Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Orient was not just a favorite destination for male travelers, but also an alluring land for women. Among them were colorful personalities on the search for adventure and freedom. This brought general renown to some, among them Lady Montagu, Ida Pfeiffer and Isabelle Eberhardt, whose publications still enjoy great popularity today. In the First World War, as thousands of German soldiers headed off to the Ottoman Empire and as many British were underway to Egypt, many women used this opportunity to personally reach these regions. The following essay addresses the German women who found themselves in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In doing so, the various motives and experiences will be discussed that defined their stay in the Middle East in the times of war.
Women Volunteered for the Service in the Middle East
In 1914, as the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, an assortment of women were already living there. These were primarily residents of the settler colonies in Palestine, nuns and deaconesses, or wives of diplomats and consuls. The increased German involvement in the region during the years before the war had brought many engineers, tradesmen, archaeologists and also military instructors into the land, some of which had lived in Turkey for years with their wives and children.
While the bulk of women reached the Orient in the wake of their husbands, many single women tried to get employment after the outbreak of war in the now-allied Ottoman Empire. The German general consulate in Constantinople complained at the beginning of 1916 about the influx of requests that they received from Opera singers, actresses, music teachers, educators, and kindergarten teachers. According to the general consulate’s assessment, these applications were motivated by entirely fictitious notions about the conditions in Turkey. Therefore the consul requested the Reich Chancellor to undertake action against this.
While such efforts to obtain civilian employment in the Ottoman Empire hardly had a chance of succeeding, the opportunity to come to the Orient in the military’s wake increased, above all, during the second half of the war. With the increasing mobilization of women in the First World War, an especially large number of service women were deployed beginning in 1916. Many young women volunteered for service in the Middle East and were stationed as stenotypists in the military administration, as nurses in the soldiers’ clubs, or as Red Cross nurses in the military hospitals.
Usually several motives came together in the decision to take part: on one hand the women found the opportunity in their deployment to be able to directly serve their country. At the same time, however, their service - more so than on the Western Front - enabled them to escape their customary surroundings. The journey of these women in the Middle East was simultaneously a journey in independence. The German service women and nurses shared this perspective with their British female counterparts, who expressed their motives for volunteering in dangerous theaters of war during some interviews in the 1960s. What drove them was adventure and the desire to take advantage of the opportunity to travel before beginning their regimented married life, the desire to have and to savor their freedom. In addition to this, some women were also proud to be able to have an occupation with a relatively large amount of responsibility for the first time, to find recognition for this, and to thereby break out of accustomed gender roles.
Role Models and Emancipation