will “subordinate themselves like automata.” They become oblivious of their own needs and “identify themselves with the aggressor.”
In an interview with a German historian in 1992, Kentler spoke of his grief for his adopted son and said, “Unfortunately I only read the Ferenczi essay after his death.” He did not confess to abusing his son; instead, he said that the boy had been sexually abused by his birth mother. “He hung himself because of that,” he told the historian. “I’ve experienced it in the biggest way, in a very close way, and certainly I’m partly to blame.” He regretted that, until the Ferenczi paper, he had not read anything about the emotional aftermath of sexual abuse and had not known how to help his son process the trauma. He didn’t understand that a child recovering from sexual abuse feels split, as Ferenczi describes it: he is “innocent and culpable at the same time—and his confidence in the testimony of his own senses is broken.” “I was too stupid,” Kentler said.
By the late nineties, Kentler had stopped seeing Henkel’s foster sons, or involving himself in their upbringing. In what was likely his last recorded public statement about pedophilia, in an interview in 1999, he referred to it as a “sexual disorder,” and alluded to the impossibility of an adult and a child sharing an understanding of sexual contact. The problem, he said, is that the adult will always have “the monopoly on definition.”
When I first began corresponding with Marco, in the summer of 2020, our communication was mediated by a man named Christoph Schweer, who referred to himself as Marco’s “friend.” Initially, I assumed that he was Marco’s lawyer. Then I looked him up online and saw that he had received a Ph.D. in philosophy, publishing a dissertation called “Homesickness, Heroes, Cheerfulness: Nietzsche’s Path to Becoming a Superhero.” He worked for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s right-wing party, as an adviser for education and cultural policy. The Party was recently investigated by Germany’s domestic-intelligence agency for undermining democracy by, among other things, minimizing the crimes of the Nazis. The Party’s co-leader has called the Nazi era “just a speck of bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”
Last August, Marco, Schweer, and Thomas Rogers, a Berlin journalist, who also works as a translator, met at a hotel attached to Berlin’s international airport, the only place we could come up with that would be sufficiently private. I spoke with them via Zoom. Marco and Schweer sat in chairs beside the bed, and they did not appear to have a particularly familiar rapport. Marco wore a flowery button-up Hawaiian shirt and had not shaved in a few days. Schweer, dressed for the office, had a prim, businesslike manner. Like an agent helping his celebrity client, he seemed a bit bored by our conversation but occasionally chimed in, prompting Marco to share memorable details.
“When you first saw him you thought, What a crooked mouth he has,” Schweer offered, referring to Henkel.
“He had no lips,” Marco clarified. He explained that Kentler, too, had this trait. Schweer demonstrated by pressing his mouth together, so that only a sliver of his bottom and upper lip were visible.
“Do you know people who have no lips?” Marco said. “They are always egotistical and mean—I noticed that.”
Schweer first contacted Marco in early 2018, after reading an article in Der Spiegel about Kentler’s experiment, in which Marco said that he’d been let down by the Berlin Senate. After the publication of Nentwig’s report, Marco wrote to the Senate asking for more information about what had happened to him, but he felt that the Senate was insufficiently responsive.
Schweer had “offered help from the AfD,” Marco told me. “I immediately said, ‘Not for political purposes, only because I want help.’ ”
From the perspective of an AfD politician, Marco’s life story was expedient, a tale about the ways in which the German left had got sexual politics wrong. At meetings of the German parliament, members of the AfD (which won more than twelve per cent of the vote in the last national election, becoming Germany’s third-largest party) rallied around the Kentler case as a way of forcing left-wing politicians to address history that did not reflect well on their parties, but also as a barely disguised vehicle for impugning homosexuality. An advocacy group affiliated with the AfD held “Stop Kentler’s sex education” rallies, to protest the way that sexuality is currently taught in German schools. “Kentler’s criminal pedophile spirit lives on unbroken in today’s sex education,” a brochure printed by the organization explained.
History seemed to be looping back on itself. Right-wing politicians were calling for a return to the kind of “terribly dangerous upbringing” against which Kentler had rebelled. In its party manifesto, the AfD states that it is committed to the “traditional family as a guiding principle,” an idea that it associates with the maintenance of Germany’s cultural identity and power. To counteract the influx of immigrants to Germany, “the only mid- and longterm solution,” the AfD program says, “is to attain a higher birth rate by the native population.”
At a hearing in February, 2018, an AfD representative, Thorsten Weiß, complained that the Senate had not taken responsibility for Kentler’s crimes. “This is a case of political importance, which also requires political action,” he said. “The Senate is double-crossing the victims, and that is a scandal.”
At another hearing, seven months later, Weiß criticized the Senate for being slow to gather more information about Kentler’s experiment. “We will not allow government-sponsored pederasty to be swept under the rug,” he said.
Two politicians from the Green Party, which has championed the rights of sexual minorities, accused the AfD of manipulating the victims. “What the AfD is trying to do, to instrumentalize this crime for its own purposes, is unacceptable,” a representative said.
Schweer, the AfD adviser, tried to find a lawyer who could advocate for Marco in a civil lawsuit. “I stand up for a friend, the victim of the so-called Kentler experiment,” he wrote in an e-mail to a large Berlin law firm. Marco had already filed a criminal complaint, but the investigation was limited because Henkel had died in 2015. The lead caseworker, who retired after working for the office for more than forty years, exercised his right to remain silent when the police contacted him. The public prosecutor, Norbert Winkler, concluded that Henkel engaged in “serious sexual assaults including regular anal intercourse,” but he could not find evidence that anyone at the office was complicit. The dilemma, he told me, was that whenever suspicions arose the employees at the office “relied on the claims from Mr. Kentler, who was at the time a very renowned person.”
Marco and Sven tried to file civil lawsuits against the state of Berlin and the Tempelhof-Schöneberg district, the location of the youth-welfare office, for breach of official duties. But, under civil law, too much time had passed. The AfD asked an expert to analyze whether the statute of limitations had to apply to this case. Berlin’s education senator, Sandra Scheeres, a member of the Social Democratic Party, wanted to see if Marco and Sven would accept a compensation package rather than pursue a lawsuit that seemed doomed. She believed that the AfD was giving them bad advice, unnecessarily prolonging their attempt to get money. She told me, “I found it quite strange how the AfD worked with the victims—how close their relationship was, and that they gave legal advice to them. Of course, it is O.K. if the AfD draws attention to injustices, but what happened here was uncommon. I’ve never experienced something like it.” (Weiß, the AfD representative, told me, “I would have been surprised if she had said anything nice about us.” He believes there is still a pedophile network in Germany, and that those connected to it “use their political influence to make sure that the network remains under the radar.”)
Marco went to visit one of Henkel’s foster sons from the “first generation,” as he put it, to see if he wanted to join his and Sven’s legal efforts. The son, whom I’ll call Samir, lived in Henkel’s house in Brandenburg, where the boys had spent summer vacations. The house, which had only one room, was made from beige bricks and seemed to have been assembled too casually—uneven globs of mortar filled each crack. In photographs from the nineties, the place is a mess: a plastic bag and half-eaten bread lie on the table; outside the house, an old toaster oven, with a badminton birdie lying next to it, rests on a decaying dresser.
Samir, who is fifty-seven and half Algerian, had not had contact with his birth family for more than forty years. He had changed his last name to Henkel, and taken on a new German first name as well. His half sister, who lives in Algeria, told me that she and her sister had tried many times to get in touch with him, to no avail. He was the foster son whose interactions with Henkel sparked a criminal investigation in 1979, when he was fifteen. At the time, a psychologist had given Samir a personality test, and Samir had drawn himself as a fruit tree in winter that “lacks all contact to the nourishing earth.” The psychologist interviewed Henkel, too, and observed that he struggled to hold back his “enormous aggressive impulses” and, through his foster sons, tried to “make up for something that he missed in his own past.”
Marco drove to Henkel’s old property and walked toward the house. Five-foot hedges now surrounded it. The windows were covered with blankets. Marco said, “I wanted to offer him the opportunity to clear things up like I had with Sven, but when I saw that—no, no, no.” Another foster brother, the first to move into Henkel’s home, lived a few miles away, but Marco decided there was no use visiting him, either. He walked back to his car and drove home.
Winkler, the prosecutor, had sent investigators to Samir’s home, and he described it as a “garbage heap.” There was no running water or electricity. There was barely even clear space to walk. Yet one corner of the house was tidy and purposeful. It had been turned into a kind of altar. An urn with Henkel’s ashes was surrounded by fresh flowers.
Henkel had run his foster home for thirty years. When he finally shut it down, in 2003—he hadn’t been assigned a new foster child—Marco was twenty-one. He had nowhere to live. He spent three nights sleeping on benches in the park. With the help of a charity that assists homeless youths, he eventually moved into a subsidized apartment. He sometimes stole from grocery stores. “I didn’t know how the world functioned,” he told me. “I didn’t even know that you need to pay for the electricity that comes out of a socket.” He woke up several times in the middle of the night, a habit from his time caring for Marcel Kramer. But, instead of going into his foster brother’s room, he checked his own body to see, he said, “if everything is still where it should be and that I still exist.” He spent so much time by himself that he had trouble constructing sentences.
Sven lived alone in a small apartment in Berlin, too, but, unlike Marco, he stayed in touch with Henkel. “I always thought I owed the man something,” he told Der Spiegel, in 2017. Marco and Sven lived as they had as adolescents: they spent the day on the computer or watching TV, rarely speaking to anyone. Sven, who has experienced periods of severe depression since he was a child, still lives in what he called a “fortress of solitude,” and he did not want to talk about his past. “I don’t have any more strength,” he told me. “But I can assure you that everything my brother told you about our time in the foster home is one to one—the truth.”
Marco had also existed in a kind of hibernation. But, after five years, he felt as if he were becoming a “monster,” he said. “It didn’t go quite toward criminal actions, but there was a destructiveness, a lack of empathy.” When he was twenty-six, he was on a train in Berlin and noticed three men staring at him. Without making a conscious decision, Marco found himself beating them up. “I should have said, ‘Hey, what are you looking at?’ ” he said. “But, instead, I immediately fought them. I noticed I actually wanted to kill them.” One of the men ended up in the emergency room. Marco realized how much his behavior resembled that of his foster father. “It was a Henkel reaction,” he said. “I was a product. I was turning into the thing he had made.”
Around that time, he was walking on the street when a female photographer complimented his looks and asked if he’d like to do what Marco called “hobby modelling.” He agreed and sat for a series of photographs, adopting a variety of poses: in some pictures, he looks like a chiselled lawyer off to work; in others, he is windswept and preppy. The photographs never led to jobs, but he began hanging out with the photographer and her friends. He compared the experience to being a foreigner in an exotic country and finally meeting people who are willing to teach him the language. “I learned normal ways of interacting,” he said.
The modelling work inspired him to get a haircut, and, at the hair salon, a glamorous woman with a sprightly, cheerful presence, whom I’ll call Emma, trimmed his hair. Marco tends to credit his appearance for the pivotal events of his life: he believes his looks were the reason that Henkel chose him—many of Henkel’s sons had dark hair and eyes—and, twenty years later, the explanation for his first serious relationship. “I was pretty, and she didn’t leave,” he told me, of Emma. He added, only partly joking, “Some women are just really into asshole types, and I was one of those asshole types.”
At first, he was resistant to a relationship, but gradually he found Emma’s devotion persuasive. More than once, she slept outside his apartment door. “I noticed that she really loves me, and that in life there’s probably only one person who comes along who will really fight for you,” he said. He tried to blunt his antisocial impulses by remembering that they were not innate but had been conditioned by his upbringing. “I reprogrammed myself, so to speak,” he said. “I tried to re-raise myself.”
When I visited Marco, in May, he and Emma had just moved from Berlin to a new development on the city’s outskirts that he asked me not to name or describe, because he didn’t want his neighbors to know about his past. He now has two children, and they were playing with Emma in their large back yard. Inside, Marco listened to meditative lounge music and drank water from the largest coffee mug I’ve ever seen. I had the sense that with a different childhood Marco might have aged into a fairly jolly middle-aged man. He was playful and earnest and spoke poetically about his view of the afterlife. He shared his children’s developmental milestones with nuance and pride. In a gust of hospitality, he asked if I wanted Emma to cut my hair, before apologizing profusely and saying that my hair looked just fine.
A few days before my visit, the Berlin Senate had announced that it would commission scholars at the University of Hildesheim, who had published the preliminary report in 2020, to do a follow-up report about pedophile-run foster homes in other parts of Germany. Sandra Scheeres, the senator for education, had apologized to Marco and Sven, and the Senate offered them more than fifty thousand euros—in Germany, where compensation for damages is much lower than it is in the United States, this was seen as a significant amount.
Christoph Schweer, the AfD adviser, had urged Marco and Sven to keep fighting, but Marco couldn’t understand why. “We have gotten our wishes, so there’s no point in further irritating or tyrannizing the Senate,” he told me. But Schweer kept pushing him, Marco said. (Schweer denies this.) “Then I slowly got suspicious. I asked myself, What else should I want? That’s when I got the feeling that the AfD just wants to use me, to play me up. And I said, ‘I don’t want to be a political tool. I don’t want to get pulled into an election campaign.’ ” He dropped his lawsuit and accepted the Senate’s offer. His only remaining goal is that, in the upcoming report, all the names of people involved in carrying out Kentler’s experiment be revealed. (Schweer said that he had been supporting Marco as a “private person,” not on behalf of the AfD. He also told me, “I have new ideas, but for [Marco] it’s over.”)
Marco and Emma were getting married at the end of the month, and he didn’t want to think about his past. “I just wanted to end the whole thing, to have this chapter closed,” he said. He planned to take Emma’s last name. He hadn’t spoken with his birth parents or his brother since he was ten, and now he would become nearly untraceable. He had tried to Google his brother once, but he considered the idea of a reunion to be a waste of emotional resources that he could devote to his children. “It wouldn’t bring me anything, anyway,” he said. “The period of being shaped by my mother is over.”
At the end of my visit, Marco’s wedding ring arrived in the mail. Emma shrieked with joy, but Marco held the ring in his hand dispassionately and joked that he had to marry eventually, so he might as well do it now. He disguised his obvious tenderness toward her with a show of indifference that Emma apparently knew not to take seriously. “These are just the deficits that I have,” he said, referring to the lack of emotion. “I’ll get through it. It doesn’t matter.”
Three weeks later, on the eve of his wedding, he e-mailed me. “In an hour around 10 a.m. we will drive to the registry office,” he wrote. “Symbolically, a new life begins.”
After leaving Henkel’s home, Marco had contact with him only two times. The first time, when Marco was in his mid-twenties, Henkel suddenly called. He appeared to have developed some sort of dementia. He asked if Marco had remembered to feed their rabbits.
The next time was in 2015, when Emma was pregnant with their first child. Marco drove to a clinic in Brandenburg where he’d heard that Henkel was in hospice, dying of cancer. Marco opened the door to Henkel’s room. He saw Henkel lying in bed, groaning in pain. He had a long, wizard-like beard and looked to Marco as if he were possessed. Marco gazed at him for less than five seconds, long enough to confirm that he was actually dying. Then he turned around, closed the door, and walked out of the hospital.
After Marco got home, the radio in his kitchen was playing, but he didn’t remember having turned it on. A singer repeated the phrase “I’m sorry.” He felt as if Henkel were trying to get in touch with him. “I became a little bit crazy,” he told me. “I thought Henkel was a ghost who was following me, haunting me. It was definitely him: he was trying to apologize.”
Henkel died the next day. Marco entered a state of grief so fluid and expansive that, for the first time, he cried over the death of his foster brother Marcel Kramer. He had lain in bed with Kramer for an hour after he died, holding a kind of vigil; then he cut off one of Kramer’s curls, so that he’d have something to remember him by. But he had never properly mourned him. Suddenly, “the blockage disappeared,” he said. He realized why he hadn’t left Henkel’s home when he turned eighteen. “I was bound to the family by Marcel Kramer,” he said. “I would have never left him behind.”
A few weeks after Henkel’s death, the sense of being haunted began to recede. “The freedom came slowly,” Marco told me. “It was like a hunger that grows stronger and stronger. I don’t know how to say it, but it was the first time that I figured out that I am living a life with a billion different possibilities. I could have been anything. My inner voice became stronger, my intuition that I don’t have to live my life the way he taught me, that I can keep going.”