You Can’t Refuse a Continent
One of my historical obsessions is the Second World War and its immediate aftermath — a period which directly shaped our current political climate, but which far too many people know very little about. Almost everything we can learn about the current state of world affairs can be traced back to the political, cultural, and socioeconomic forces at work in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of global fascism in 1945, and yet most of what is taught to non-specialist students and told in our mainstream popular narratives is the simplest stories of Allied and Axis clash and defeat.
A particular area that’s given way too little attention, but is increasingly seeing both more and evolving scholarly research, is the sexual history of the immediate postwar era. There was a tremendous amount of, if not sexual freedom, at least sexual license in the immediate postwar period, thanks to numerous factors, and while the social climate closed up and the actual modern Sexual Liberation had to wait another 20 years or so for feminism, the Pill, and the climate of civil rights protest in the 1960s, there was a lot percolating in the period of 1945-1947. The male population of entire continents had been devastated — in many countries, the young men were all dead or crippled, and all that remained were the unfit, the old, and the children. Demographic balances were thrown completely off, and childbirth had been forestalled, awaiting an end to horror and deprivation; the Baby Boom happened everywhere, and it happened for a reason. Beyond that, there was a lack of faith in the men that remained, especially in countries that had been occupied by the Axis and in the Axis nations themselves: military defeat was seen as weakness, humiliation, softness.
Scholarship used to ignore this aspect altogether; after sexual liberation, it tended to brush off what happened as the well-meaning and ‘deserved’ dabbling with liberated locals engaged in by Allied forces, and perhaps a passing mention of the Baby Boom, borne of optimism for the future and not of frustration and deprivation. With feminism came an increased awareness of the dark side of that picture: the tremendous amount of rape carried out as a punitive response against German women by Soviet forces, and the fact that a lot of women in liberated countries were engaging in prostitution just to survive. There was also the widespread humiliation and sometimes physical assault of women who had engaged in “horizontal collaboration” with Axis occupiers. In Japan, where sexual roles were far more strictly enforce than in the West, the problem was even more acute; during the war, there had been the Rape of Nanking and the widespread use of captured women as sexual slaves, and after the war, the authorities had to contend with American occupation and the upending of traditional sexual and cultural mores that came with it.
But now, the field is expanding even more (with a large part of it thanks to academics finally admitting that a lot of material presented in the postwar period in the form of novels or short stories were often straight-up diaries and memoirs, veiled as fiction to protect the authors from the often horrible consequences of telling the truth) , and research is showing that neither the innocent naïvety of early histories or the dark and shameful views of more modern ones paint an entirely accurate picture. It was a time of incredibly complexity in sexual terms, of both brutality (widespread rape and forced prostitution) and freedom (sexual experimentation and liberation). The seeds of the modern climate of sexual freedom were planted in those days, as were so many others. It was a time of incredible complexity, and for all we can garner from studying it, we can’t learn if we ignore how completely it blurred the easy lessons. Here’s an interesting passage from the book I’m reading now, Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945.
“Relations between troops and local women [in France] were not equal. The men had the money, the luxury goods, the cigarettes, the silk stockings, and, more important, the food that people desperately needed to survive. And the many expressions of worship for the liberators suggest a potentially humiliating lack of balance. Yet to see the women who were so eager to fraternize as naïve hero worshippers, or powerless victims, would not be entirely accurate. Simone de Beuavoir mentions a young Parisian woman in her memoir whose ‘main distraction’ is ‘la chasse à l’Américain‘.
Benoîte Groult, who later became a popular novelist, wrote an account with her sister Flora of their American-hunting exploits. They called their Journal à Quatre Mains a novel, but it is a barely fictionalized diary. Groult spoke English and was one of the French women who volunteered to fraternize through the American Red Cross. But her real stamping grounds were less salubrious. She spent most of her evenings at clubs in Paris that catered to Allied soldiers and welcomed French girls but barred French men — clubs with innocuous names like Canadian Club, Independence, and Rainbow Corner.
Groult’s detailed physical descriptions of American and Canadian soldiers are as adoring as those by people who thought they were gazing at saints, except that they are amazingly down-to-earth, and the men are far from saintly. She writes about her conquests in the way some men brag about picking up babes. The clubs she frequents are described as ‘slave markets’, but the slaves, in this instance, are the conquering heroes.
Here is Benoîte Groult on Kurt, an American fighter pilot: ‘The nose a little short, or rather, a trifle turned up, giving him a childish air common to all Americans; his skin bronzed by the stratosphere; strong hands, the shoulders of an orang-utang…perfect hips, straight, correcting the slightly heavy power of the rest of his body.’ Kurt never reads books, and is interested only in food and airplanes. But what does she care? Indeed, she writes, ‘I want the arms of an idiot, the kisses of an idiot. He has an adorable smile, the corners of his mouth curling up above those perfect American teeth.’
In short, Gruolt would have been seen by Frenchmen as terribly homminisé [mannish]. She had been married, but lost her husband during the war. Liberation in the summer of 1944 gave her the license, and the desire, to find pleasure in the arms of men she would never see again. This was a precious freedom. In fact, it was Kurt who wanted a more serious relationship, showed her photographs of his parents, and hoped to take her back to the States as his war bride. For Groult, a young Parisian intellectual with literary aspirations, this was naturally out of the question.
Benoîte Grout was perhaps unusually hard-boiled, or pretended to be. But her account illustrates a point made by a French historian of the German occupation: according to Patrick Buisson, the presence of large numbers of young German men in France during the war offered many women a chance to rebel — women stuck in bad marriages or in oppressive bourgeois families, maid bullied by their employers, spinsters left on the shelf, or simply women of all classes who wished to break away even temporarily from the constraints of a conservative patriarchal society. The fact that liaisons with an occupation army also brought material benefits, allowing many such women to live better than others — including, in some cases, their former masters — sweetened the sense of revenge.
And it was not just women. Minorities of all kinds often forge alliances with powerful outsiders to get the majorities off their backs. This was a facet of all colonial societies, but the disproportionate number of French homosexuals who either collaborated with the Germans or used wartime Paris as a sexual playground may also have had something to do with a common grievance against the respectable bourgeoisie. The fact that Nazi and Vichy propaganda was itself homophobic was not an impediment; occupation was not necessarily endorsed, but it was an opportunity.
‘Fratting’ with the Allied liberators was, in any case, more alluring than collaboration with the Germans, for it was not tainted with treachery. It is hard to know how much homosexual fraternizing went on, since this is obviously something people were rather discreet about. One case is beautifully described by Rudi van Dantzig, the dancer, writer, and choreographer of the Dutch National Ballet. He wrote a novel, For a Lost Soldier, based on his own experience after being evacuated from Amsterdam to a northern village during the ‘hunger winter’ of 1944-1945. When the Canadians reached his village, he was only twelve years old, but had yearnings he himself barely understood. A jeep stops on a country road; a hand is extended; he is hoisted on board. This is when Jeroen, the boy, meets Walt, the Canadian soldier, who would end up seducing him; but the book is not at all an indictment of pedophilia. On the contrary, it is written as an elegy: ‘The arm around me is warm and comfortable, as though I’m wrapped in a chair. I let it all happen almost with a sense of joy, and I think: this is liberation. This is the way it should be, different from other days. This is a party.’
Benoîte Groult is perfectly well aware of the material benefits of having sex with an American. She makes the link between sexual hunger and hunger for food quite explicit. Lying in bed under Kurt’s body, she remarks, is like sleeping with a whole continent, ‘And you can’t refuse a continent.’ Afterwards, they ate: ‘My appetite was sharpened by four years of occupation and twenty-three years of chastity — well, almost. I devoured the eggs hatched two days ago in Washington, Spam canned in Chicago, corn ripened four thousand miles from here — it is quite something, the war!'”
Quite something, indeed. There is much more rich territory to explore here: the utterly chaotic transformation from gay life in Berlin from the 1920s through the Nazi era and then into the 1950s; the rapid development and change in youth culture in Japan following the war; the way the very nature of the human body changed after the war, with the widespread availability of food after years of starvation leading to weight fluctuations as well as height and muscle increases thanks to the sudden appearance of new protein sources; a burst in sexually transmitted disease rates, which shook sexual mores in America as public health advocates scrambled to prevent their spread; the Baby Boom and its joys and discontents; the abandonment of ‘war babies’ as Japanese and German citizens fled or were forced out of conquered territories and left the children they’d had with locals behind, as well as other reasons why the ethnic demography of entire countries changed seemingly overnight; the strange sexual struggles that accompanied the presence of foreign military presences, and the way that the governments of those militaries responded (or didn’t); the panpan girls and Ruinenmäuschen, and the changing nature of both masculinity and femininity in the various war zones; the sexual and gender compromises made in Britain and America when the men returned home from war and expected working women to return to the kitchen; and the frustrations of the Soviet world, where Russian women were valorized and made equal to men in almost every part of society, but where foreign women were spoils of war, often raped and brutalized by soldiers.
And this is to speak only of the sexual echoes of the post-war world. In almost every way imaginable, the war gave us the blueprint of everything that would happen hence, and we are fools if we do not study that blueprint, especially now, as some of the ugly old elements of fascism have found new and fresh breeding grounds, and we begin to lose the living men and women who can actually remember why the enormous and devastating repercussions of the most horrible years in human history must never be repeated.