Little is known about the phenomena of marriage of convenience during the Nazi era. These marriages allowed persecuted women to flee from the Third Reich to a country of exile, to ensure their stay there or to prevent deportation or internment, by marrying a foreign national for papers only. Often the marriages merely existed on paper, having been arranged within various networks, and they were occasionally paid for. The research has a notable gender component as only women could make such use of marriages of convenience since wives automatically assumed the nationality of their husbands through marriage, not vice versa. The regulation by nation-states regarding migration, naturalization and expatriation were obviously factors that influenced the agency of women fleeing the Nazi regime and had repercussions later in the lives of these unequal transnational couples in exile. Using the institution of marriage to subvert national regimes indicates that marrying was no private matter, especially when different nationalities were involved and one person could save the other by marrying.
No accurate numbers are available as to how many women attempted to save themselves by contracting marriages of convenience, as this is a deeply private subject. Only few have spoken out about this publicly. During the last years of my research, I was able to identify and trace more than eighty cases of marriages of convenience documented in the works of scholars, autobiographies, eye-witness reports and interviews in(to) various countries (but only few involving France). These cases mainly concern wealthy and educated women with contact to international networks. Jewish women would mainly enter into a marriage of convenience with a husband who was also from within Jewish networks. This could indicate that such personal circumstances were a precondition to be able to arrange a marriage with a foreign national for papers only. This raises the question of representation and whether using (auto-)biographies as a main source will automatically lead to these kinds of cases. Prominent people are more likely to leave a rich paper trail and be seen as worthy of writing biographies about. It will be considerably more challenging to find “ordinary people” who were saved by a marriage of convenience, involving marriages for payment, which may be present in the files documented by the Immigration Police. These files allow an insight into strategies how the state actors attempted to prevent marriages of convenience.
Marriage was not a quick and simple solution in every case. Some husbands sought to exploit their new marital status; the consequences could be violence or rape, or blackmail extending over years. A further danger was that of betrayal by a third party, as well as the general insecurity inherent in such marriages. Nonetheless, marriages of convenience were often – but not always – a successful escape strategy and means to survive the Nazi regime. The research projects seeks to make the persecuted women visible as active agents of their lives.
At the conference, I will present five interesting cases dealing with France or French husbands. The focus will be on the partner relationships and their developments during exile, including the legal and normative framework in the countries of exile. These cases will show the importance of pre-existing networks, be it family members or politically like-minded people, sometimes they overlap. Four of these persecuted Jewish women married a French citizen in Vienna or Switzerland in order to escape or to gain the French citizenship and were therefore allowed to stay in France. One German-British couple spontaniously married in Paris to escape the British Immigration police suspecting them of entering into a marriage of convenience. All these marriages were unusual and uneqal in many aspects and had different consequences for the partners, the only thing they have in common: An Austrian or German women turned into a foreign national.
Irene Messinger is a political scientist and lecturer on gender and migration issues at the University of Vienna and the Departement for Social Work, University of Applied Sciences, Vienna. Her research interests include Austrian Contemporary History, Migration and Migration Policies, Minority Rights, Feminist Theory (Intersectionality), Exile of Women.
Her PhD thesis on the recent criminalisation of marriages of convenience in Austria including its legal history, was honored with numerous prizes and awards. It was published under the title: “Phony or Not – Construction and Criminalization of Phony Marriages – Past and Present” in 2012.
She continues to work on the topic of marriages of convenience in her current research project focusing on marriages during the Nazi era as a strategy to escape into exile, funded by the Zukunftsfonds and the Nationalfonds of the Republic of Austria. In 2014 the project (scheinehe-exil.at) was awarded the Edith-Saurer Prize.