Monday, April 13, 2009

New book lays bare French collaboration with the Nazis

AN unusual history of the Nazis in France has trampled on one of the country’s most painful taboos by focusing on women who slept with the enemy during the occupation.

Flouting a long-running convention of silence on what he calls “horizontal collaboration”, Patrick Buisson, the author, describes the Nazi occupation as the “golden age” of the French brothel, chronicling a dramatic growth in prostitution to satisfy German demand.

The book, 1940-1945, Erotic Years, is the second hefty volume in a wide-ranging sexual history of the occupation that one critic last week described as a “magisterial provocation” because of its assault on the myth that life under the Nazi boot was all resistance, hardship and suffering.

Brothels that had been on the verge of closure before the war, as the abolitionist league gained force, enjoyed a dramatic revival as German soldiers poured into France.

Some of the so-called maisons closes were reserved exclusively for officers, whose good looks and gallantry – they would bring chocolates and flowers – won them admirers in a country whose natives were rather less charming with prostitutes.

“I’m almost ashamed to say it,” Fabienne Jamet, a madame at one of the top addresses, is quoted as saying, referring to debauched, champagne-drenched soirées, “but I’ve never had so much fun in my life. Those nights of the occupation were fantastic.”

Seldom has a book delved as deeply into what is regarded by many as a source of national shame: far from being forced into bed with the invaders through economic hardship (as the official history would have people believe), thousands of French women fell in love with German soldiers and it is estimated that 200,000 children were born to Franco-German couples during the war.

“That the departure of the Germans caused thousands of women deep affliction . . . is one of those facts that political necessity commands us to ignore,” writes Buisson, director of France’s History Channel and a presidential adviser.

Members of the artistic and literary elite were “particularly sensitive to the seductiveness of the enemy”, the author says. He describes a string of romances between German officers and such iconic figures as Coco Chanel, the fashion designer, Mistinguett, the singer, Colette, the writer, and Arletty, the pseudonym under which Léonie Bathiat, the actress and star of Les Enfants du Paradis, was known.

Arletty later justified her affair with a dashing young Luftwaffe captain by saying: “My heart is French but my body is international.”

The aristocracy also showed a fondness for les boches and many of the most famous Parisian hostesses, including Countess Marie-Laure de Noailles, allowed themselves to be “occupied” by the invaders.

“Their [the elite’s] behaviour helped to take away the sense of culpability of women of more humble station who felt the same fascination or attraction [for the enemy],” the author writes.

Many, inevitably, sought favours from the Germans and there were an estimated 100,000 “occasional prostitutes” working in Paris – five to six times more than before the war. Women began dyeing their hair black in the belief that it would make them seem “exotic” because the wives of their Teutonic clients were more likely to be fair-haired.

“In less than an hour,” writes Buisson, “a girl who sells her charms to the occupier can earn up to three times the daily allowance that was given to the wives of French prisoners of war in 1941.”

Brothels, many of which were requisitioned for the exclusive use of the Germans, became a booming industry, upon which the collaborationist Vichy government imposed taxes. The business was tightly monitored by the occupiers, who imposed three stringent weekly medical examinations on women to prevent disease in the ranks.

The 15 doctors in charge of these inspections were obliged to sign a form in which they acknowledged that any negligence on their part would be considered by the Wehrmacht to be “an act of sabotage”.

“Never have the brothels of France been better maintained than in their presence,” said Jamet, who ran a club called One Two Two. The working girls were just as grateful. “Everything indicates that the new clients of the summer of 1940 were given a favourable form of treatment that the seductive power of the [deutsch-mark] alone could not entirely account for,” writes the author.

Officers seemed often to regard the brothel as a home from home: “They were a substitute for the warmth of a distant hearth, convivial places where you would go for a drink, to listen to music, to dance with the women without necessarily going upstairs with one at the end of the evening.”

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was a distressing event for Parisian brothel owners, Buisson relates, because so many of their “youngest and most vigorous” clients were redeployed to the eastern front.

Women ended up paying for their betrayal: thousands had their heads shaved to shame them after the liberation – “the revenge of the French male”, Buisson says.

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