wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Richard Vinen

The Unfree French

Prisoners were punished for 'relations amicales.' Men were sentenced for offences that involved kissing, exchanging gifts or going for walks with German women: one got four months for 'having exchanged tendresses with a girl.' An officer was sentenced to two years for having drunk tea with two German women. Another prisoner fell in love with a married woman, whom he met whilst taking a course in German literature. He gave her child chocolate and biscuits. He asked her for a photograph of her child and also stole a photograph of the woman herself. He wrote several letters to her but tore them up. Finally, he sent her a letter in which he declared his true feelings. For this offence, he was sentenced to a year in a civilian prison. The fact that he had referred to her as 'dearest' Ursula was held against him.

Prosecutions of French prisoners of war give odd little glimpses of their relations with the German population. A prisoner returning from a fishing expedition met a German woman and exchanged one of his fish for some fruit. He also embraced her. At his trial, he insisted that the embrace was just a 'joke.' He was sentenced to five months for the embrace and six weeks for illegal fishing. Another prisoner had spent the night in a German woman's house. The court seemed to accept that he had slept on the sofa, that he had helped the woman with various chores and that the prisoner was a friend of the woman's husband. In spite of all this, he was sentenced to six months. A German woman invited two French prisoners into her house for coffee and cakes. When a patrol knocked on her door, the prisoners hid under her bed. They were found and both sentenced to six months; the woman was sentenced to four months.

French prisoners were frightened of the reprisals that might follow an affair with a German. Joseph Raoux, who had had a brief fling with his employer's wife, faked conjunctivitis, even though he knew that this would mean transfer from a farm to the less congenial atmosphere of a factory. Rene Dufour's friend Camille, who feared 'that I will be caught with my boss's wife,' was one of a number of prisoners who tried to escape in order to get away from the consequences of an affair with a German woman.

In spite of all this, numerous prisoners allude to the fact that Frenchmen did sleep with German women. Indeed, the existence of such relations seems to have been taken almost for granted. Maurice Duverne wrote: 'On small farms (the husband often drafted), the prisoner of war was not badly off with regard to work, food, etc. Hum, I will say no more.' When Duverne subsequently moved to an office job, one of his French colleagues had an affair with a German girl, who wore black when he was killed in an accident. Jean Brustier recalls teaching German to a peasant from the Aveyron who wished to be able to talk to his lover.

Even back in France, people knew that prisoners of war were sleeping with German women. One prisoner wrote to his wife: 'I do not stint myself, if you want a photo I can even send you one. Yes, I have everything I need with a daughter of two, I will say no more.' The woman wrote to the French authorities seeking to establish whether her husband really did have a daughter in Germany—and the French authorities warned him to be more discreet if he did not want his wife to report him to his camp commandant.

Some Frenchwomen asked to have their husbands moved to different work Kommandos in order to break up affairs. One of the few direct references to the war in the novels of Georges Simenon concerns a prisoner who has fathered two children whilst in Germany. A few prisoners seem to have seen the seduction of German women (or at least talking about the seduction of German women) as a means of continuing the war against German men. One prisoner called his employer a whore and claimed to have slept with her. She first admitted the affair and then insisted that she had rebuffed his advances. At his trial, the prisoner admitted that he had been drunk and had recently received an anonymous letter alleging that his wife was frequenting German soldiers in Paris. More commonly, prisoners recalled German women with amusement, mild embarrassment or wistful nostalgia. What is notably absent from any prisoner account is any sense that sex with German women might be seen as unpatriotic. No Frenchman had his head shaved for sleeping with a German woman.

Some sexual encounters between French prisoners and German women involved brief tussles in cowsheds or haystacks. Some relations, however, lasted a long time and involved real emotional commitment (a fact that German courts regarded as making the offences more serious). One girl of twenty-three hid an escaped prisoner in her bedroom for fifty-one weeks without even her own father knowing about his presence.