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A Sacred National Duty: Military Conscription in Western Europe (1815-1945)


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


In the 19th and 20th centuries most countries in Europe employed a system of compulsory military service, usually called conscription. This meant that a large part of the male citizens had to serve for a particular term in the army or the navy. They all had to do their duty defending their fatherland, as it was said.
Besides being considered an obligation, military service could also be seen as a privilege.

From this point of view a man’s citizenship was not complete without the right to bear arms. Millions of young men, from very different social backgrounds, went through the same unifying experience of being drafted into the armed forces and being subjected to a strict military regime in the barracks, artificially separated from civil society. Some hated the drill and discipline, while others gratefully took the opportunity to learn to read and write during their time in uniform. Europe’s wars in the 19th and 20th centuries were fought primarily by conscripts, who basically had no choice but to fight (and die) for their country.

In this seminar we will explore the different angles from which the phenomenon of conscription has been subjected to historical research. We will look at how conscript armies, consisting mainly of civilians in uniform, functioned in times of peace and war. How were all these young men trained, prepared and motivated for the act of killing?

Conscription as an instrument of nation building is another perspective to investigate. The military were often called ‘the school of the nation’. But is that label at all valid?
Did conscription really turn peasants into Frenchmen, for instance? Another set of questions deals with how conscription worked in practice. Did young men willingly join the army, when called up, or did they everything in their power to avoid being drafted? Were the rich just as easily recruited as the poor?
The attitudes and views of the (emerging) political parties towards and on conscription are well worth our attention as well.

We will also look at conscription from the viewpoint of gender. What role did conscription play in defining the roles men and women were supposed to play in society? Did women ever seriously try to have conscription extended to their sex as well? We will study the secondary literature on conscription, focusing on France, Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium. Students interested in doing archival research can write their paper on the Dutch case. There are many primary sources on militaire dienstplicht waiting to be looked into.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only): The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    • in the specialisation Political Culture and National Identities: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student has acquired:

  1. Knowledge and understanding of the (international) historiography on military history, especially the
    so-called ‘war and society’ approach and the ‘total war’ debate;
  2. Knowledge and understanding of the key concepts of military sociology, pertaining to the field of civil-military relations;
  3. Knowledge of the role the military played in the process of nation building;
  4. Knowledge of the political, social and cultural discourses on conscription;
  5. The skills to independently select, study and analyse a wide array of sources, particularly archival sources, newspapers and ego-documents;
  6. (ResMA only): The ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources; the ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates; the ability to ask and research new and original questions on the subject of conscription, using primary (archival) sources; knowledge of the interdisciplinary aspects of the specialization.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Class attendance: 26 hours

  • Reading assignments (including two oral presentations): 74 hours

  • Researching and writing a paper (including one oral presentation): 180 hours

Assessment method

  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-9, 11-17 (ResMA also 10 and 18)

  • Assignments and oral presentations
    Measured learning objectives: 7-9

  • Class participation
    Measured learning objectives: 8-10


Written paper: 70%.
Assignments and oral presentations: 20%.
Class participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Literature

  • Powerpoint presentations

  • Discussion

Reading list

  • Ute Frevert, A Nation in Barracks. Modern Germany, Military Conscription and Civil Society (Oxford 2004)

  • A selection of articles, to be announced in class and on Blackboard


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Ben Schoenmaker