Impressions of 18.05.20201: Fishbowl - Women in World War II

Conference Report

of 9th European History Forum - Hidden Remembrance? Women in World War II in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe

The aim of this year's forum was to initiate an analysis of war and post-war history, examining the role played by women from all countries that participated directly or indirectly in the war.
Scientists from Central, South and South-East Europe came together from Central, South and Southeast Europe came together in two fish tanks to exchange different perspectives on the topic.

The European History Forum has set itself the goal of promoting European narratives that incorporate different perspectives and transcend national boundaries. One concern is to uncover neglected perspectives and stories. Since the dominant actors and decision-makers in history narratives are men, the theme of this year's forum was chosen to focus on women from Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in the Second World War. The forum aims to initiate an analysis of war and post-war history examining the role of women of all countries who took direct or indirect part in the war, and to which extent their great survival efforts, decisions and suffering could find a place in history and representations thereof.

To this end, scholars from Central, South and South-East Europe came together in two fishbowls at this year's European History Forum to ensure an exchange of different perspectives on the topic. In addition to the panelists, up to 270  interested people took part in the format through its interactive character.

Fishbowl 1: Women in World War II: Emancipation through (self-) mobilization?

To gain interesting insights into the role of women on the home front as well as in the armies during the Second World War and its impact on the post-war period, experts from Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan were invited.

What was the role of women in the Red Army? Elena Rozhdestvenskaya gave a detailed answer to Nina Happe's (HBS) introductory question: according to the Moscow-based researcher, women were deployed in the Red Army in many different ways, especially as medical staff in military hospitals. In addition, during the Second World War, female combat units were formed for the first time, so, like men, they were involved in combat operations as snipers or machine-gunners or tank drivers. In total, there were 600,000 to one million women at the front. The Soviet experience with the deployment of women in hostilities has shown that the concept of war as a "male profession" in military history is untenable.

Continuing from there, Kateryna Kobchenko said that women's emancipation in the Red Army was the most advanced compared to other armies. Referring to narratives in Eastern Europe, the researcher said that the victim role is the most  common; as victims of the Holocaust, forced labor and abductions. In the culture of memory, the victims are usually the dead who are perceived in the common imagination as faceless and as an unknown mass. According to Kobchenko, those who are still alive must keep fighting. In general, a dichotomy in the representation of women is also formative: on the one hand, that women were portrayed as helpless people who must be defended; on the other hand, they were portrayed as named heroines. But the difficult, complex and serious stories are not part of the culture of memory. 

Ivana Pantelic subsequently provided insights into the Serbian perspective, especially with regard to the participation of women in the partisan movement and their role in the struggle for a new state. According to her expertise, the role of women in the underground organisations is underestimated, women play a more important role than is generally assumed. At first as medical personnel, and from 1942 onwards also as part of the combat groups, women made up about 10-20 percent of the army. Nevertheless, women in the army have always been viewed with scepticism. However, the image of women in combat groups, which emphasized their independence, laid the foundation for the attainment of more women's rights in the post-war period. Pantelic proves the influence of this image by quoting: "Women with bearing guard make her own decision”.

Sevil Huseynova pointed out in her contribution the lack of biographies and memoirs of women in this context. Researchers can only interpret official sources. According to her research, in which she studied the biographies of Azerbaijani women, the war has not influenced the women's emancipation. For the women she depicted, the period before and after the war was more formative. Thus, they reached the peak of their careers after the war. In relation to conventional narratives about women in Azerbaijan, the heroic narrative is the most common, in contrast to the victim narrative, which does not exist in Azerbaijan.

Subsequently, the panellists emphasized again that the oral narratives of 'ordinary' people are a very important source to uncover gaps in historical narrative. This is mainly characterised by heroic narratives of individuals, but not by the experiences of the masses. It was only in the 1990s that an alternative way of commemoration began to be established, by trying to make the oral history of women’s experiences during the war more widely known. Today it is almost impossible to continue this work, because many contemporary witnesses have already passed away.

The panelists and the audience then discussed connections to current developments, for instance the Ukrainian war. Kateryna Kobchenko explained how this war updates the experience of the Second World War. There are also commonalities in terms of rhetoric, as the designation of the opponents as fascists or occupiers clearly shows.

Fishbowl 2: Experiences of violence: Between dealing with the past and tabooization

The panelists of the second fishbowl from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Armenia and Germany dealt with women's experiences of violence and their tabooing. Further discussions were held about the public debate in science, art and the media on this topic.

To start the fishbowl, Adela Jusic showed a short film about a war heroine who was not cherished after the war - "The Unknown Partisan" - as an example of the artistic examination of the topic. As part of the short film, Jusic placed a gravestone in a park in Sarajevo as a memorial for all war heroines.

The next input was given by Marta Harvryshko, who gave insight into sexual crimes in the concentration camps in the Ukraine. The researcher described how the camp leadership often abused their power and raped women. In order to cover up the crime, the women were often killed afterwards. Sexualised violence was also used as punishment, for example when women were not obedient to the camp leadership. It was thus instrumentalised as a means of war. Allowing sexual acts could in turn save women's lives, which perfectly exemplifies the emerging concept of "survival sex". In this context it was emphasized that these experiences of sexualized violence were often concealed by the women out of shame.

Robert Sommer also spoke about sexual acts in concentration camps, focusing on the often tabooed brothel visits in some concentration camps, such as Buchenwald. In order to create incentives for higher productivity, brothels for prisoners were set up by the SS from 1942. In particular, women who were classified as asocial were (ab)used for this purpose. After the war, the subject was tabooed because many women realized that they could not talk about sexual violence, but also had to fear stigmatization as collaborators by other prisoners. As antisocial prisoners, the women did not receive any compensation and were not rehabilitated until 2020, when a law for this purpose was enacted at least in Germany. In the meantime, the topic is being dealt with in public, for example in an exhibition in Ravensbrück.

From an Armenian perspective, Aida Papikyan reported on the oppression of women in the Second World War. A total of 1200 Armenian women were oppressed; the proportion of women in the gulag rose from 7% in 1941 to 26% in 1944. Most of them were indirect victims of oppression, which means that they were arrested because one of their family members committed a crime, such as treason of motherland. According to the researcher, there is little discussion of this issue in the media and in the arts. For example, only a few reports on the deportations of women can be found in the media. In art, the topic is only treated in a few biographies.


As in the first fishbowl, sources were discussed in this one as well. The panelists emphasized that the true stories of the war must be told. For this purpose, both the oral narratives of contemporary witnesses and official sources are important in order to broaden perspectives and generate complex narratives.

This is important because even today, there is still room for improvement in the way women's experiences are dealt with in many areas of society. It must be noted that women were also trapped in the daily horrors of war for physiological reasons. They also experienced violence from their own side and were often seen only as objects. That is why there are often discrepancies between men and women in memory - discrepancies that must be uncovered.

9th European History Forum as interactive fishbowl discussion in the internet - PANEL 2 - Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

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The event protocol was created with the kind support of  polisphere.