Mobilization of children for the war effort started as early as summer 1914. Boys and girls alike were expected to make a contribution to the ‘achievement of war aims’. In addition activities were also propagated that were specifically assigned to the female sex, such as the making of so-called Liebesgaben (lit.: gifts of love) and Kälteschutz (cold-weather protection) for soldiers at the front.
Liebesgaben were gift parcels that were usually sent shortly before Christmas to soldiers in the field and contained books, cigarettes, soap and chocolate as well as hand-knitted woollens. In numerous appeals the War Welfare Office in collaboration with the school authorities exhorted girls to make underwear, socks and other items of clothing. Participating in these drives, such as the Kälteschutz-Hilfsaktion (cold weather relief effort) alongside schoolgirls were teachers, women’s associations, the Red Cross and other charitable organisations. In Vienna associations of the middle-class women’s movement in collaboration with the military authorities set up knitting and sewing rooms in which women who had lost their jobs (due to the changes that had come about with the war economy and the many families who could no longer afford to employ servants) made cold-weather items for the troops.
Schools supported government authorities in the supra-regional coordination of these parcels and organized their teaching around war-related activities for long periods. Outside school, patriotic associations took on the organization of female war-work.
Besides its direct use for the planning of the wartime economy, this handiwork also had a clear educational function. Patriotic feelings of belonging were to be developed through this involvement in work that supported the war effort. According to propaganda their work was to give girls the opportunity of proving their patriotism and to learn their gender-specific role as self-sacrificing, succouring women.
The general mobilization of the female population was successful, particularly in the first half of the war when sufficient supplies of raw materials were still available. Newspapers ran emotive accounts of dozens of classes full of girls knitting away, all contributing out of patriotic conviction and with unending industry ‘to the success of the war’.
Many girls also participated in these relief efforts because the military and educational authorities appealed to their patriotic fervour and sense of duty. The image of the soldier shivering in the wintry cold spoke to the girls’ sense of responsibility and conveyed the impression that with their sewing and knitting they could bestow warmth and protection.
Moreover, contemporary discourse coupled the work done by the women and girls with love, stylizing their handiwork as ‘gifts of love’. By linking female war-work with love of the Fatherland and of their relatives and friends who had joined up, their manual labour was idealized. This was reinforced by the postcards that the children added to the parcels, thus taking up direct contact with the soldiers at the front. Here the anonymous soldier became a tangible individual, with whom the children felt an emotional link.
Translation: Sophie Kidd
Demm, Eberhard: Deutschlands Kinder im Ersten Weltkrieg. Zwischen Propaganda und Sozialfürsorge, in: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift (2001), 60, 51-79
Hämmerle, Christa: Von „patriotischen“ Sammelaktionen, „Kälteschutz“ und „Liebesgabe“ – die „Schulfront“ der Kinder im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Beiträge zur historischen Sozialkunde (1994) 1, 21-29
Hämmerle, Christa: „Wir strickten und nähten Wäsche für Soldaten…“ Von der Militarisierung des Handarbeitens im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: L´Homme. Zeitschrift für Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft (1992) 1, 88-128
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