Ateliers > Histoire du travail militaire

Histoire du travail militaire


Session 1 : Vendredi 3 novembre, 9h-10h30

Free / un free military labour  - joint session with "Free-unfree labour" working group



Devshirmes and Unfree Labor System in the Ottoman Capital

Gulay Yilmaz, Akdeniz University, Turkey

Devshirme practice had been the main source of military conscription for the Ottoman Empire from its establishment to the 18th century.  It was a system to levy the sons of Christian subjects of the empire and to train them in order to use them in military and administrative positions. Before these boys were placed as soldiers they also had obligatory duties that have not yet been fully examined. These boys were used as skilled or unskilled laborers in state workshops, construction zones, urban production ateliers, and in urban agriculture throughout the application of the system.

This paper has two aims: first to investigate these laborers by gathering as much information as possible regarding their origins, working conditions and earnings; secondly, to elaborate on the extent of the unfree labor produced by devshirme boys. This approach will help us to think the military organization of the empire and the labor history of the Ottoman capital together. I argue in this paper that the devshirme system was also used as an unfree labor system by generating laborers working within Istanbul.


Military labour in the Republic of Venice: militiamen, sappers and oarsmen between agency and coercion (XVI-XVII centuries)

Giulio Ongaro, University Bicocca, Milan, Italy


In the early modern period, rural subjects of the Republic of Venice were involved in various ways in the military structure of the state. They had to give up their private activities (in the fields, but also in mines and rural workshops) in order to serve as militiamen, sappers and oarsmen. Men enrolled in the rural militia had to participate in periodic reviews and drills, and sometime to serve for few months on the batterfield or – more often – as garrison in the fortresses. Sappers instead had to serve in the building of the fortresses themselves, leaving their houses for many months, or in the construction of trenchs and galleries in wartime. It was a more prolonged and dangerous involvement, such as the oarsmen one. Rural inhabitants could not generally avoid their enrollement, even if they could pay a substitute; they received a salary for their service, but in spite of this they can be considered ”tributary workers”, because each rural community was forced to enroll a prearranged number of men.

However, beside the salary the participation in the state military machine led to other important consequences for rural militiamen, sappers and oarsmen, with relevant repercussions on the social and economic equilibria of the communities. In fact, they enjoyed personal tax exemption – in a period of significant increase in direct taxation – and their military position reinforced their role in the community. Especially the rural militia became an expression of local powers, a transference of the local social structure and of local patronages and conflicts within the (armed) military structure. We can assume that rural militia had a more important role within the local context than from a military point of view; a “coerced” service became an instrument of individuals and group in order to strengthen their position within their community.







Session 2 : Vendredi 3 novembre, 11h-12h30

Free / un free military labour  - joint session with "Free-unfree labour" working group -suite



Army/Nation, Labour/Service: the problem of universal conscription in the Nineteenth Century

Jacopo Lorenzini, Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici


Few concepts in history are more overflowing with rhetoric, than the ones revolving around XIX Century universal conscription. Many countries, inside and outside Old Europe, invested their military institution with unifying, nationalising, political and cultural homogenising missions. Therefore conscription, up to then a pretty technical issue, became the pivot of massive nation-building (or re-building, as in the French case) operations. However, conscription was also an economic issue: the term “universal” masked the impossibility to enlist every male individual. Even more: some governs did not want to have to deal with huge “popular armies” at all – still, they needed to take advantage of the symbolic and administrative paraphernalia related to Prussian-style militarised society.

All of these problems put the concept of conscription in a very difficult historiographical position. To be enlisted as a citoyen was a service to the Nation, or a normal – and often undesired – employment? Were the armies of the late XIX Century truly mirrors of their respective societies? What was the position of the different military and political élites? We will try to compare some national cases to find out about this key issue.


The Finnish fortification works 1940–1941 as an example of military labour

Otto Aura, University of Helsinki, Finland


In this proposed paper I present the Finnish fortification works 1940–1941 as an example of military labour. In Finland’s point of view, World War II included three separate wars, the Winter War (1939-1940) alone against the Soviet Union and then the Continuation War (1941-1944), alongside with Germany, against Soviet Union. The last war was against the Germany, the Lapland war (1944-45) after peace treaty with Soviet Union in September 1944. The time between Winter War and Continuation War, the so-called Interim Peace, is the timing of this paper.

Just after the Winter War ended, Finnish High Command decided that the new borders of Moscow Peace Treaty had to be fortified. Finland had over 1000 kilometres of shared border with the Soviet Union. The area seen as most vulnerable was to be heavily fortified with concrete fortifications (as was done in France, Belgium etc.). The task was enormous and needed quite a lot of labour. The highest peak at a certain moment was 35 000 and the cumulative number was somewhere near 50 000. This labour had twofold meaning. It was for national defence and also a cure for unemployment.

This was on type of military labour. It was contracted by the High Commands Fortification Office and the salaries were standardised. Work was either hard manual work or something that needed occupational specialisation (e.g. stone- and concrete workers). The gendered division of labour was quite clear. The management, professionals and odd-job men and were almost all-male whereas typists and other office assistants were women - and catering was provided by all-female Lotta Svärd –organization. Labour was free to move but was also under some restrictions. 

In the summer of 1941 began the so-called Continuation War as Finland started the offensive against the Soviets, alongside with Germany. This meant a sudden shift for the fortification workers as wartime legislature was implemented. A high amount of the labourers was called to arms; the rest were kept in their work under the law on obligatory work. In the proposed paper I will present how the military labour of fortification works transformed from free to unfree military labour.

In the proposed paper, I will present one example of military labour. I will start at the Winter War’s experiences and move forward to take a look on different aspects of fortification works in Finland, for example how was it organized, how did the military get the labourers needed, the division of gender, and skilled-unskilled labour. The ending point is the beginning of the Continuation War and the turn from free to unfree labour.






Session 3 : Vendredi 3 novembre, 16h-17h30


Gendering WWII military labour- joint session with "Feminist labour" working group



Women in the Alpujarras War (Granada, Spain, 1568-1571)

Aurelia Martín Casares, University of Granada, Spain & Marie Christine Delaigue University of Granada, Spain


The aim of this paper is to address the contradictions of the patriarchal discourse on women participating in bellicose acts in times of war. While the image of women is strongly rooted in passivity, motherhood and fertility in times of peace, in moments of war, women can be perceived as belligerent. To do this, I will analyze the case of the Morisco and Christian women of the Kingdom of Granada and their participation in the War of the Alpujarras in the second half of the sixteenth century. To understand the role of women in this war, I will study original sources of the time, especially the chronicle written by Luis del Mármol Carvajal (Historia del rebelión y castigo de los moriscos del Reyno de Granada..., Málaga, Juan René, 1600), where he relates numerous warlike episodes in which women appear. This historical chronicle describes the different episodes of the war day by day, including every battle and every village, specifying the names and characteristics of the persons involved in each act of war. The Alpujarras war lasted three years and involved important personages like don Juan de Austria, illegitimate son of the emperor Charles the fifth. Therefore it is a relevant space to study the construction of gender identity in times of war, compared to its construction in times of peace.However, I would like to emphasize that it is only an approximation to the study of the problems of women and the war in 16th century Granada, since, as I deepened the subject, I take more awareness of the possibilities of exploitation and its complexity.



Bringing military work home: domestic labour and power in occupied Germany and Japan

Christine de Matos, The University of Notre Dame, Australia.


When one considers military labour the immediate conjured image is likely to be a masculine one. This idea can be extended to conditions of military occupation in a post-hostilities situation. Two of the most comprehensive military occupations to occur in modern times are that of Germany and Japan after World War II. In both of these occupations, occupied workers were used extensively by the occupation powers in areas as ranging from hard labour to office work. One of the roles of labour under military occupation, rather like that of colonialism, was the performance of the military, political, economic and social power of the occupier over the occupied. Yet this performance did not just involve men and did not only occur in the public sphere: it was perhaps most powerful, even while less visible, in the private sphere of the home.

In the cases of both occupied Japan and Germany, families of occupation force personnel joined them in the occupied zones, often for many years. In practice this involved, first, the cooption of scarce undamaged homes in which the occupier families could live, and second the assignment of mostly female domestic labour to these families. German and Japanese women alike, and sometimes in teams, thus found themselves taking care of the homes and children of the occupation forces in an asymmetrical power relationship with both occupier men and women.


Based on research conducted in Japan and Germany, this paper will consider the intimate relationship between domestic labour and power under conditions of military occupation, with a focus on American and, in Japan, Australian occupation forces. It will thus not only reveal a mostly invisible aspect of military labour, but also offer a gendered analysis by considering the roles of both occupier and occupied women within this power dynamic.



’You in the air surveillance tower, he behind the plow’: the recruitment of women for military labour in WWII Sweden

Fia Sundevall, the Swedish Labour Movement Archive and Library, & Stockholm University, Sweden


It is well known that while situations of war / military conflict highlights and brings to the fore societies’ established gender divisions of labour, it also tends to destabilize such gender structures. WWII is a case in point. However, although a large and growing body of literature has shown that the recruitment and employment of women during WWII challenged and, temporarily, overturned previously established labour gender orders, researchers have primarily focused on the civilian or semi-civilian labour markets. This paper contributes to the much less developed field of women’s work within the WWII military labour market by exploring the recruitment of women for various military tasks, including air surveillance, and military vehicle transportation.

The nation in focus is Sweden – which unlike its neighbours was able to escape occupation and thereby officially maintain its policy of neutrality throughout the war, though at the cost of far-reaching concessions to Nazi Germany. Alike other European nations during WWII, Sweden too recruited women for tasks previously only undertaken by men. Unlike most other nations however, they were also recruited for military positions of such kind that they were required to bear arms. Who were these women, how were they recruited and what long-term effects did it have on the gendered division of military labour? Those are questions dealt with in this paper which seeks to explore continuity and change in the gendered division of military labour in WWII Sweden. Drawing on extensive archival work and the use of both written and audio-visual source material, I will argue that not only were women recruited to – as it was commonly expressed in Sweden and elsewhere – “fee a man for combat”, but occasionally for what could be considered the other way around. That is, women were recruited for armed service in air surveillance, in order to free men for the physically hard labour of farming.


Session 4 : Samedi 4, 9h-11h

Rethinking military labour


Working group discussion about military labour history and the future of the working group.

Discussion led by: Giulio Ongaro, University Bicocca, Milan, Italy & Fia Sundevall, the Swedish Labour Movement Archive and Library, & Stockholm University, Sweden.

Where do we stand and where are we heading? We will round of our working group’s sessions with a broad discussion amongst its scholars about military labour history research. As part of this we will also discuss the purpose and future of our working group.

[1] BA-MA, RW34/77, Special report no. 3, Kontrollinspektion der DWStK, 5 June 1943.





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