War and the Duty of Motherhood

By Lily Braun
(Noted German Feminist Leader)

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1916]

The German Nation proved itself to be like one of the sturdy oaks of our own forests; the whirlwind lashed to the earth much that was decadent and superfluous, leaving revealed the noble outlines which bespoke strength and endurance.

With one powerful blow the war leveled all party barriers; the men who marched out to meet the enemy were men inspired by the one primitive feeling of defending their homes and their Fatherland.

And with the same blow, the war destroyed everything that was mannish in the women—destroyed their ideas of sentimental pacifism and their futile dreams of the sisterhood of woman throughout the world. The hidden force which drew 70.000 Berlin women to the Reichstag during those August days—not to indulge in a demonstration for universal suffrage but to offer their services as nurses and helpers—was only the powerful eruption of the long-smoldering womanly instinct, best expressed in the one word, Motherliness! Every woman was absorbed by the one idea of helping—but how and where?

The women of Germany had one wide-spreading organization, the Vaterlandischer Frauenverein, but it was not until the war came and put this organization to the test that we realized its scope and efficiency. Called into existence during another dark period in the nation's history—the Wars of Liberation—it now comprises a half million members, has a capital of 30,000,000 marks, and is the mother, so to speak, of endless public welfare institutions.

Under the auspices of this organization, and that of the Woman's Auxiliary of the Red Cross Society, 25,000 women in Berlin alone were enabled to take the course of training prescribed for the so-called Helferinnen, or assistants in all phases of the relief work.

After the mobilization of the troops had been effected and we had been released from our duties at the railway stations, the question of the unemployed women was the first work to claim our attention.

Many industries in which women had been employed were suspended at first but soon recovered and adapted themselves to the exigencies of the situation. That they were able to do so with such astonishing rapidity was due to what our enemies anathematize as "Prussian Militarism." The capacity for subjecting one's self to discipline which is another name for organization, is one of the fruits of this so-called "Militarism." Two other factors were of incalculable value in assisting us to meet the new conditions, and these were the education of the masses and the Workingmen's Insurance—one creating a willingness to co-operate intelligently, and the other providing support until those thrown out of work could again be reinstated.

The outside world has been astonished at the rapidity and smoothness with which our economic machinery got under way, and this was undeniably due in large measure to the ability of the women to take the places vacated by the men. The farmer's wife in East Prussia, who, clad in men's overalls and high boots, superintended the harvesting, is only one of thousands of similar instances where women took up the labor suddenly abandoned by the men. The war has already released hitherto undreamed-of forces among the women of the land, and tomorrow, and day after tomorrow will demand still greater sacrifices and heroism on their part. The war is not yet at an end, and the claims upon our strength and endurance are by no means exhausted. And even when the time comes when we shall be able to add the palm of peace to the flags of victory that now flutter from our windows, there will still be an infinite work for us to do, in rebuilding and reconstructing all that the war has destroyed.

Far more appalling than the destruction of material values, which years of patient endeavor and courageous effort can ultimately restore, are the irreparable losses in human life. There will be no more vital problem to be solved by the women of the world in the future than this of so readjusting the economic conditions as to make it possible for every woman to fulfill her natural duties of motherhood.

This is not a mere question of woman's personal happiness and her moral and intellectual development, but a question of the "to be" or "not to be" of a nation. The Russian General who, in the beginning of the war, based his belief in the invincibility of his country upon the fertility of the Russian woman, was fundamentally right, and had not the Russians been enfeebled by long years of moral and intellectual starvation they might have been able to ravage our land in far greater measure by the sheer force of their military masses.

Should France be defeated in this war—and France is the only country which, like Germany, is fighting for her national existence—her defeat would not only be the result of our superior military prowess, but in great measure the fault of the French women who no longer wish to bear children. For years this most striking symptom of national decadence—the retrogression of the birthrate—has manifested itself in France. This is best proved by statistics which show that in 1870 both France and Germany had a population of forty millions. In 1914 France still had only forty millions, whereas Germany's population had increased to sixty-five millions.

From the blood-soaked fields of Flanders and Poland comes the insistent cry to the women of Germany: Fulfill your duties of Motherhood!

There are women who advocate "a strike" among the mothers of the land—who declare they will bring no more children into the world to be food for powder. But such women are lacking in true citizenship, and it is as mothers and citizens that the State will claim our co-operation after the war. Let us so fulfill this two-fold duty as to prove ourselves worthy helpmates of the heroes in the fighting lines, and we shall then be able to look back upon this critical period in the nation's history, not as the "time of our great calamity," but rather as "the great time of our calamity!"

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury