When it comes to forbidden love, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet immediately comes to mind. But imagine a true story where Romeo is a Western prisoner of war (POW) and Juliet is a German woman. And they fall in love in Germany, under the Nazi regime during World War II.

Love Between Enemies book cover
Instead of just rival families, the lovers have warring countries, Nazi laws, spying guards, and essentially an entire society standing between them.

“These relationships occurred despite the most hateful, most brutal war in world history,” said Raffael Scheck, the Gibson Professor of History. “And these people defied these enemy categories.”

These little-known accounts of defiance are the subject of Scheck’s new book, Love Between Enemies: Western Prisoners of War and German Women in World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

The high-risk romances first came to Scheck’s attention as he was doing research on Black French soldiers who served during World War II. Aware that historians had not explored the forbidden relationships from both the prisoners’ and women’s perspectives, he started to comb through court cases and trial materials, including love letters, interrogation reports, and denunciation letters. He then examined these affairs and put them in the context of the social, political, and legal climate of the times, teasing out details of these relationships between German women and Western POWs from military trial records.

“The vast majority of military tribunals that the German army conducted against French prisoners dealt with love matters—almost eighty percent of them,” Scheck said.

But how could a free woman and a war prisoner have a relationship in the first place?

Unlike officers and educated prisoners behind barbed wire and separated from civilians—subjects for most memoirs and historians—the vast majority of POWs were common soldiers, he explained. These non-officers, known as rank and file prisoners, could move around relatively freely. And under the Geneva Convention (signed by the Democratic German government in 1929, ratified by the Nazi regime in 1934, and applied only to Western POWs), they could be ordered to work alongside civilians in places like factories and farms.

It was in those settings that these relationships took root.

During the war, the women and the POWs became a critical workforce in the absence of German men, who were serving in the battleground. The women and POWs—mostly French and Belgian, as Britain remained in the war longer with its POWs strictly guarded—spent long hours together, eventually forming relationships ranging from a quick hug to envisioning a common future after the war.

For both the women and the POWs, Scheck found, these relationships stemmed from desperation. “They were very lonely,” he said. The departure of German men placed enormous responsibilities such as caring for the family and becoming the breadwinner on the women’s shoulders, whereas the prisoners longed for human connection. “So many of these relationships were perhaps initially not sexual in nature but were driven by a desire for empathy, for understanding, for emotional relief, and maybe then became sexual, or vice versa,” he said.

Essentially, these affairs filled the void created by the war, his research showed.

But under the Nazi regime, none of these affairs were private matters, and they often became public knowledge. In addition to those reported by neighbors and family members, or revealed by pregnancy, many were discovered by guards, some of whom tried to protect these relationships and even secretly delivered love letters.

However, once the relationships were found out, severe punishments awaited both the POWs and the women.

Early in the war, POWs usually were sentenced to three years in a military prison if there was a sexual relationship, Scheck explained. “German military prisons were very, very hard, very disciplinarian, pretty brutal.” But the punishments became harsher as time went on. For instance, in 1943 a prisoner seen with a German soldier’s wife would be sent to the penitentiary, losing all his rights and enduring forced labor.

In the women’s case, it was the opposite. They were initially punished harshly, with up to six years in the penitentiary. “Bitter, bitter punishment,” Scheck said, stressing that the women also lost all their civic rights. But the punishments declined later in the war, partially because they disrupted society. The women, taken out of the workforce, left behind parents and children without caregivers. Farms collapsed with both women and POWs removed from the workforce. “There were villages where these relations were very widespread,” he said. “And so this could lead to economic paralysis in an entire region.”

After their sentences ended, the women still faced lifelong punishment from a society that stigmatized their time in the penitentiary, their relationships, and their children born out of wedlock.

Yet these women, from the beginning, knew the risks and consequences of these relationships.

“The Nazi regime propagated this prohibition on a very large scale,” said Scheck. In newspapers, on city walls, and in front of city halls, the regime not only advertised the prohibition but also reported on the trials, naming the women and the POWs as well as announcing their punishments. When a farm took on a POW, the local women in charge signed a document saying they were aware of the rules relating to prisoners.

“[The women] were countering something very central to the regime, something very important to the regime,” Scheck said. The Nazi authorities saw friendliness with POWs as a form of betrayal and treason. “And these women did engage in some acts of resistance.”

In court, judges referred to Nuremberg race laws to justify sentences against the prisoners and sometimes the women, accusing them of violating the purity of the German blood. But that, Scheck said, ultimately became unworkable because there were people of German descent in the British and the French army. “The women were still punished for engaging with them, so that the racial logic just did not work,” he said. “And that’s one of the contributions of the book in showing how the Nazi regime could not really apply its racial categories.”

And when the war ended, so did most of these relationships.

“That alternative reality [with these relationships] for these prisoners of war and also for these women became the only reality,” said Scheck. “But then very often they were torn away from it and few managed to stay in these relationships.”