May 8th 1945—75 years ago today—marks the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and, therefore, the end of World War II in Europe. In order to celebrate this anniversary, Berlin declared it a national holiday in 2020.
In memory of all the victims of this horrible war, I would like to cast some light on a group that has often been overlooked in war documentation. Belittled and regarded as controversial at the time, women in combat (female soldiers and female partisans) nonetheless played an important role throughout the course of the war.
During World War II, women were officially recruited into armies for the first time. Before this point, the idea of women in combat is associated primarily with partisan groups such as during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It is estimated that almost 1 million women (!) fought for the Red Army, most of whom joined because of political conviction.
Because Nazis believed in a “natural” order of the sexes, in which women were inferior to men, images of captured female soldiers and partisans were used as proof that ideologies such as Bolshevism threatened their worldview.
Women in combat were, therefore, referred to as “Flintenweiber”, a derogatory term for armed women, meant to belittle their war efforts. The feared female Russian aviation bombers were furthermore labelled as “night witches”, a reference to the fact that they often bombarded cities in the dark. When female soldiers were captured by the Germans, they were often executed on the spot or terribly abused.
Back in the USSR, the women were insulted as “front mattresses” and—compared to their male counterparts who were regarded as post-war heroes—hardly ever publicly recognized. Many female soldiers who had previously been insulted as sluts, were never able to bear children due to injuries suffered during the war.
As the war proceeded and turned increasingly in favor of the allies, the German army also began to recruit women. These women were put in anti-aircraft auxiliary units, a position that was previously held by middle- and high-schoolers, as well as by trainees. Nowadays, this practice of using child soldiers would be regarded as a human rights violation.
The gender gap in the German army, which had served ideologically as a belief in the “natural” superiority of man, was at 20:1.
Until today, the depiction of female soldiers in World War II footage and documentation remains rare. Even 75 years after the war, sexism still prevails. In Russia, this gender gap is even palpable in monetary terms: female veterans receive a smaller pension than their male counterparts.
The image shows lieutenant general Nina Lobkowskaja with snipers of the 3rd Soviet Shock Army, 1945. © Museum Berlin-Karlshorst e.V. (Photo credit: Boris Wdowenko)