On these web pages you will be introduced to the girls and mature women who voluntarily joined military units during the Second World War. They took on the duties of a soldier, entailing great discomfort and danger in wartime, to fight for the freedom of their homeland side by side with men. The lives of all these women were profoundly affected by the drama of the war. Some emigrated to escape political or racial persecution, while others were abroad with their families when the war started. They joined the armed forces on the territory of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Britain. (The Internet pages do not cover women in the resistance and partisan movement at home, which is another major theme.)
War always brings death, suffering and destruction to humankind. In a situation where war is forced on nations by an aggressor – and this was the case in both the First and Second World Wars – then to take up arms is the only way to defend one’s freedom, existence and life.
In the First World War the Czech and Slovak nations had fought for, and after “a three-century bondage”, finally obtained their freedom and an independent state. They were not the only ones to liberate themselves from the “serfdom” of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
In the Second World War our peoples, through their struggle in the domestic resistance and on the military fronts, made a significant contribution to the victory of the allied states over the fascist aggressors. It was a matter of national pride and honour not to sit and wait for someone else to recover our freedom for us from an enemy as pitiless as Nazi Germany, but to take part in the fight, to join the victorious nations and gain the right to redress of the wrong committed against Czechoslovakia by the Munich Agreement – through the re-establishment of the Republic in its pre-war frontiers. Getting the allied states to renounce the Munich Agreement they had signed was by no means as simple a task as it might seem today.
During the Second World War Czechoslovak citizens fought unstintingly against the Nazi occupiers of their country not only on the home front in the resistance but also as Czechoslovak soldiers on various fronts – in the air above England, in the desert in Africa, on the plains of the Ukraine and Poland, in the mountains of Yugoslavia, on battlefields in France, and finally in the direct liberation of Czechoslovakia. They were volunteers who left their country by various kinds of routes in order to join up in Czechoslovak units or directly in the allied armies; they were also the Czechoslovaks living abroad or temporarily working abroad when the war began.
The volunteers joining military units included women as well. Up to then the prevailing social view had been that women could have no active armed role in war, since this was at odds with their calling as mothers. In the First World War, for example, women had worked as nurses of the Red Cross in military hospitals, but that was the limit. Yet the Nazi aggressors unleashed an unusually cruel war that was a threat to the very existence of the nations attacked, especially the Slav nations, which were regarded by the Nazis as racially inferior immediately after the Jews. The women of these nations therefore joined their men and whether on the illegal front in the occupied countries or on the military front abroad with weapons in their hands, fought for the freedom of their homelands and against the evil of the Nazis, the greatest threat to civilization and life. This was the case in the Soviet Union, in Yugoslavia, in Poland, in France, and in other countries fighting against Nazi Germany in Europe.
Czech, Slovak, Ruthenian, and Jewish women – either Czechoslovak citizens or living abroad – joined the resistance abroad, i.e. the Czechoslovak foreign military units identifying with the tradition of the Czechoslovak Legions in the First World War. They joined units in the Soviet Union, in Yugoslavia, in the Middle East, and in England. Their numbers as well as their formal assignment or deployment in different branches of the military differed according to the country concerned.
While in the USSR there were more than a thousand women and they were regular members of the Czechoslovak military units – battalions, brigades, and army corps –, in Yugoslavia the few hundred Czech and Slovak women were members of national brigades in the framework of the Yugoslav Liberation Army. In Britain and the Middle East there were only a few dozen Czechoslovak women, and they were not part of the Czechoslovak military unit but were assigned to British auxiliary formations. Logically, then, the exhibition presented here devotes the most space to the part played by the Czechoslovak women in units in the USSR.
By joining the army women released men for combat in the front lines. Women replaced men in signals services, as health workers at first-aid stations on the front or hospitals behind the front, as operators of anti-aircraft guns and technical services at airports; women also worked in field bakeries and laundries, in repair works, and so on. In carrying out their work many served in extreme field conditions where a great deal of courage and sacrifice was required. And they showed this courage and sacrifice to the full. For this they deserve our honour and gratitude. Their truly pioneering achievement in our history should never be forgotten. We can be proud of them and draw strength and inspiration from their example. The celebratory firing of cannon whenever Moscow Radio announced the contribution of our military units in a victory, whether at Sokolovo, Kiev, Bielaya Cerkva, Dukla, Ostrava or Olomouc, was a tribute to them too. They also must take some of the credit for the driving of the German hordes from the African desert, and for the fact that the German Nazis could never feel themselves secure as lords of proud, fighting Yugoslavia.
As is usually a sad custom of human society, after the war people soon forgot what they owed to these women. Indeed, political developments in post-war Czechoslovakia meant that a heroic war record was not just forgotten, but could be damaging to veterans. The right to serve in the army was conceded to these women after the war by a law passed in the National Assembly on the 29th of January 1947, Law No. 14/1946, but this reform on the service of female officers, long-serving and non-commissioned officers, affected only women who had already served in the military. Their example was still not enough to convince male legislators that all women should have the right to serve in the army.
This is why we want to commemorate the courageous and selfless behaviour of these women in wartime, when the very survival of our nation was at stake. We want to contribute to the knowledge of a lesser known chapter of the Czechoslovak military struggle during the Second World War.
We want the present generation, especially the young, to be able to say that there are many people, including women, to be proud of in our past.
Mgr. Alena Vitáková