An unusual exhibit examining the impact of war on sexuality and relationships opened last Saturday at Les Invalides, the famous army museum located in the French capital. The exhibit, entitled “Love, War and Sexuality,” covers the period of two world wars, from 1914 to 1945.
The Paris exhibit was organized by three French historians, namely, Francois Roquet, Fabricius Virgili and Daniele Voldman. The historians searched high and low in museum storage rooms of Europe and the United States to find pieces related to sexual relations and romance of those who fought in WWI and WWII.
There are 480 mementos and documents on display. The exhibit comprises propaganda posters, postage stamps, paintings, photographs, diaries, pieces of prose and poetry centered on sex in times of war. Besides, visitors can watch wartime films pertaining to the subject or listen to military songs etc.
Sex and the Red Army
It should be noted that the Paris exhibit portrays Russian soldiers of the pre-Revolutionary era in a rather quirky way. In one of the galleries, one can see a rare poster dating from 1917. The poster features intertwining bodies of the Russian military – an obvious hint at homosexuality.
Researchers have raised the issue of wartime sexuality and relationships before. For instance, the Czech writer V. Schneider conducted a research into sexual activities of the Red Army soldiers during the Second World War. Schneider gauged the attitude toward sex among the soldiers by asking around several well-known personalities who fought in the war.
The opinions on the subject varied. The famous Soviet-era writer Vasil Bykov told Schneider that “those at the front lines could not care less about sex.” According to him, getting some sleep was his only concern during an occasional lull in the fighting. “I believe the majority of Russian soldiers were normally stressed-out to the point of banishing any thoughts of sex even when they had a breather,” Bykov was quoted as saying by Schneider. The guys in the infantry were far too young to start showing concern about active sexual behavior anyway, said Bykov.
The writer Viktor Nekrasov, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1974 for political reasons, told Schneider that masturbation was the only option for ordinary soldiers in the Red Army during the war. “German soldiers would regularly get leaves of absence… there were brothels they could visit to have sex and unwind. We had nothing of the kind. Commissioned officers could live with nurses and female personnel of signal troops, whereas the ranks could only masturbate,” Nekrasov said.
In his study, Schneider cites a fascinating account provided by General Nikolai Antipenko, the former deputy chief of the Red Army’s support services under Marshals Georgi Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovski.
According to Gen. Antipenko, the Supreme High Command of the Red Army gave its consent to the establishment of two brothels for commissioned officers only in the summer of 1944. The whorehouses were officially referred to as “holiday centers.” However, the experiment proved to be a flop. The first group of officers spent their three-week leave in the facilities according to plan. All the officers reportedly returned to the front, bringing their new girlfriends along. Consequently, no new daughters of joy were hired by the Red Army.
“The screams of passion go on even in times of war”
Speaking at a press conference shortly after unveiling the show, its organizers said that they aimed to display evidence in proof of the claim that armed conflicts cannot kill the basic human desire i.e. to love and be loved. The pieces are put together to showcase the specifics of relationships between men and women in times of war. They are also meant to examine relationships between civilians and combatants. Thereby hangs a general idea of the exhibit: “The screams of passion go on even in times of war.”
The private mementos and documents clearly testify that each year of the two world wars was laden with intense correspondence between the separated husbands and wives, fiancés and fiancées. In 1914, some soldiers and their lovers exchanged overly sentimental post cards and letters decorated with handmade romantic designs, which symbolized eternal love.
Newly enlisted members of U.S. Army were amazed to see the pictures of scantily dressed ladies advertising weapons on propaganda posters, which hung right on the doors of America’s recruiting stations during the First World War, Newsru Israel reports. Once the war broke out, the government started paying special attention to issues relating to various manifestations of sexuality in the troops e.g. loyalty to one’s partner by not having a sexual relationship with another; homosexual relationships; prostitution. The state propaganda was aimed at promoting the virtues of matrimony and the necessity to keep the sex drive under control in times of war. The U.S. government even attempted to strip former servicemen of their pensions in case there was enough evidence to accuse them of cheating on their wives.
Maintaining certain health and hygienic standards among the troops was another reason why the government machine promoted sexual abstinence. During the First World War, the French army authorities took steps to restrain contact between soldiers and prostitutes. The measures were aimed at keeping a lid on the spread of syphilis among the servicemen. Brothels enjoyed preferential treatment following the invention of penicillin. However, freelance streetwalkers were not subject to regular health checks by the army doctors, and therefore posed a threat to their customers in uniform. A number of posters on display send a clear message to the soldier: “Don’t take your chances with a streetwalker – go to a brothel!” Propaganda never seemed to miss the opportunity to lay special emphasis on keeping a military secret at all times. “Keep your mouth shut between the sheets!” one of the posters reads.
Visitors can also take a look at the documented examples of patriotism demonstrated by Paris prostitutes during the years of Second World War. The “working” notebook that used to belong to an inmate of a Parisian whorehouse contains the following entries: “Tuesday, 14.30: General ‘von Truque,’ 200 francs. 16.00: Obersturmbannfuhrer, 100 francs. 17.00: Jean, free of charge.”
Some documents on display refer to gruesome pages of the history of wartime sexuality. For instance, one photo shows a group of French women whose heads were shaved in public – a punishment for being “easy lays for the Germans.” A graphic photo that features Lee Miller, a U.S. model, photographer and army journalist, posing in Hitler’s bathtub is one of the most spectacular pieces of the Paris exhibit, which runs at Les Invalides through December 31, 2007.
Translated by Guerman Grachev