Backlash against Prostitutes’ Rights: Origins and Dynamics of Nazi Prostitution Policies

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler attacked prostitution as a major cause of Germany’s decline. The “prostitution of love,” he claimed, was responsible for the “terrible poisoning of the health of the national body” through syphilis. “Even if its results were not this frightful plague, it would nevertheless be profoundly injurious to man, since the moral devastations which accompany this degeneracy suffice to destroy a people slowly but surely.” According to Hitler, many of Germany’s troubles could be blamed on “this Jewification of our spiritual life and mammonization of our mating instinct” that threatened to annihilate future generations of healthy Germans. Hitler’s tirades about the moral and racial dangers of venal sex suggested that, once in power, the Nazis would show little tolerance for the persistence of “vice.” Paradoxically, however, state-regulated prostitution increased dramatically under Nazism. Especially during wartime, the regulated brothel became a key institution of Nazi sexual policy. How can we make sense of this tension?

As this essay intends to show, to gain a fuller understanding of Nazi attitudes toward prostitution, it is vital to analyze them in the context of Weimar conflicts over prostitution reform. Recent studies on the history of prostitution in the Third Reich tend to neglect pre-1933 developments. If historians mention the topic of Weimar prostitution policy at all, it is primarily to emphasize basic continuities in this area after the Nazi takeover. Thus, Gisela Bock has argued that Weimar prostitution reforms paved the way for the sexual and economic exploitation of prostitutes under National Socialism. However, the notion of unbroken continuities between Weimar and Nazi attitudes toward venal sex is problematic for several reasons. The exclusive focus on continuity tends to obscure important differences between the two periods. Far from representing a mere prelude to the brutal persecution of prostitutes after 1933, the nationwide abolition of state-regulated prostitution in 1927 led to significant improvements in prostitutes’ civil and legal status. To acknowledge these (albeit limited) gains in prostitutes’ rights is key for the analysis of the impact that concerns about “immorality” had on the crisis of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism.

The more liberal aspects of Weimar prostitution reforms triggered a powerful right-wing backlash. In the eyes of religious conservatives, the state’s perceived failure to enforce “moral order” and cleanse the streets of prostitutes profoundly discredited Weimar democracy. Among large segments of the police, the loss of authority to control and punish streetwalkers similarly bred resentment against the democratic government. The Nazis were keenly aware of the propagandistic value of the issue of prostitution. Nazi attacks on the 1927 prostitution reform as yet another expression of Weimar’s “materialism” and “moral decay” aimed to widen the party’s appeal among the religious Right and conservative officials. During the early 1930s, the Nazis’ successful attempt to portray themselves as guardians of conventional morality intent on eliminating “vice” was key to winning them the approval and collaboration of many conservatives. We can only account fully for this dynamic, however, if we recognize some of the positive achievements of Weimar prostitution reforms. The abolition of state-regulated prostitution was one of the major successes of the 1920s movement for sexual reform, which failed to achieve other goals such as the decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality. This is why Weimar prostitution reforms became a central target of Nazi propaganda.

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