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The romantic (and seamy) sides of world wars

September 22, 2007|From the Associated Press

PARIS -- Everybody knows the photo of the sailor sweeping a nurse into his arms in Times Square, two strangers sealing the end of World War II with a kiss. Their very public embrace may be the most emblematic image of love and war.

But what about the private mementos and photos, tucked into pockets and treasured in the trenches and battlefields? Soldiers -- both German and French -- sculpted delicate engagement rings out of melted shrapnel. Some French World War I soldiers inscribed declarations of love onto autumn leaves using hundreds of pinpricks.

A new exhibit at Les Invalides in Paris examines the influence of the two world wars on relationships and sexuality, leaving no facet unexamined. Next to the tender trinkets of separated lovers are shockingly gruesome French military film reels about venereal diseases, meant to scare soldiers away from the whorehouses.

The curators say "Love, War and Sexuality," which opens today, is the most comprehensive exhibit ever put together on the subject. Many of the mementos and documents had been collecting dust in museum storage rooms in Europe and the United States.

On display for the first time are Mata Hari's travel papers, featuring a glamorous photo of the dancer turned World War I spy, wearing a feather-trimmed hat and dangling earrings.

The exhibit, which focuses on European fighting, is thematic, not chronological. Russian, French, British and German pieces are grouped all together, not by country. The show opens with propaganda posters -- astonishingly similar in every country -- depicting comely women calling men to arms or embracing the heroes.

One exception is a poster from fascist Italy. It shows a soldier in a farewell embrace -- not with his lover, but with his mother. "A kiss for mama and hit the road," it reads.

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