The Context Behind Hitler's WWI Lovechild
Julian T. Saltman is a PhD student at UC Berkeley. His dissertation is entitled "For King and Country? 'Imperial Legions' and Britain's War for Palestine, 1916-1919." Follow him on Twitter at @Hist103.
Newspapers are abuzz over the news that Adolf Hitler may have fathered a son with a French teenager while serving in the German Army during the First World War. According to the initial story in the French magazine, Le Point, Hitler, while serving in a Bavarian infantry unit near Seboncourt, met a sixteen-year-old French girl named Charlotte Lobjoie. After meeting and becoming friendly, a night of drinking in 1917 led to the conception of a boy, Jean-Marie Loret, who later died in 1985.
Whether or not this particular story is true is unclear; there is certainly a tremendous amount of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to support the possibility, but the picture is still murky. What is perfectly clear, however, is that such incidents happened frequently during the First World War, and are an important part of the war’s lasting resonance.
When Germany invaded France in August 1914, its armies entered into France’s Northeastern départements by crossing in through Belgium. Despite an initially rapid advance, they were finally halted at the Marne River in September 1914, just miles from Paris. Referred to as the “Miracle of the Marne”, the French victory (made possible in part by the famous “Taxis of the Marne,” Parisian cabs which desperately transported French soldiers to the front lines) marked the beginning of the war as it is popularly known—a relatively stagnant affair of opposing trenches. Critically, these new battle lines left ten départements either partially or totally occupied by Germany, a significant portion of French territory containing over 2 million French citizens. For roughly four years, the German forces occupied these areas, prompting a wave of fears about relationships between German soldiers and French women.
Such fears appear in one of the earliest and most famous pieces of French First World War fiction. Published in 1916, Le Feu (in English it was changed to Under Fire) was the work of Henri Barbusse, a French writer who had voluntarily enlisted in 1914 at the age of 41. Despite a later turn to communism, Barbusse’s political leanings in Le Feu tend towards a form of populism, and his work unflinchingly describes the monotony, horror, and disconnections of the war. One of these disconnections was that of French soldiers from the now German occupied territories, who sometimes fought only several miles from their former homes. One of Barbusse’s characters, Poterloo, is exactly this, and we later learn of his heartbreak when, after sneaking behind enemy lines, he finds his wife and child fraternizing with German soldiers—“She was smiling, she was happy. She seemed contented besides these Boche corporals…I managed to see my kid holding out her hands to a fat gent in a braided uniform and trying to climb on his lap.” Almost all of Le Feu is drawn on Barbusse’s experiences—and French fears of Germans co-opting their loved ones was certainly a worry of many men.
German memoirs also mentioned interactions with French women. Ernst Jünger paused from describing the carnage around him in Storm of Steel to describe his friendship with a French teenage girl, a seventeen-year old whose father had been killed in the war. Whether Junger’s relationship was anything more than platonic is not clear, but in areas suddenly bereft of young French men, it’s not surprising that friendships and sexual relationships developed between German soldiers and French women.
Some historians, however, reject the idea of heavily consensual relationships, and argue that interactions between German soldiers and French women were aggressive, violent, and often far from consensual. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, in particular, have chronicled rape, sexual assault, forced labor, and the forced deportation of some French women around Easter 1916. This narrative intersects with the earliest stories of 1914—whether or not the German Army committed war crimes against Belgian and French civilians. In their controversial work, German Atrocities: 1914, the historians John Horne and Alan Kramer recorded 679 French civilians killed during the first month of the war, along with an unquantified number of rapes. French society furiously debated what to do with children fathered by German soldiers—but the end result was that the names and numbers of the “children of the barbarians” were kept hidden, and they were given full French citizenship.
As with many things, the true historical picture is probably a mix of consensual and forced relationships between German men and French women. Plenty of French women found German soldiers charming, attractive, and well-behaved, while many others suffered sexual assault and other demeaning treatment. Hitler’s relationship seems to have been something of the former—he painted and went on walks with Ms. Lobjoie. Regardless, this revelation serves as an important reminder that the First World War was much more than simply young men fighting in trenches.
A considerable part of France was occupied, and its inhabitants experienced a significantly different war than many of their compatriots. The story of collaboration and resistance in France during the Second World War is a popular theme, but important parallels lie in the First World War. Similarly, just as A Woman in Berlin has reminded a broader audience of the horrors of occupied Berlin in 1945, we need to be mindful that the First World War was more than just trenches and poets. The residents of occupied France suffered deeply from 1914-1918, and memories of this certainly influenced popular opinion throughout the 1930s.
As is often the case, much of what we have come to associate with the Second World War had—like Hitler himself—deep roots in the First World War, the crucible of Europe’s twentieth century.
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