They introduced new sexual mores, were physically confident and had a positive image of Dutch women. The German soldiers who occupied the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945 found love, affairs or just sex in the Netherlands. Historian Laura Fahnenbruck spent eight years studying the everyday sexuality of the Wehrmacht soldier in the years of occupation, and thus the sexuality of Dutch women during the Second World War. Fahnenbruck will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 12 November.
The German supreme command looked favourably upon contact between German soldiers and Dutch women. The Netherlands was considered to be a more or less German area, and the German administration was keen to prove that the occupation was a necessary evil. Contact between soldiers and Dutch women was thought to make a valuable contribution to the propaganda effort. This was handy for soldiers, because they could show the home front how good they had it in the Netherlands and it gave them the opportunity to conform to the image of the macho soldier.
This often went further than having your photo taken together. German soldiers turned their backs on traditional authority in Dutch society, which made them interesting to young women. Fahnenbruck: ‘You saw this immediately in May 1940. There are already reports of girls rejecting authority. They had found a strong new group, and contact with it had its advantages.’ Although fraternization with soldiers was widely disapproved of, it gave young women a real chance to have sexual experiences.
The Wehrmacht soldiers were well educated and physically confident and had access to medical care and free condoms. They contributed indirectly to the modernization of sexuality in the Netherlands. German soldiers had sex appeal, and it worked. ‘For instance, the Dutch police reported an increase in liaisons in doorways, a meeting place for soldiers and women.’ The effect was not wholly unintentional: the Wehrmacht uniform was designed to emphasize masculinity.
The Wehrmacht took a pragmatic approach to soldiers’ sexuality. The main thing was that soldiers stayed healthy, both for their wives and children at home and for the army as a fighting machine. The result was a pragmatic medicalization of sexuality, with a great emphasis on rules of hygiene and preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Demystified sex is what the Wehrmacht boiled down to.
Military brothels developed where there were gaps in the existing medical infrastructure. This could mean close to barracks outside the big cities, like the marine base at Hoek van Holland. Many Dutch women travelled there by train from Rotterdam and The Hague, which made it difficult to keep a check on the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In 1942, a doctor from the German army therefore argued – in vain – for a brothel that would house at least 120 women.
Fahnenbruck’s findings are relevant to both the Dutch and German debate on the Second World War. The Netherlands during the occupation provides the opportunity to study the Wehrmacht soldier as an individual within the Volksgemeinschaft. Away from the heat of battle, German soldiers sought other ways to contribute to the war effort, for instance by organizing city walks or writing travel guides on the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands ‘collaboration’ dominated the discussion for a long time. Feminists later took up the cause of the Dutch women. After all, falling in love in time of war was just falling in love. Fahnenbruck has her doubts about this. People often fail to appreciate that not only did Dutch women have room for negotiation in their relationships with German soldiers, but they also proved able to make use of this. The collaboration perspective is important because relationships with soldiers were nearly always to the political advantage of the occupying forces.
Fahnenbruck studied archives from the German army and the Dutch police together with court reports. She also used dairies, letters, photos and personal ads. As an academic she is interested in the history of everyday life.
- Laura Fahnenbruck
- Fahnenbruck (Uelzen, 1979) read German Studies in Groningen and now works as a lecturer at the University of Groningen. She will defend her thesis on Thursday 12 November 2015 entitled Ein(ver)nehmen. Sexualität und Alltag von Wehrmachtsoldaten in den besetzten Niederlanden 1940-1945. Her supervisors were Professor Mineke Bosch and Professor Raingard Esser.
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