War, Gender, and Nation in 19th-Century Europe: A Preliminary Sketch

If military service had become a rite of passage for young men in much of Europe well before the mutual slaughter began in the summer of 1914, neither its ubiquity nor its meaning to those it embraced were foregone conclusions.1 To be sure, the fundamental challenge offered by the declaration of the levée en masse in revolutionary France in 1793 represented an important first step, as did monarchical Prussia’s turn in 1813 to the near-general conscription of those men considered young and fit enough to join the fight. Indeed, Prussia’s response to the Napoleonic challenge intertwined military service, citizenship, and manhood in the gendered construction of a nation at war that bore a striking resemblance to those ideals manifest in the mobilizations of 1914.2 Nonetheless, near-universal manhood conscription took many more decades to predominate on the continent, (never mind the United Kingdom, which did not resort to it until 1916).3

Moreover, the path was not at all direct, not from the state’s and army’s side nor from the general population’s. For the state and its military leadership, big citizens’ armies could be desirable for fighting a foreign enemy, but they could also present a threat to the domestic-political status quo because they might not allow themselves to be used to suppress protest or insurrection at home. A further decisive factor was technology and how military leaders came to use it. Especially important were the railroads and the development of strategic thought and organizational structures that placed a premium on mobilizing large numbers of men at once for a decisive blow of the kind Helmuth von Moltke pulled off for Prussia at Königgrätz (aka Sadowa) in 1866 and at Sedan in 1870 during the wars that produced a German nation-state.4

Of course, an approach to war of this kind also required large numbers of trained conscripts and experienced reservists. But first things first. The men targeted by conscription (and then the reserves) and the families and communities in which they had been raised first needed to learn to see the state’s call to the colors as legitimate and inescapable, let alone perceive value in the prospect.

Nineteenth-century discourses and attitudes regarding conscription were informed by normative assumptions about manhood in connection with a wide range of topics—civic or national duty and martial sacrifice, forbearance and manliness, masculinity and bravery, willpower and human flesh versus modern weaponry (especially later in the century), the impact of length of service on soldiers’ relationship to civilian society, civilian upbringings and soldiers’ political reliability, the reputational impact of military service on veterans returning to civilian life, and so on. The gendered matrix of military service and citizenship was integral to warfare and its sociopolitical effects in Europe. This matrix is the subject of the first of three thematic sections comprising this [unrealized] chapter. Ordinary men in uniform occupy the center of this analysis, but other men and women who joined or supported the armed struggles—interstate and intrastate—are also considered.

The importance and meaning of conscription in this period was also affected by the increasing cachet of nationality as an organizing principle for the European state system, or at least as a cultural manifestation that states could leverage.5 Whether in the ranks as conscripts, as substitutes for conscripts, as wartime volunteers, or by vocation, soldiers were beginning to be identified—and even identify themselves, at least in wartime—with the nation-state or the national cause that they served. Many fought in conflicts that had national resonance among the general population, such as the Crimean War (1853–56), and many others fought in wars that led to the creation of the Italian and German nation-states (achieved in 1861 and 1871, respectively). The last case also entailed the national humiliation of France—widely felt in that country—in a series of disastrous defeats (1870–71).

These conflicts did not just involve soldiers in the service of the state, however. The rise of nationality and “the people” as relevant factors saw men (and even women) join irregular formations to attain their national goals or, in the case of Italy, at least redeem their nation’s honor, whether that meant overturning a foreign or particularistic ruler (especially during the European revolutions of 1848) or defending their nation against a foreign invader or dying in the attempt. Or so the nationalist narratives went, even if some probably took up arms to defend their home and locality against the privations of requisitioning and marauding.

These decades also saw men and women (and youth) in cities resort to violence in order to change constitutional structures or protest economic and social conditions. Whether or not any military experience was involved in the barricade building of 1848, memories of earlier revolts had certainly been passed down to the frequently subaltern generations of that time, a legacy that was also evident during the Paris Commune’s struggle in 1871.6 Intertwined with implicit and explicit discourses about citizenship and belonging—and thus about manhood and womanhood, too—these episodes also belonged to the complex, often violent process of nation formation and consolidation. At the same time, in this context of nation-making wars and insurrections, the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of international volunteers serving a national cause must also be considered.7

The circles of social actors and norms to potentially include in a gendered analysis of the above mentioned wars and insurrections could be expanded a great deal further, if space constraints and available research permitted it. Whenever gender played a role in constructing or understanding the motivation and practices of those fighting, that role conceptually comprised both masculinity and femininity because gender, like class and race, is a relational concept. If the military world had become almost exclusively male and masculine in the nineteenth century, that manhood still presupposed relationships with women and femininity.

Normative femininity might be embodied in the appearance and comportment of women accompanying the army (in France, holdovers like the cantinère) or nursing the wounded (in the Crimea, Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale). There were also the women at home for whom one fought, or the girl one intended to marry after completing active duty. Normative images of women in the minds of soldiers could affect those soldiers’ reactions to encounters with women in wartime, in the course of requisitioning food from civilians or sleeping in civilians’ homes or outbuildings—or when fighting irregulars or taking a town street by street. Finally, a siege army could not make distinctions between soldiers and civilians, men and woman, adults and children in a besieged city (as in the Prussian-German siege of Paris in 1870–71). On the other hand, policy decisions reached in the besieged city itself (or policy lacunae) could create great differences—between rich and poor, soldiers and civilians (and therefore also between men and women), and so on.

No matter how powerful memories of the levée en masse continued to be in the middle decades of nineteenth century France, to take the most famous example of a nation in arms, patriotism and élan were not enough to win wars. One also needed professional expertise to train and lead men in war or in the suppression of an insurrection. With different educational levels and frequently a more elevated social background, officers might well embody masculinity differently than the men in their charge, especially if they were noblemen. Furthermore, as military technologies grew and military organizations became more complex, the knowledge required by at least some of the officers expanded. As the job changed, so too could the men doing it.

These developments were accompanied by public and internal debates about military leadership. What qualities did officers require? From which stock was recruitment most desirable? What training did they require? What was their relationship to their men supposed to look like? How did they treat their subordinates? And what about their relationship to acknowledged social equals and supposed inferiors—especially men—outside the military? How did their expertise and comportment figure into their practice of masculinity and its reception? What did military service and sacrifice mean to these men? How did social background and family history shape that meaning? Finally, what about their private lives? How did marriage and family fit into their military careers? To what extent did the bourgeois ideal of a separate domestic sphere obtain in this context? Of course, each of these questions could lead to more than one answer because officer corps were by no means homogeneous.8 Furthermore, some important military leaders did not fit within this framework at all, most prominently Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose biography, relationship to his fighters, and influential public image form an instructive counterpoint.9

Moreover, if soldiers were citizens acting on behalf of the nation, their actions might be expected to bear a closer relationship to the values and norms that guided their behavior in civilian life. Actual or alleged practices in wartime that appeared contrary to the predominant normative conception of war—still largely informed by the metaphor of a dual between two equal and honorable parties—exposed the perpetrator to charges of acting in an unmanly or unwomanly way and, by extension, his or her nation to charges of dishonorable, uncivilized behavior. Purported atrocities and other perceived wrongdoings also created opportunities for soldiers to exact revenge with drastic countermeasures that could contradict taboos on destroying property and even those on killing women.

Of course, such measures were never just about the attitudes of soldiers, but also the command climate, discipline, and policy goals. Furthermore, gendered contemporary reports and commentaries on the violence could be more about demonizing the enemy than about actual events or understanding what happened. The main examples explored in this section involve face-to-face encounters between German soldiers and French civilians in 1870–71 and the extreme use of violence by Thiers’s forces against the Commune in 1871.10

All three sections [so was my plan] proceed from the fundamental premise that practices and experiences of manhood and womanhood are historically contingent, that men and women change over time, that normative masculinities and femininities change with them. The seemingly natural in their attitudes and behaviors is cultural and therefore a product of history. The second corollary premise is that war and warriors are creatures of their times, influenced by—and influencing—them. Contrary to many narrowly conceived histories, not to mention widespread ahistorical elements of popular culture, there is no universal soldier or military leader.11 Here, too, biology need not be destiny, whereas culture, if not properly analyzed in historical context, very well could be.12

The third premise is that although the dual political and technological revolutions of the nineteenth century match up chronologically with the emergence of “total war” in the twentieth century, the journey never involved only a single plot line that led inexorably to 1914. Focusing on the role of gender—a fundamental component of human culture—can help to make other formative strands of the story visible. It then becomes possible to complicate Stig Förster’s powerful typology of warfare’s development in the modern era—cabinet war, people’s war, industrialized people’s war, and total war—whose emphasis on parallel developments in war and politics can resemble a teleology, one subverted by events after 1945 and hard to reconcile with developments in warfare in other eras and cultures. 13


Featured image: Detail from “Combat at the military station: Of Chateau d’ Eau, 24th February 1848 / combat au poste: Du Château d’ Eau, 24 Févr. 1848,” Library of Congress PPOC, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90716191/. Follow link for high-resolution image of hand-colored lithograph with caption.

  1. I wrote this preliminary introduction for a thematic handbook article that was not to be. Looking back at this 2015 draft, I think it contains enough ideas to make it worth sharing (with only some small modifications for this venue). Mainly, I broke up longer paragraphs to improve the online reading experience, added a few comments in square brackets, and fixed some obvious glitches in the prose. But I resisted the impulse to add further examples or citations.  ↩
  2. See Karen Hagemann, Männlicher Muth und teutsche Ehre: Nation, Militär und Geschlecht in der Zeit der Antinapoleonischen Kriege Preussens (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2001).  ↩
  3. See esp. Christian Jansen, ed., Der Bürger als Soldat: Die Militarisierung europäischer Gesellschaften im langen 19. Jahrhundert: Ein internationaler Vergleich (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2004); David M. Hopkin, Soldier and Peasant in French Popular Culture, 1766–1870 (2002; London: The Royal Historical Society/The Boydell Press, 2013); Ute Frevert, Die kasernierte Nation: Militärdienst und Zivilgesellschaft in Deutschland (Munich: Beck, 2001); and Dierk Walter, Preußische Heeresreformen 1807–1870: Militärische Innovation und der Mythos der “Roonschen Reform” (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2003). The history of military service still requires much more research, especially if one wishes to talk about Europe as a whole.  ↩
  4. On the implementation of this technology in this era, see Dennis E. Showalter, Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975); and Arden Bucholz, Moltke and the German Wars, 1864–1871 (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001).  ↩
  5. The literature on nationalism in nineteenth–century Europe is vast. Some good starting points: E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1789: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2nd ed. (1992; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Ida Blom, Karen Hagemann, and Catherine Hall, eds., Gendered Nations: Nationalisms and Gender Order in the Long Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Berg, 2000); Lloyd Kramer, Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Culture, and Identity since 1775 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).  ↩
  6. See Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009); Jill Harsin, Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830–1848 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Mark Traugott, The Insurgent Barricade (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010); Robert Tombs, The War against Paris, 1871 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and John Merriman, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune (New York: Basic Books, 2014).  ↩
  7. Gilles Pécout, ed., International Volunteers and the Risorgiment, special issue of Journal of Modern Italian Studies 14, no. 4. (2009): 413–90.  ↩
  8. For these issues in Germany with a focus on the period after the German nation–state was forged, see Mark R. Stoneman, “Bürgerliche und adlige Krieger: Zum Verhältnis von sozialer Herkunft und Berufskultur im whilhelminischen Armee–Offizierkorps,” in Heinz Reif, ed., Adel und Bürgertum in Deutschand II: Entwicklungslinien und Wendepunkte im 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001), 25–63; Stoneman, “Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2006), chaps. 1–2.  ↩
  9. See Lucy Riall, Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).  ↩
  10. On the first example, see Mark R. Stoneman, “The Bavarian Army and French Civilians in the War of 1870–1871: A Cultural Interpretation,” War in History 8, no. 3 (2001): 271–93; and idem, “Die deutschen Greueltaten im Kriege 1870/71 am Beispiel der Bayern,” in Sönke Neitzel and Daniel Hohrath, eds., Kriegsgreuel: Die Entgrenzung der Gewalt in kriegerischen Konflikten vom Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2008), 223–39. On the second example, see Tombs, War against Paris; and Merriman, Massacre.  ↩
  11. See John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Kindle edition, preface (entitled “Requiem for the Universal Soldier”).  ↩
  12. Consider, for example, the powerful myth of the fallen soldier; George L. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).  ↩
  13. By way of introduction to these issues, see the earliest and the latest volumes to arise from a series of international conferences whose subject matter extended from the mid–nineteenth–century nation–making wars to the twentieth–century total wars and then back to the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars: Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871 (New York: German Historical Institute/Cambridge University Press, 1997); Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, eds. War in the Age of Revolution, 1775–1815 (New York: German Historical Institute and Cambridge University Press, 2013). The latter cites other volumes and debates arising from the conference series.  ↩
Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “War, Gender, and Nation in 19th-Century Europe: A Preliminary Sketch,” Stoneman’s Corner, June 23, 2017, https://markstoneman.com/2017/06/23/war-gender-and-nation-in-19th-century-europe/.