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  • Prostitutes as a Threat to National Honor in Habsburg-Occupied Serbia during the Great War
  • Jovana Knežević (bio)

Natalija Arandjelović was a respectable woman. She was married to a Serbian officer, one of the most prestigious marital unions in Serbian society at the time. Her husband had been away on duty much of the time from the outset of the Balkan Wars in 1912 to the end of the First World War in November 1918. Natalija spent most of that time in Belgrade, including three years from October 1915 to November 1918 when the independent Kingdom of Serbia came under Habsburg occupation, dutifully tending to their young children. During the occupation, her journal entries evidence a daily struggle to procure scarce food and fuel and to endure the psychological hardships inherent to occupation. Her journal reflects the daily sacrifice of holding out in the presence of the enemy until the much-anticipated liberation by the Serbian army. In her struggle, Natalija embodied all of the traits deemed appropriate for respectable Serbian women: sacrifice born of maternal and spousal love; fidelity to husband, family, and country; and chastity, an expression of this loyalty. Natalija prided herself on being a model of the dutiful woman. She consciously sought to behave nothing like her sister-in-law Anka, whom she repeatedly accused in her journal of neglecting her maternal and spousal duties while she "gallivanted" with officers of the occupying government during the war.

Serbian women made a range of choices in order to survive the war and occupation, most of which resulted in their more pronounced presence in the public realm. Not all women dealt with the social and economic travails of life under occupation in as accepted a manner as Natalija Arandjelović claimed to have. Some women sought employment with the Habsburg Military General Government of Serbia (MGG). Others sought to alleviate their economic burdens or to gain other privileges through beneficial personal relationships with members of the occupying government. Still other women, for whom these options were not open, resorted to prostitution. Anka was not a prostitute in the strict sense of the word, but her relationships with Habsburg officers did make her a prostitute of sorts in the eyes of [End Page 312] her compatriots. Under occupation, the notion of a sort of soft prostitution gained currency, reflecting the often subjective, ambiguous designations of prostitution. For Natalija, Anka was symbolic of this more wayward path.

All belligerent countries experienced a boom in prostitution and other "immoral" behavior during the First World War.1 Wartime privations and opportunities made it increasingly difficult for women to conform to accepted gender norms. In Serbia, as elsewhere in Europe, economic and social upheaval forced women to step out of their homes into the workforce, thus out of their restricted roles as wives and mothers.2 Women's greater presence in public life, combined with the greater license with which some behaved themselves in the absence of male guardianship, prompted much discussion over how the war was changing women's roles in society. This discourse often centered on the issue of sexual morality. The choices that women made in response to the circumstances of war and occupation were scrutinized by self-appointed social and national watchdogs who unofficially monitored public morality. As a police agent of the Habsburg occupying government in Belgrade remarked in his report on the mood of the population, "if one can put it this way, a native police exists that very closely keeps an eye on the commercial and social life [Handeln und Wandeln] of each other."3 This "native police" castigated "immoral women" for not behaving according to accepted moral norms. In public forums such as Ženski svijet (Women's world), a Yugoslav women's journal, as well as in private conversation, in personal journals, in the sharing of rumors, and in postwar memoirs, Serbs celebrated the image of the woman as faithful wife and mother while deriding women who engaged in prostitution or fraternized with members of the occupying forces. Their commentary insinuated that these latter women were equivalent to prostitutes, even if they neither worked in brothels nor accept cash in exchange for their services. While...


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pp. 312-335
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