war sex -- 1/12/21

Today's selection -- from Year Zero by Ian Buruma. In the demobilization in Europe after World War II, sex was rampant:

"In July [1945], the Entertainment Committee of the Netherlands was founded under the aus­pices of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard, specifically to offer English­ speaking female company to the more than one hundred thousand Canadians. The idea was that these young women would accompany the soldiers to art shows, museums, movies, and properly supervised dances.

"The hopeful and piously expressed expectation was that the women would 'uphold the honor of our nation.' My Dutch grandmother, as the wife of a Protestant minister, was asked to oversee the dances, to make sure nothing took place between the Canadians and their Dutch girlfriends that might sully the national honor. Her colleague in this endeavor was a Catholic priest called Father Ogtrop, whose name was shouted out by the dancers to the tune of 'Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.' I'm not sure what transpired at those dances. But in the words of one Canadian soldier, he had never 'met a more willing female population than we did in Holland.'

"This was just as well, from the point of view of the Allied troops, since their commanders took a dim view of prostitution. Red light areas were 'off-limits,' even in France, where maisons de tolérance had thrived under German occupation. Some of the older American veterans still had fond memories of Paris in 1918, after World War I, where the brothels of Pigalle ('Pig Alley') had given the doughboys a warm welcome. Even after World War II, the ban on prostitution was not always observed. In at least one recorded instance, in the city of Cherbourg, several brothels were indi­rectly run by the U.S. Army itself.  Some were reserved for black GIs, others for whites only, and American MPs made sure the queues at the brothel doors were orderly. But for the most part, this time, much to the chagrin of those who worried, with excellent reason, about the prolifera­tion of venereal diseases in the absence of organized sexual trade, frater­nization was on a strictly freelance basis.

"Not that relations between troops and local women were 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 naive hero worshippers, or powerless victims, would not be entirely accurate. Simone de Beauvoir mentions a young Parisian woman in her memoir whose 'main distraction' is 'American hunting' (la chasse à l'Américain).

"Benoite Groult, who later became a popular novelist, wrote an ac­count, with her sister Flora, of their American-hunting exploits. They called their Journal a 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, 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 Benoite 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, Groult would have been seen by Frenchmen as terribly hom­minisé. 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."

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Ian Buruma


Year Zero: A History of 1945


A Penguin Random House Company


Copyright 2013 by Ian Buruma


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