If you were young, German and female in 1939 you were at the poorer end of the gender scale. Unable to hold professional posts, ill-educated, your role was defined politically, ideologically and socially as a servant, assistant, mother. You’d taken part in political youth activities, but had no outlet for personal develop and no chance of a career.
By early 1945, you were very likely manning an anti-aircraft gun in a cold field all night, wearing a thick serge Luftwaffe uniform, or working a signals link in a military unit under bombardment, and serving alongside male soldiers, praying it would all end soon.
So how did the ideological and gender norms change so radically in Nazi Germany? Why were young women, the future mothers of the nation, in uniform, under fire and playing a crucial role in their nation’s war efforts. And why have they had to bury such experience, fearing to be seen as part of a criminal regime? Now in their 80s and 90s, many former Helferinnen are speaking out.
500,000 young women worked in the German armed forces by the end of the Second World War. Uniformed, under military discipline, posted to every corner of the German Reich and occupied territories, could they still be regarded as civilians or were they truly military?