While important work has been produced on discourses of masculinity and the normative masculine ideals in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe we know very little about the actual experiences and self-images of individual men. This article, largely based on oral history interviews with former deserters, analyses the gendered identities of Austrian men who were recruited to serve in the Wehrmacht and who later deserted.

Deserters were brutally persecuted in the Third Reich and denounced as ‘traitors’ and ‘cowards’. The glorification of martial masculinity in Nazi Germany played a crucial role in the defamation of deserters, whose manliness was called into question. Based on Connell's theory of hegemonic masculinity, the article aims to establish the actual influence of dominant ideals of masculinity. It investigates how these deserters perceived themselves as men and how they negotiated their gendered identities in interaction with their surroundings. The analysis reveals the considerable influence of the hegemonic ideal of ‘hard’ masculinity, which was far greater than the impact of the rather short-lived ideal of martial masculinity. But it also demonstrates the contradictory nature of gendered identities and gives valuable insights into the selective appropriation of masculine values.