Women’s military service took on increasing significance during the wars of the twentieth century. Women were already deployed as nurses and military auxiliaries in the First World War. During the Second World War, the American, British and German armed forces recruited hundreds of mainly young and unmarried women to serves as nurses and auxiliaries, or Etappenhelferinnen as they were known in German. Women also served as soldiers in the Soviet Red Army as well as the partisan units and popular liberation armies that fought the Wehrmacht in eastern and southern Europe. Although women were quickly demobilized and forgotten everywhere after 1945, some continued to serve in the military, albeit in very small percentages in both eastern and western armed forces, which only began to grow gradually from the 1980s. They played a far larger role in the liberation armies of the anti-colonial wars in Asia and Africa between the 1940s and the 1980s.
The book project undertakes a comparative study of women’s military deployment in war with a focus on modern Europe between 1600 and 2000 and how it has changed since the early modern period. It shows that women already played an important role in the baggage trains of the early modern armies, which waned temporarily in the course of the nineteenth century with the advent of mass armies and the professionalization of the military and increased again beginning with the First World War. It analyzes the wartime experiences of the mobilized women, contemporary perceptions of them and their place in collective memories of war. The central question is why – across the boundaries of nation and economic-political systems – it long remained so difficult for the military, politics and society to accept and remember women’s active participation in the military, above all their capability for combat.