Anna Parnell Travel Grant Awardee Report: Veronica Barry

Anna Parnell Travel Grant 2022: Archival research in Lisbon, Portugal

Speaking to a gathering of the National Socialist Women’s League in September 1934, Adolf Hitler firmly set out the ideological role assigned to women in the Nazi regime. Women, he stated, operated in a ‘smaller world’, far removed from the exclusively male arena of politics. Despite this and similar pronouncements from high-ranking Nazi officials, Nazi gender policies were inherently contradictory. Historians have rightly documented these contradictions at a domestic level, highlighting the centrality of women to the realisation of Nazi racial, social and, indeed, imperial plans. My PhD explores the Nazis’ gender-based foreign policy, examining the degree to which the Nazis attempted to use their policy towards women as a form of soft-power projection, gathering support in key neutral states whose policy they wished to influence. The neutral states under examination include Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Argentina as well as the USA and Brazil (until their entry into war in 1941 and 1942 respectively).

Notwithstanding Nazi attempts to remove Germany from platforms of intergovernmental co-operation, such as the League of Nations, the Nazis did not intend on isolating Germany on the international stage. Rather, they sought to establish new international networks – on their own terms, often becoming increasingly reliant on channels of influence in neutral states that, on the surface, appeared far removed from traditional diplomacy. It was in this context that the NS Frauenschaft, the leading Nazi women’s organisation, endeavoured to establish contact with women abroad. With the outbreak of war in September 1939, neutral states became a propaganda battleground for the belligerents. Consequently, the NS Frauenschaft, narrowed its focus, seeking to enhance relations with women of neutral and occupied states. With thanks to the Anna Parnell Travel Grant, I travelled to the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal (National Library of Portugal) and the Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo, both located in Lisbon, in order to assess the degree to which the Nazis targeted women in the Portuguese New State. 

During this research trip, I investigated the nature and frequency of contact between the national female organisations of both regimes: the Obra das Mães pela Educação Nacional and the Mocidade Portuguesa Feminina in Portugal and the NS-Frauenschaft and the Bund Deutscher Mädel in Germany. This research built upon that previously conducted in repositories in Germany and Spain, enabling a comparative analysis of the relationship the Nazi women’s organisation enjoyed with their counterparts in Spain and Portugal and through this prism, revealing broader patterns concerning the status of women in, and the foreign policies of, these states. 

Women’s cross-border collaboration with Nazi Germany reached its apex during the period in which a Nazi war victory appeared almost imminent. While the Spanish fascist women’s organisation, the Sección Femenina, openly broadcasted their support for the Nazis through a lively exchange of personnel, books, pamphlets, films and ideas, the relationship that existed between women in Portugal and Germany was more modest. Bilateral relations by means of propaganda between the Portuguese and German female organisations were limited and did not possess the warmth that underscored relations between fascist women in Spain and Germany.  The degree to which Portuguese women were absent from Nazi plans for a ‘New Europe’ is evidenced by their absence at the International Women’s Meeting in October 1941, which was unsurprising given Portugal’s pro-British neutrality throughout the war. Their absence left Spain as the only neutral state in attendance.  

Sport facilitated contact between Portuguese and German girls. Integral to Nazi soft-diplomacy, it provided a channel to exert influence or at least, to generate opportunities for playing down news of atrocities committed by the Nazis. Nevertheless, as a means of channelling influence into Portugal it produced little results when compared to sporting exchanges between Falangist and Nazi female youth organisations.

Fig: A Portuguese and German student at the German School in Lisbon. Source: Wiener Illustrierte, 5 Aug. 1942

The most effective forms of propaganda, the Nazis believed, particularly as international hostility increasingly isolated Germany, were those that appeared the furthest from the political realm. Contact between female groups provided the convenient disguise; though as the comparative study of Portugal and Spain revealed, it had received varying degrees of success.  I would like to express my sincerest thanks to the Women’s History Association of Ireland for awarding me the Anna Parnell Travel Grant to carry out this research trip to Lisbon in conjunction with the Irish Research Council. 

Veronica Barry, Irish Research Council Postgraduate Award Holder, History Department, Maynooth University.