Yugoslavia, Women in the Military during World War II (Combatants/Military Personnel)

Significant role played by Yugoslav women in the Yugoslav Partisan resistance following the German conquest of Yugoslavia in April 1941. South Slav women had performed military service before; in 1858, for example, a battalion of women fought with the Montenegrin army against the Turks. It was the desperate situation during World War II, however, that led to the inclusion of so many women in the Communist Partisan forces. The initial Partisans came from the ranks of the Communist Party and the Communist Youth Organization. Many young, educated women were drawn to what they regarded as the liberating vision of the Communist Party. Most women Partisans, however, came from the peasantry, and 80 percent of Yugoslav women at the time were illiterate (Jancar-Webster 1990, 49, 65). Young women, motivated by camaraderie and a sense of purpose, enthusiastically volunteered for military action in the National Liberation Movement. Seventy percent of the women were under the age of 20, and the majority were Serbian (Jancar-Webster 1990, 48-49). Personal loss propelled many into the Partisan movement. Life was so perilous in occupied Yugoslavia that joining the Partisans seemed for many preferable to the insecurity of powerless-ness. For many, joining the Partisans opened the prospect of new experiences and opportunities. Women learned to read and gained skills, which served them after the war if they survived. Many, however, did not. The casualty rate for female Partisans exceeded that for males.


One hundred thousand women served as soldiers in the National Liberation Army (NLA). Initially, 1 out of 10 NLA soldiers was a woman, but the proportion rose to 1 out of 8. In addition 2 million women were mobilized in the AntiFascist Front of Women (Anti-Fashisticki Front na Zenite, AFZ). These women ran local governments, provided support to the frontline fighters, and engaged in sabotage. According to Barbara Jancar, "From 1941 to 1945 8.5 percent of the total female population of Yugoslavia was killed or died" (Jancar 1982, 91). Twenty-five percent of the women who joined the NLA died, versus 11 percent for males, but there was an even higher casualty rate among the AFZ (Jancar 1982, 93). Though AFZ members were not formally soldiers, the war was a guerrilla one, and the front was elusive. When the Nazis and their allies overran villages, AFZ women fought and were killed or captured. Often capture led to rape, torture, and murder. Some have asserted that the higher casualty rate for women fighters resulted from their inexperience. Other observers, however, have asserted that the women, in general, fought more bravely than the men (Djilas 1977, 210).

Although 2,000 women did become officers in the NLA, women officers were few and predominantly limited to lower ranks. Of the 92 women fighters proclaimed national heroes by the postwar Yugoslav government, only 13 were officers, and 10 of these were political officers. Of these, only 3 served as unit commanders, and only 1 of these commanded a unit as large as a ceta (a detachment of approximately 300 fighters) (Jancar-Webster 1990, 92). Though there were more female fighters than female medics, women in the NLA disproportionately served in medical roles. In this guerrilla war, however, medics fought and died as regularly as other categories of combatants. After the victory of the Partisans, women were demobilized. Their participation in war, as far as the Yugoslav People’s


Army leadership was concerned, had been an emergency measure. When the Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, expedience again required the militarization of women. To deter Soviet intervention in Yugoslavia, the state organized the Territorial Defense Forces. Women as well as men were given military training in school, and two females became Territorial Defense Force generals. Women were also allowed to volunteer for service in what had previously been an all-male national army.

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