When talking about the two world wars, we tend to think as women as the active force that kept their countries going. But we rarely talk about specific individuals that shaped the development of the conflict.
When we talk about characters involved in on both sides of World War II, they are mainly male. There’s an ingrained idea that war is a man’s thing and that women were mostly relegated to domestic roles. However, both world wars disproved this idea. We know that women took on a lot of traditionally male roles to keep their countries going while the men were away in battle, yet we usually don’t speak about individual female characters who played more key roles.
With that in mind, here are six women who participated and made important changes over the course of this brutal conflict.
Here are three remarkable women who fought on the Allied side
None of the amazing and badass female characters from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds comes close to how determined and committed to the war effort Lyudmila Pavlichenko was. Pavlichenko was one of the deadliest snipers in history. When she was only fourteen years old, she worked at an ammo factory, which led her to test weapons and eventually get a sharpshooter certification.
Still, when the war started, she wasn’t allowed to enlist unless she wanted to serve as a nurse. However, after a lot of insistence, she was admitted to the army. She killed upwards of 300 enemy fighters, of which about forty were top German snipers and high-ranking soldiers. Then, after a serious accident, the Soviet army decided she would be more helpful to the cause as a sniper trainer. She was then awarded the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union,” which was rarely granted to women at the time. After the war, she returned to Kiev University to finish her studies and graduated with a degree in History.
Known by the Gestapo as the “most dangerous of all Allied spies,” Virginia Hall was one of the most important American spies during the war. Hailing from Baltimore, a young Hall was the first woman in Britain’s Special Operations to be sent to France. She worked there for three years until the Nazi army occupied the country.
She was forced to escape to Spain and cross the Pyrenees on foot, which was extremely dangerous, especially for someone with a prosthetic leg (she’d lost her leg in a hunting accident years before). In Spain, she continued spying, while working as an undercover correspondent for the Chicago Times.
After some time, she asked to be sent back to France, where she thought she would be more useful. There, she became a wireless radio operator, giving important information about the German army that led to several important victories for the Allies. After the war, she was awarded the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, becoming the only civilian woman in history to have gotten one. Back in the US, she joined the CIA and worked as an intelligence analyst until her retirement in 1966. She died peacefully in 1982 at the age of 76.
Noor Inayat Khan
One woman who has gotten more recognition in the last few years is Noor Inayat Khan, who went from princess to hero. Noor was born into a noble Indian family in Russia. During the interwar years, the family moved to England and France, and then back to England, when the German army invaded France.
Back in England, Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was eventually recruited by British Intelligence to work as a wireless operator back in France. Thanks to her ability to communicate in Morse code, she became one of the top collaborators in the operation until she was arrested by the German Intelligence Agency. Despite being tortured, she kept all the information she had to herself.
She managed to escape for a while, but she was found just a few months afterwards. In 1944, she was finally transferred to the Dachau concentration and immediately executed. After her death, she was awarded the British George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and also made Member of the Order of the British Empire for her services to the country.
Here are three women who had key roles in the Third Reich
Born in Silesia (now Poland), Hanna Reitsch was one of Germany's most important stunt pilots. Her abilities were so impressive that Hitler himself admired her, to the point that she was the only woman awarded with an Iron Cross. She was so influential in the Nazi party that she secured a place at the Führerbunker. After Hitler’s suicide, she was ordered to launch an attack on Soviet forces upon their arrival in Berlin, but it wasn’t successful. She survived the war and moved to Frankfurt, where she remained until her death in 1979.
One of the main factors that helped the Nazis rise to power was their impressive propaganda, and one of the pillars of this industry was Leni Riefenstahl, a film director, producer, photographer, actress and dancer commissioned to make some of the most important Nazi films.
Though it’s believed that she was actually working as a double agent (a fact no one has managed to confirm), the truth is that her films and the messages delivered through them were crucial for the image of the Nazi party. Riefenstahl received all sorts of awards in Germany, but after being captured and held in Allied prisons for almost four years, she was never able to make her popular films anymore.
She was cleared of war crimes in 1952, and in her seventies, she went back behind the camera to film nature documentaries. She became a member of Greenpeace in her 90s, but she was never forgiven due to her links to the Nazis.
Our last character is probably the most bloodthirsty of them all. Known as the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” Koch was infamous for her bloody and sadistic ways as an SS-Aufserherin, overseer of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Not only was she known for her cruelty, but she also had a pretty morbid hobby: collecting objects made with the remains of murdered prisoners.
Her “efficiency” in managing the camp was seen as an example to follow in the other concentration camps, making her quite an influential woman during these years of horror. Right after the war, Koch was arrested and tried for war crimes. In 1947, she was convicted by an American tribunal and sentenced to life in prison. Over the next decade, she appealed to the court many times, but the sentence remained the same. She died in 1967.
On both sides of the conflict, these women were really influential, key characters in the development of the war. Without their participation, perhaps history might’ve been different.
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