US soldiers who fought in World War II have commonly been depicted as honorable citizen warriors from the “Greatest Generation.” But a new book uncovers the dark side of some GIs in liberated France, where robbing, raping and whoring were rife.
The liberators made a lot of noise and drank too much. They raced around in their jeeps, fought in the streets and stole. But the worst thing was their obsession with French women. They wanted sex – some for free, some for money and some by force.
After four years of German occupation, the French greeted the US soldiers landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944 as liberators. The entire country was delirious with joy. But after only a few months, a shadow was cast over the new masters’ image among the French.
By the late summer of 1944, large numbers of women in Normandy were complaining about rapes by US soldiers. Fear spread among the population, as did a bitter joke: “Our men had to disguise themselves under the Germans. But when the Americans came, we had to hide the women.”
With the landing on Omaha Beach, “a veritable tsunami of male lust” washed over France, writes Mary Louise Roberts, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, in her new book What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France. In it, Roberts scrapes away at the idealized picture of war heroes. Although soldiers have had a reputation for committing rape in many wars, American GIs have been largely excluded from this stereotype. Historical research has paid very little attention to this dark side of the liberation of Europe, which was long treated as a taboo subject in both the United States and France.
American propaganda did not sell the war to soldiers as a struggle for freedom, writes Roberts, but as a “sexual adventure.” France was “a tremendous brothel,” the magazine Life fantasized at the time, “inhabited by 40,000,000 hedonists who spend all their time eating, drinking (and) making love.” The Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the US armed forces, taught soldiers German phrases like: “Waffen niederlegen!” (“Throw down your arms!”). But the French phrases it recommended to soldiers were different: “You have charming eyes,” “I am not married” and “Are your parents at home?”
After their victory, the soldiers felt it was time for a reward. And when they enjoyed themselves with French women, they were not only validating their own masculinity, but also, in a metaphorical sense, the new status of the United States as a superpower, writes Roberts. The liberation of France was sold to the American public as a love affair between US soldiers and grateful French women.
On the other hand, following their defeat by the Germans, many French perceived the Americans’ uninhibited activities in their own country as yet another humiliation. Although the French were officially among the victorious powers, the Americans were now in charge.