The story of WWII is usually told by men – what about the women on the front line?
Photo: AKG Images
All three of these books raise questions about the still problematic idealisation of women in combat.
There are two ways of telling about war, writes Svetlana Alexievich. There is what she calls the man’s way: “How certain people heroically killed other people and won. Or lost. What equipment there was and which generals.” Then there is the woman’s way. Knowing that during the Second World War about a million women served in the Soviet army, or fought with the partisans, Alexievich set out, in 1978, to ask them about their experiences.
She conducted more than 500 interviews. Some women turned her away. More often they welcomed her. “Come… Finally somebody wants to hear us,” they said. But they had trouble finding the words. Sometimes they could hardly speak for weeping. Sometimes they were silenced by their menfolk: husbands coached them in details about troop movements and chains of command, as though a man might be shamed by a wife who wanted to talk instead about how dead soldiers, their heads shaved, reminded her of a field of potatoes; about how she dreaded being torn to pieces by a shell and lying exposed, indecent and ugly, in death.
“Tell it the way I taught you,” a husband orders his wife. “Without tears and women’s trifles.” But trifles are what interest Alexievich. Trifles such as the cauldrons full of kasha a cook prepared – never eaten because, out of the hundred soldiers she was responsible for feeding, only seven returned alive from a battle. Trifles such as the length of red linen that a nurse was given, and promptly gave away. She’d seen too much blood-soaked cloth. “Forty years have gone by but you won’t find anything red in my house.”
Sometimes Alexievich had to spend hours, even days, in small talk, in drinking tea, looking at photographs of grandchildren and admiring a new blouse, before a woman would dare depart from the conventional narrative – a narrative as hard-set as a concrete war memorial. “You want me to speak from the heart?” one would ask timidly. Then, at last, out would come something arresting and deeply felt, and Alexievich would glimpse what she calls “the monstrous grin of the mysterious”.
Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, has a gift for eliciting that grin. In the haunting Chernobyl Prayer she plaited together eyewitness accounts of the explosion at the nuclear power station – a modern apocalypse – with the responses of people whose minds were shaped by pre-modern belief systems. The Unwomanly Face of War was written much earlier. First completed in 1983, it was initially banned, then published in a heavily censored version in 1985. Now, in the wake of her Nobel win, it is appearing for the first time in this country. But though it has been 30-odd years reaching us, it is still shockingly fresh.
Its form is oral history – transcribed interviews echoing, reinforcing and contradicting each other with minimal linking commentary. There’s nothing new in that, but, in Alexievich’s sensitive hands, the medium becomes musical. Her voices are a chorus. Their testimonies, cut and patched together, coalesce to make up an oratorio of overwhelming emotional power.
Nearly all of the speakers were girls, not women, when they went away to fight. They ran away from school. They presented themselves at recruiting offices, lying about their ages. They smuggled themselves on to trucks or railway carriages, charged with patriotic fervour.
One interviewee remembers: “The men laughed at how we held our rifles… the way you hold a doll.” A doll, not a baby – these child-soldiers were of an age for toys. One was so far from grown-up when she went to the front that she was four inches taller when she returned.
From Stalingrad to Berlin, wherever Soviet troops went, there were women among them. They cooked. They laundered – washing overcoats stiff with blood, underwear crawling with lice. They were radio operators. They were postal workers, delivering letters to front-line soldiers who would weep and kiss the envelopes. As medics they saved lives. But as well as doing these womanly jobs, they were snipers and pilots, anti-aircraft gunners and infantry-women. They killed. They shot and they stabbed. And years later they spoke about it to Alexievich with shocking immediacy. Here is a female sergeant major on the experience of hand-to-hand combat: “What do I remember? I remember crunching. This crunching noise: the breaking of cartilage, of human bones.”
They saw horrors. When the ice broke up on the Volga one spring a block of red-and-black ice came floating by, with three German corpses and one Russian embedded in it. They went without sleep for days on end, marching holding hands in threes, so that the middle one could sleep for an hour or two. They performed extraordinary feats of strength. A medical assistant, barely 5ft tall, crawled over battlefields dragging wounded men on her back. She had only two wishes – that she might live until her 18th birthday, and that she might one day be out of the line of fire and able once more to walk safely upright.
Men endured all this, too. But these women’s experience is particular, in ways that are disconcerting to a latter-day feminist. The feminine mystique, which would seem to the next generation so deforming and imprisoning, was – for these young women – something to fantasise about and yearn for.
Military service unsexed them. In the 1930s Russian girls still wore their hair in long plaits wound around their head. The shearing of these braids is recalled over and over again, by Alexievich’s interviewees, as a transformative moment, a kind of death. Women were given uniforms that were not adapted to the female body – size-ten boots, men’s long underpants, tunics whose high collars chafed their chins. They dreamed of bras and comfortable knickers. Their hair was cropped but for a forelock – they curled that lock, using pine cones as rollers.
A sapper commander says: “We longed to sit and maybe do some embroidery.” A sniper recalls coming across an abandoned milliner’s shop in a German village. “We girls each chose a hat and slept all night sitting up, just so as to wear a hat for a little while.” One young woman got a few days of home leave. When she came back to the front the others lined up to sniff her. “She smelled like home. We missed home so much.” Home was female – in the dugouts everyone, men and women alike, cried out in their sleep for Mama.
This book is full of memories long repressed. Alexievich includes a conversation with a censor, who told her: “You show the filth of war. You make our victory terrible.” Official censorship is abetted by the interviewees’ self-censorship. An anti-aircraft gunner tells of a man who went berserk and machine-gunned a whole German family. “Are you allowed to write about this?” she asks anxiously. “Before, you weren’t.”
The truth about sex was especially dangerous. Many told Alexievich that they lived alongside male troops as though they were boys. But this book’s panopticon view allows for many versions of reality. Other women tell of gratefully accepting the role of concubine to an officer rather than having to lie all night in a trench, fending off would-be rapists. The girl-soldiers talk of love, and give the word a range of meanings. A nurse says: “As soon as the new wounded arrived, we always fell in love with somebody.” She was 17. In a happier life she’d have been having a crush on a teacher.
For those back home, the hugger-mugger life of a soldier at the front reeked of promiscuity. Several women tell Alexievich how they returned to their villages, expecting a hero’s welcome, to find themselves shunned. One recalls being awakened on her third day home by her mother thrusting a ready-packed bundle at her and saying: “Go away. Go away. You have two younger sisters. Who will marry them? Everybody knows you spent years at the front. With men.”
Women learned to keep mum about their service. “We never acknowledged to anybody we had been at the front. We were silent as fish.” In the past Alexievich has even censored herself. There are some passages in this edition that she had excised from earlier versions. The story of the woman, a radio operator, who drowned her newborn baby for fear its wailing would bring the search dogs to a group of 30 partisans hiding in a swamp. The testimony of the woman who killed captured German soldiers horribly (so horribly I will not give the details here). She asks defiantly (presumably Alexievich, listening to her, had flinched): “What do you know about it? They burned my mother and little sisters on a bonfire.” Now Alexievich puts it all in. “I would like to write a book about war that would make war sickening,” she writes, “that makes the very thought of it repulsive.”
Lyuba Vinogradova has no such intention. She has written in the past about the Soviet Union’s female pilots; her new book is about female snipers. She has interviewed numerous surviving witnesses and uses their accounts to build up a detailed and vividly immediate account of fighting. Her material and her method are similar to Alexievich’s. From the bombastic title onwards, though, it is clear how different her book is. Her purpose is not to expose the insanity of war but to celebrate the valour of female warriors.
Where Alexievich’s book is charged with the anxious urgency of whispered secrets, Vinogradova’s is matter of fact. She notes how rapidly her characters vanish from her pages. Often a sniper might be killed on the day she arrived at the front. But her mood remains upbeat. She uses words such as “liberate” and “tally of vengeance” without questioning or irony. Yes, girls were raped by their commanding officers. Yes, they died in great numbers. But they did a jolly good job.
“Nina Kovalenko managed to shoot a German sniper who had been causing a lot of trouble,” she writes, with chilling cheeriness. She notes how invigorating hatred of “those bastards with swastikas” was, what an excellent motivator was the lust for revenge. Once you have seen your fellows killed, she writes, “Your hand will not tremble as you squeeze the trigger.” The censor who found Alexievich’s book so negative would have approved of this one.
The subtitle of Clare Mulley’s engaging double biography – “The true story of Hitler’s Valkyries” – sounds as uninflectedly heroising as Vinogradova’s but it contains a hidden ambiguity. The word “Valkyrie” doesn’t only invoke Wagner’s sky-riding warrior-maidens. “Operation Valkyrie” was the code name for the failed attempt, by a group of German officers, to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Mulley’s subjects are two female test pilots. They were exceptional. If the Soviet Union expected its daughters, trained in the Komsomol (Young Communist League) to fight, Nazi Germany wanted women to stay at home and breed soldiers for the fatherland. Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg became pilots only by dint of extraordinary determination, and because they were exceptionally brave and skilful. They had little else in common.
Hanna “sparkled with her fanatical obsessive readiness to die for Hitler and all his ideals” – a comment made by a secretary who was in Hitler’s bunker when Hanna flew into the ruined Berlin in the last days of the war to be with the Führer. Melitta was a half-Jewish outsider and a dissident. She was the sister-in-law of two of the instigators of Operation Valkyrie, both of whom were summarily executed. The third brother, Melitta’s husband, Alexander, was soon arrested along with the rest of the family. Melitta was released after a few weeks because her work was judged essential to the war effort, but she seized every opportunity to follow her husband and sisters-in-law as they were moved from camp to camp. She was flying towards Buchenwald, in the hope of being allowed to visit Alexander there, when she was shot down and killed by an Allied plane.
Hanna was small and blonde and pushy, an extrovert who played the publicity game with zest and posed for photographers with a big smile. Melitta was aloof, described by a journalist as “no sports-girl type, but a scientist and lady”. Hanna was reckless and impudent and got high on risk-taking. Melitta was an aeronautical engineer whose test flights were undertaken on planes she had helped design. But despite their very different views of Hitler’s regime, they both became mascots for it. In 1936 Melitta performed aerobatics above the crowd at the Berlin Olympics. In the same year Hermann Göring presented his protégée, Hanna, with a brooch – a golden propeller with a swastika in sapphires – in recognition of her daring as a test pilot of gliders.
All three of these books raise questions about the still problematic idealisation of women in combat. Vinogradova has an interesting chapter on Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She was one of two Russian snipers sent to the US in August 1942 as a propaganda exercise, and she and her fellow delegates were invited to spend the night in the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt. An American magazine described her as “a bewitching warrior princess”.
Vinogradova doubts the veracity of stories told about her – another sniper reported that she wasn’t actually a very good shot – but Pavlichenko, and her reception in the West, constitutes a fascinating example of a new wartime ideal of murderous femininity. American journalists asked cheeky questions about what kind of underwear she wore beneath her uniform, but when she told a press conference in Washington: “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have already managed to kill 309 of the fascist invaders,” those present roared out their approval.
A few years later such boasting would have jarred. When one of Alexievich’s interviewees came home with her sister, both of them having fought in the infantry, “Our father put away our medals and said, ‘There was war, you fought. Now forget it. Put on some nice shoes.’” Once the war was over, society – on both sides of the Iron Curtain – became queasy again at the thought of the women who killed.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s novel “Peculiar Ground” is published by Fourth Estate
The Unwomanly Face of War
Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Penguin, 384pp, £12.99
Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Easter Front (1941-1945)
Lyuba Vinogradova. Translated by Arch Tait
MacLehose Press, 304pp, £20
The Women Who Flew for Hitler: the True Story of Hitler’s Valkyries
Macmillan, 496pp, £20