Why Did Women Begin Sporting Short Hairdos?

tags: womens rights, WW I

Kevin Kennedy is PhD student at the University of Potsdam, where he is writing a history of Prussian-Pietist orphanages in the eighteenth century. He received his M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1995, where he wrote his thesis on Nietzsche's political thought.

If you happen to be visiting Berlin, Germany before the end of this November, then don’t miss the exhibit, Der erste Weltkrieg (“The First World War”), which opened on May 28 with a speech by the German chancellor Angela Merkel. The exhibit is taking place at the German Historical Museum, located since 1990 in the Zeughaus, the former arsenal of the Prussian army. This would be an appropriate locale for a show about the First World War, but that building is solely used for the museum’s permanent exhibit on German history. Temporary exhibits take place in the neighboring annex, a relatively new building designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. Like many architects who design museums, Pei seems to have given in to the temptation to leave his mark with a strikingly designed building, instead of focusing on the practical needs of a museum,  such as ample, well-lit space for exhibits. In this instance, Pei’s large foyer, with its winding staircase and impressive views,  takes away too much space from the exhibit halls, which are small, narrow and cramped. Moreover, this particular exhibit is located in the basement, creating even more of a claustrophobic atmosphere.  But the presentation itself more than compensates visitors for such annoyances. 

The First World War, which the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan aptly called “the seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century, receives a thorough examination with this exhibit. Visitors can see some 500 objects from 13 countries. Most impressive is the international perspective in which they are framed. Since the Second World War, and especially since German reunification, Germans try to view history in a comprehensive way, avoiding a purely national narrative. The exhibit thus depicts the First World War from the viewpoint of all the major nations involved, including, among many others, the United States, India and Turkey. Like all conventional depictions of historic conflict, the military hardware is on abundant display. But the weaponry is presented in such a way as to highlight how the First World War revolutionized military technology and changed warfare forever.  Visitors learn about the introduction of more practical battlefield uniforms and steel helmets as well as the other “improvements” the war produced: machine-guns, tanks, aerial bombardment, flamethrowers, and poison gas. 

Visitors also learn how this catastrophe gave birth to a kind of “total war,” not seen since the civil, religious, and great-power wars of the 17th century. The war brought suffering, misery and death to countless millions of people. And while the First World War was significant in its own right, as many historians remind us, visitors to the exhibit can’t help but reflect on how the horror of this European war sowed the seed of the even more horrific one to follow twenty-one years later. As early as 1915, the German military began categorizing their prisoners-of-war according the racial categories. Moreover, the war saw the kind of mass-expulsions and mass-murder more commonly associated with World War Two. 

Eastern Europe or “God’s Playground” (as the Poles call their country) suffered terribly. One display features a poignant cartoon of a Polish woman with her hungry child clutching her skirt, weeping as she hands over her last loaf of bread to a fat German soldier. But German civilians suffered as well. The Allied blockade of Germany led to widespread hunger, especially among the children and the elderly. One surprising discovery for this writer was the fact that more civilians were killed by hunger and disease in the First World War than were killed by bombs in the second one. 

In fact, a major portion of the exhibit is taken up by presentations of life on the home fronts, which all-too often receive too little attention compared to life in the trenches. Why, for example, did short hair become the rage among many women at the time? Because many of them gave up their hair to assist the war effort. When the male factory workers were called-up, the women were sent in to replace them, and wearing long hair was dangerous while operating heavy machinery. Moreover, many women had their heads short so they could donate their hair to the war industry. At that time, transmission belts and gaskets were made from horsehair.  But as the war dragged on, the horse hair became a rare commodity, and the women were encouraged to donate their own. After the war, many women kept their short hair as a symbol of female emancipation. 

A particularly jarring section of the exhibit reminds visitors of how women at the German home front suffered in other ways. Visitors encounter a typical kitchen in a Mietskaserne ( a “rental-barracks,” the tenement block common to big German cities before the war).  Lying on the table is a large glass case. Looking down into the case, visitors see female genitalia, made of rubber. Below the case is what looks like a surgeon’s kit. Put bluntly, this is “Abortion for Dummies”: a way to help women learn how to rid themselves of the unwanted pregnancies which skyrocketed as the war dragged on. The men who were supposed to be home by Christmas either did not come back for many months or years later, or never at all. The few men who stayed at home, however, often had their pick of women. A more serious problem, however, was the mass starvation caused by the Allied blockade. Desperate to put food on the table for themselves and their children, countless German woman were forced into prostitution, with tragic results. 

When she opened the exhibit, Angela Merkel posed the question if we had “learned anything” from the First World War. When considering the lamentable state of veterans’ care in the United States, it appears not. The nations of Europe went to war completely unprepared for the needs of the veterans who came home with serious physical and psychological injury. Likewise, the last U.S. president sent American soldiers off to war with little thought for how the state would care for them. World War One veterans suffering from shell shock were given little or no treatment, or the wrong treatment.  Towards the end of the exhibit, for instance, visitors can see a device used to “cure” the victims of shell-shock by giving them violent electric shocks. Today it’s called  PTSD. While the treatments for this condition may have improved considerably, the long-term suffering of many veterans in Europe and the United States shows that we still have much to learn. 

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