From the moment Allied occupation troops entered Germany, two things became apparent: first, that GIs would waste little time in finding new sexual partners and, second, that with just as much gusto, American reporters and photographers would alert stateside audiences to these liaisons. No occupied territory excited greater or more prurient interest than the female body. Nor did anything more speedily tarnish the image of America’s postwar occupation than the avidity with which American servicemen of all ranks engaged in what was euphemistically termed “fraternization” with defeated former foes.

Military leaders had expressly forbidden American service personnel from fraternizing with Germans, of all ages and both sexes, in any way whatsoever. GIs were reminded about this prohibition at every turn, from the Pocket Guide to Germany to orientation films, radio spots, posters, and large billboards that lined the routes along which Allied soldiers poured into the Third Reich in the war’s closing months.

At first, Germany—and German women—appeared suitably hostile or simply absent from the visual record of Allied conquest. Life magazine’s March 19, 1945, issue carried a striking, full-page image of an amused American corporal cinching a female figure with a passing facial resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. On closer inspection, her extravagantly arched eyebrows turned out to be the least improbable feature of this GI’s inamorata—a mannequin wearing almost nothing other than a long wig and a Wehrmacht officer’s cap. “American soldiers are forbidden to ‘fraternize’ with real German girls,” the caption explained. Although the text went on to remark that fraternization was “hard to prevent,” Life offered no further illumination. That would soon change.

A ban on fraternization between American GIs
and civilians in occupied Germany did little to thwart interactions of all kinds. (Photo by Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Four months later, the magazine devoted several pages to a photo story illuminating the “No. 1 gripe of American GIs in Germany, the official policy of ‘nonfraternization’”: a rule that meant “soldiers are forbidden marriage, visits, drinking, shaking hands, playing games, hobnobbing, exchanging gifts, walking, sitting, dancing or talking to the Germans.” To show how egregiously American soldiers were violating the ban, Life devoted an entire page to a photograph showing a GI pinioning a young woman against the wall of a dreary apartment building, his body angled toward hers, their faces just inches apart. “In a back yard near Wiesbaden, U.S. soldier corners a pretty, laughing German girl,” the caption read.

But the other photographs in the story served a rather different purpose: to show that the truly ingenious players in occupied Germany’s game of cat and mouse were the fräuleins who set out to tease and ensnare guileless GIs. German women, in effect, were doing the real pinioning. Wearing “flimsy” summer dresses—or even less at Germany’s beaches and pools—they paraded their untouchable assets. “Girls flaunt themselves partly to taunt the Americans,” Life explained, “but chiefly in order to get ‘frau bait’ of candy, gum and cigarets [sic].” Stars and Stripes published similar photographs of solidly constructed young women in two-piece bathing suits that both reminded GIs about what was off-limits and encouraged them to disregard the prohibition. “Verboten—but not too bad from this angle,” ran one caption.

The claim that women solicited their occupiers’ attention—for both amusement and profit—quickly became a dominant explanation for the breakdown of soldiers’ sexual restraint in occupied Germany. No less an authority than Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery endorsed this thesis; the British general accused the country’s female population of practicing a “new form of German sabotage by wearing fewer and fewer clothes, thereby undermining nonfraternization policy.” Time reported that this treacherous striptease had disarmed both Tommies and GIs: “German girls in brief shorts and halters systematically sunned themselves in full view of U.S. engineers….  Military policemen…had their patience tried by a girl who patted her backside and whispered ‘verboten’ every time she passed…. The effect on [troops] was exactly what the Field Marshal feared.”

This story encapsulated the contradictions that characterized the press’s take on sex and the occupation soldier. On the one hand, nothing seemingly sullied the good name of the American occupation government more than illicit intimate contact between American personnel and German women. As war correspondent Percy Knauth pointed out in Life, they were “girls who used to go out with the guys who killed your buddies.” That German women were “preoccupied”—the former lovers of Nazi Party bigwigs or Wehrmacht small fry—made them all the more dangerous, or, worse yet, all the more alluring. Yet, however lamentable this sordid state of affairs, GIs were not wholly, or even primarily, to blame.

The “unspeakable” was also highly marketable. Rarely did magazine editors pass up an easy double entendre. When Collier’s magazine published a story in October 1946 entitled “Heels among the Heroes,” it illustrated Edward Morgan’s essay about low morale and lax morality among American occupation forces with a photograph of three “comely German Fräuleins” in bikinis protesting an “off-limits” sign planted at a beach. The GI they petitioned was dressed only in bathing trunks. “It takes a strong man to remain firm,” the caption nudged. 

The press accused German women of taunting occupying soldiers. British Field Marshal Bernard L.Montgomery called
it a “new form of German sabotage.” (Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

One troublesome word, “occupation,” thus found itself inextricably entangled with another: “fraternization.” It was an “awful big word for most GIs,” an army field surgeon wrote to his wife from Germany in July 1945, but it “usually just means one thing to them.” A much simpler, four-letter word could readily be substituted for this cumbersome term—or it could be abbreviated to “frattin,” with no truncation of meaning.

Neither before nor during World War II had American military commanders hit on a reliable formula for constraining soldiers’ sexual activity in all its unruliness. A ban on fraternization had been tried in Germany before, when American troops occupied the Rhineland after World War I. The prohibition failed and was quickly rescinded. During World War II, soldiers overseas had become accustomed to having sex with or without the military establishment’s direct facilitation. It was inconceivable that troops would cease and desist from all sexual activity upon entry into Germany, no matter what stern injunctions SHAEF—Allied supreme headquarters—might issue. Recognizing this, one senior officer proposed that if superiors insisted on a fraternization ban, “we should import into Germany at the earliest possible moment our own women in as large numbers as may be.”

As that chimerical recommendation suggests, the antifraternization rule was not exclusively, or even primarily, a military device contrived to starve soldiers of sex. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s order prohibiting all social contact—issued on September 12, 1944, the day after the first American troops occupied a small pocket of southwestern Germany around Aachen—reflected the tightening of Washington policy on the so-called “German Question.” As such, the ban sought to impress on citizens of the Third Reich their “collective guilt” by force of complete ostracism.

A Pocket Guide to Germany for American soldiers contained warnings about fraternization. (123RF)

To help Germans “see the error of their ways” they would be “held at arm’s length,” as General John H. Hilldring, commander of the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division, put it. The terms of Eisenhower’s prohibition made his figurative expression literal. Germans wouldn’t just be held at arm’s length; they wouldn’t be held at all. Even handshaking was banned. The prohibition of more intimate physical contact was left unspoken but implied.

Washington’s line on fraternization toughened under popular pressure. Soon after American troops occupied Aachen, photographs appeared in stateside newspapers showing soldiers enjoying the hospitality of German families—taking convivial meals together, with GIs’ arms familiarly draped over children’s shoulders. Within days, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cabled Eisenhower about photographs “considered objectionable by a number of our people.” The president asked that SHAEF both stamp out fraternization and ensure that “publication of such photos be effectively prohibited.” Eisenhower responded that he had already insisted “that fraternization be suppressed completely,” but the ban would henceforth be more total in its remit.

Military commanders found themselves in the uncomfortable position of imposing a prohibition they believed unenforceable. They employed every conceivable argument to urge men away from contact with Germans—playing, in particular, on fears of contamination. Antifraternization propaganda construed German women as doubly dangerous: carriers of noxious ideological strains as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Posters presented a lurid image of female siren-saboteurs poised to infect American boys’ minds with the bacillus of Nazism and their bodies with syphilis and gonorrhea. In the spring of 1945, after the Allies had liberated the concentration and extermination camps, antifraternization warnings also incorporated photographs of Germany’s victims to underscore the message that Americans must shun the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes.

But the terms of the ban were extraordinarily difficult to respect. Military personnel whose work required them to interact with German civilians on a day-to-day basis found it especially awkward. On occasion, drivers, translators, and other subordinates rebuked military officers for unthinkingly offering their hands to German civilians or returning salutes before they had had time to curb reflexes of military courtesy.

Some checked their instincts but wondered whether they had been correct to do so. On May 22, 1945, Major John Maginnis recounted in his diary that he had gone to pick up some photographs from a small shop in Berlebeck: “In the normal European fashion, [the elderly proprietor] courteously preceded me to the door and extended his hand as I departed. I did not take it and somehow it bothered me that I did not. Had I given him the customary brief handshake, would I have been fraternizing? Probably.” Maginnis did not pursue the logic of his unease further. But others certainly wondered whether the ban was not calculated to engender more hostility than remorse, particularly among Germans who had not been party members and bristled at the undifferentiated guilt Americans attached to the entire population.

One nettlesome question was whether children deserved to be stigmatized in exactly the same way as their parents and other adults. Sidney Eisenberg told his family in the Bronx about a fleeting encounter, two days before Germany’s final capitulation, that had rattled him: “As you know I take this non-fraternization business very seriously—far more than most. I slipped up once. I walk home from work every day—3 1⁄2 miles—for the exercise and completely ignore the Herrenvolk en route. But the other day a sweet little girl—about 7 years old—dragging a tiny kid brother, smiled at me faintly—hopefully. I grinned at her efforts and she immediately broke into the loveliest smile imaginable—one I shall never forget tho I felt guilt about even this afterward.”

If military rule was not persuasive enough, perhaps fear of contamination would be—hence posters alerting GIs to the dangers of venereal disease. (HistoryNet Archives)

Ban or no ban, American soldiers found Germany alive with sexual activity in the spring and summer of 1945. One particularly galling phenomenon to many GIs was the fact that German POWs were being released and returning home by the early summer. “Darling it sure does burn the boys over here to see all the German soldiers walking down the road going home and then we have to stay here and watch them,” infantryman Aubrey Ivey wrote to his wife from Landa on May 26, 1945.

Worse yet, these demobilized veterans were publicly resuming their romantic lives, and seemingly flaunting their freedom to do so, under the disgusted gaze of the occupiers. On June 6, Leo Bogart, a sergeant in the Army Signal Corps, wrote his parents in Brooklyn on the subject: “To the GI who is faithful to a woman back in the States, or who just wants to keep his nose clean and sticks to the non-fraternization rule, there is something extremely irritating in the sight of a Nazi soldier, in his uniform, walking slowly down the street of an evening in the embrace of a good-looking Fräulein.”

Former Wehrmacht soldiers were not the only ones enjoying an instant “peace dividend.” Some female Displaced Persons—many of them former forced laborers from Eastern Europe—were also running “miniature houses of joy,” as one military government officer put it. “I broke that up fast for the two were Polish and therefore had to be shipped to a repatriation center if they weren’t doing useful work,” Second Lieutenant Maurice Kurtz informed his spouse, quipping that “useful” was all a matter of perspective. Predictably enough, the Poles’ clientele was not limited to other DPs. Since the fraternization ban did not extend to other nationalities, American soldiers quickly entered into liaisons with DPs.

Life also alerted its readers to the way in which GIs would spuriously “renationalize” women to circumvent the ban against fraternization, pretending that German girlfriends were not, in fact, German. “The boys never admit fraternizing, and it’s always a French girl, or a Belgian, or a Russian, or a Pole involved. They’re very cagey,” Dr. Felix Vann, a major in the 863rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, informed his wife in late May.

In an attempt to stamp out this ruse, Twelfth Army Group headquarters began issuing colored cloth armbands to DPs that would identify them by nationality: a practice uncomfortably redolent of the Nazi insistence that persecuted populations literally wear their identity on their sleeves. Another unit tried something similar with lapel buttons. Predictably, these readily discarded markers of identity did not prove an effective impediment to GI ingenuity. Indeed, enlisted men’s can-do entrepreneurialism simply ensured that a brisk black market developed for DP armbands and buttons.

Officers were just as quick to circumvent the fraternization ban as enlisted men. But where the latter often required deviousness to maneuver around rules, officers simply bent them on a grander scale. Officers, after all, both devised and enforced the rules—or ignored them.

Felix Vann expanded on his observations about enlisted men’s associations with DPs, or Germans they passed off as such, with equally scathing diatribes about officers. Many of them, he noted in July 1945, were “going off the deep end.” Married and single officers alike routinely maintained relationships with women they had met earlier in France and Belgium, issuing themselves passes so they could return west at whim to visit their girlfriends. Unlike enlisted men, officers enjoyed the self-assigned leisure and mobility required to sustain long-distance romances. Others, Vann noted, were “shacked up with WACs [Women’s Army Corps] and nurses,” leading to another common complaint of enlisted men: that their superiors monopolized all the available American women.

With some officers openly pursuing affairs in Germany and beyond, enlisted men inclined to break the rules no doubt felt all the more vindicated in pursuing their own amorous adventures. In this permissive environment, punishment for violations of the fraternization ban was rarely severe, especially after V-E Day. Enlisted men faced fines of $65 for fraternization, a sum equivalent to two or three months’ net pay for most, but few offenders were actually docked.

Despite omnipresent warnings—enlisted men and officers alike widely violated the ban, with few punished. A courtroom scene shows a rare exception. The fine was $65. (The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images )

Officers tended to be especially lenient in excusing one another’s “indiscretions.” Major Maginnis, who in his diary had expressed misgivings about his interaction with a German shop owner, also recorded his vexation that a general, Frank Howley, failed to take a serious view of two field-grade officers openly “having social parties” with German women, letting the men off with nothing more than a “good dressing down.” Meanwhile in the Bavarian Alps, Colonel Clifton Lisle, commander of the 2nd European Civil Affairs Regiment, tried to hold the line by court-martialing an officer who had consorted with a woman Lisle described as a “notorious Nazi whore.” (His diary noted his incomprehension over “such things,” but not the verdict.)

Despite some officers’ best efforts, the line was not to be held. As army historian Earl Ziemke writes, nonfraternization policy “did not end, it disintegrated.”

The first substantial retreat came on June 4, 1945, when SHAEF quietly released word that contraction of VD would no longer be “used directly or indirectly as evidence of fraternization”—an indication the ban had done nothing to curb escalating rates of infection. In fact, halfhearted attempts to respect nonfraternization had just the opposite effect. One army medic noted that after Eisenhower’s initial order was decreed, the bowl of condoms that had formerly sat at the end of the chow line was removed—with predictable consequences for the sexual health of soldiers and their partners.

However, these pragmatic rationales for rescinding the ban hardly made for the best PR. The public narrative, as spun for the home front, attempted to turn a negative into a positive by first authorizing friendly relations between military personnel and children. Eisenhower made this announcement on June 11, conjuring a heartwarming image of the generous GI to whom youngsters everywhere were irresistibly drawn. This surely elicited knowing chuckles from men only too well aware that it was hardly the dispensing of Hershey bars to infants that had preoccupied the high command. The new amendment also seemed almost to encourage GIs to set their sights ever lower, since interaction with young girls could now, however disingenuously, be justified by the official sanction given to friendly dealings with children. In this vein, Life tellingly captioned a photograph of a GI greeting a young German woman, “Goodday, child.”

What was left of the ban lasted only another month before Eisenhower announced that soldiers could henceforth engage German adults in conversation. Gamely, but misleadingly, he asserted that this move reflected the great strides that had been made with denazification. By permitting verbal exchanges, the ameliorated policy would encourage yet more progress since, Eisenhower suggested, GIs would now be able to express their outrage to Germans about the horrors of the extermination camps. Few, one suspects, had either the language skills or the inclination to take up this opportunity. Rather than reflecting the success of denazification, the retreat from nonfraternization actually demonstrated how unworkable the hard-line policy  had proven in practice.

A photographer used the German word for bath or spa—bad—to playful advantage in documenting the ban on fraternization. (National Archives)

Reporters greeted the end of the ban as tantamount to an order from Ike to copulate; at any rate, they announced that GIs had gleefully taken his “fraternization order” that way. Some officers agreed, infuriated that enlisted men were now quite openly consorting with German women in public. Indeed, according to Brigadier General Jack Whitelaw, it was impossible to go outdoors in Berlin without tripping over fraternizing couples: “Yesterday being Sunday, I took the afternoon off and went for a walk around the lake,” he wrote to his wife on September 17, 1945. “The thing called fraternization is still going on there full blast; in fact, it’s increasing and I’ve about decided that I must find some other form of exercise.”

Whitelaw did not give up his perambulations around Berlin’s Grunewald, but his attitude toward German civilians soon softened. By winter 1945, he and many other officers were more alarmed by the possibility of Germans starving or freezing to death than by no-longer illicit liaisons. Over time, American recollections of the occupation would also soften as Germans transformed from bitter foes to firm Cold War allies. Hollywood, meanwhile, turned postwar Germany into safe territory for squeaky-clean teens. In 1960, America’s best-known soldier serving overseas, Elvis Presley, rued the unavailability of German girlfriends for lonesome American boys in GI Blues. Without any need for a formal ban on fraternization, chaste fräuleins apparently kept GIs at arm’s length, issuing their own stern injunctions against inappropriate trespass. “They all wear signs saying ‘Keepen Sie Off The Grass,’” Presley crooned regretfully in the title number. The wholesome Germany of GI Blues was a far cry from the days just after the war when American journalists decried the “unbearable availability” of German fräuleins, lamenting how swiftly VD had followed V-E. ✯

From The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace by Susan L. Carruthers. Published by Harvard University Press. $29.95. Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This excerpt was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.