‘They were throwing condoms around’
The Wehrmacht painted an asexual picture of Dutch women. The Netherlands were ‘just like home’. The women were folksy, Germanic, agrarian and, in principle, suitable marriage material.
Photographs of German soldiers with Dutch girls supported this image. The message was clear: Germans were welcome in the Netherlands.
These same photographs had a different meaning for the German soldiers. They wanted to show that sex and women were all a part of their time in the military.
In contrast to the official politics, the soldiers did not think the girls were suitable for the Volksgemeinschaft. Often, they would refuse to officially recognise any offspring.
Fahnenbruck concludes that political and personal experiences cannot be separated. Man and soldier may overlap, but they do not necessarily coincide.
Reading time: 4 minutes (1080 words)
You cannot help but smile when you see the picture. Approximately thirty very naked men, in rows of ten. Feet in the sand, some of them tough, with their chests out, others a little embarrassed perhaps, hiding behind the other ones. The men in front are smiling widely. And then there is that tall skinny one, the leader, who is half facing the camera. Happy. Relaxed.
You’d be surprised to find out that these are Zug soldiers in the German Wehrmacht. The picture was taken in July 1941 in Westenschouwen, Zeeland, and it was never meant for the public eye but rather for a memorial book for the unit. But the photographer developing the picture secretly made some extra copies. Now, it graces the cover of Laura Fahnenbruck’s dissertation on the sexuality of German Wehrmacht soldiers in the Netherlands during the occupation.
Sex during times of war
She hesitated somewhat to put this picture on the cover of her book, says Fahnenbruck. All those naked men in a row: wouldn’t it be too explicit? ‘But so many themes come together in this image’, she says. ‘It conveys the army in the way they are neatly arranged in rows. But you can also see all those different individuals – it probably wasn’t easy for some of them to be naked. They’re doing this on their own time, and of course there is also the theme of sexuality.’
What she is trying to say is that you cannot separate the soldier from the man, even though that is often what researchers attempt to do. So it also cannot be said that the German soldiers were having sex with Dutch girls with only one goal in mind.
Fahnenbruck spent eight years researching the Wehrmacht soldiers’ sexuality during the Dutch occupation. This is because she felt that existing research into sex during times of war was much too limited. ‘For example, I don’t believe in the role of sex as a weapon’, Fahnenbruck says. ‘Sex is often portrayed as something that necessarily plays a role during a war, but it doesn’t. Besides, people often only pay attention to the violent side of it – gang rape, the oppression of women – but what about the men? And what if a war isn’t about destroying the enemy but sympathising with them and convincing them?’
The Netherlands during the war seemed an ideal research case. It was a relatively peaceful occupation, because the Germans were not out to destroy the Netherlands. After all, Dutch people were Aryans too – brothers and sisters to the German people. They needed convincing.
‘The Netherlands is so German’
Her most important conclusion is the following: one motive can have different meanings. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they do not at all.
Take for instance the pictures of Dutch girls with German soldiers that can be found in any Dutch image library. A German soldier – in full regalia – is standing in the surf with two girls in bathing suits. He happily salutes the camera. Another picture shows a soldier on a bridge, a girl on each arm. Smiling. Another one: three soldiers are leaning against a barn, with one girl in a floral dress and wooden shoes between them.
The German Wehrmacht loved photos such as these. They matched the image the German government wanted to create of the Netherlands as a kind of second Germany. The differences between the two countries were trivialised as much as possible. ‘’The Netherlands is so German that it’s almost like going home’, the Wehrmacht propaganda would tell the German soldiers stationed here’, says Fahnenbruck. The Dutch women’s image matched this as well. ‘They were folksy, Germanic, and agrarian. But other than that, the picture presented was asexual.’
This was important to the Wehrmacht. After all, the Dutch were part of the Aryan people too, and the goal of the German occupation was to convince them of the national socialist project. This is why marriages between German soldiers and Dutch girls were allowed, whereas they were strictly forbidden in, for example, Poland. ‘That didn’t go for all Dutch women, by the way’, says Fahnenbruck. ‘There were the ‘good’ asexual Germanic kinswomen, but there were also city women that were heinous. Women like that were not good marriage material.’
But those same pictures that the German Wehrmacht considered to be the ideal propaganda were also distributed by German soldiers. However, they wanted to show something very different with them.
‘For them, such pictures were a type of confirmation of the self’, says Fahnenbruck. Not entirely surprisingly, the soldiers expected sex and women to play a role during their time at war. ‘That was simply a part of it. Such pictures were proof of a sexual life during military service: there were women, too!’
This can also be seen in the memorial books dedicated to their time in the service, Fahnenbruck discovered. ‘In a book about a unit that was stationed in Eelde, for example, it says that all the benches in the park were occupied by soldiers and their girlfriends’, says Fahnenbruck. ‘Or you see the drawings about everyday life by Frits Junghans. There are dances with girls or a couple kissing. But women are just symbols. They don’t even get names, just the designation A, B, C, or D.’
So while the military leaders presented the Netherlands as a sort of second Heimat and tried to position the women as potential marriage partners that could easily be a part of the Volksgemeinschaft, the soldiers themselves did not share this vision. They fantasised about women, threw condoms around, placed personal ads in the newspapers and sang songs with sexual overtones about the Dutch girls. But if someone got pregnant, they often refused to admit paternity. ‘Under the guise of the fact that the girls actually didn’t fit into the Volksgemeinschaft’, says Fahnenbruck.
Problems and fights
The relationship was much less equal than the Wehrmacht’s official politics suggested. Think of a German walking into a pub and demanding that all girls’ drinks are charged to his account. This is why the Dutch were not overly fond of German soldiers who went off with ‘their’ girls. ‘Even a voluntary relationship pretty much always caused problems and fights, unless the couple met in the NSB pub or the Wehrmacht barracks. It often caused arguments.’
Sexual and domination practices were definitely overlapping with each other, Fahnenbruck finds. And the Netherlands was not the Heimat with girls that were ‘just like at home’.