Selling Sex in the Reich –
Prostitutes in German Society, 1914 – 1945
By Victoria Harris
Oxford University Press – £22.99
It should come as no surprise that there are a number of hard-hitting segments throughout this book. Similarly, Selling Sex in the Reich – Prostitutes in German Society, 1914-1945 covers a somewhat seismic terrain that many might consider being no different to that of what they already know; or should I say, think they know, especially men.
In ‘The Prostitute Experience,’ authoress Victoria Harris writes: ‘’The decision to enter prostitution often followed financial insecurity. The reasons for economic distress appear to have been relatively consistent – a combination of unemployment, insufficient wages, or separation from the male breadwinner. Prostitution was, to put it simply, a way of managing economic crisis, in so far as it relieved pressing financial needs and prevented outright destitution.’’
In hindsight, such explanation, although understandable, is a far cry from the current (British) trend of opportunistic prostitution, particularly when coupled with the more recent trend of so-called reliant prostitution. Both of which are (unfortunately) all too perfectly depicted in modern day television and media – the television series Shameless and The Sun newspaper especially. Wherein, it is as if young girls selling their bodies, really is no different to that of young girls selling crisps, shampoo or petrol.
All the more reason to read this unbelievably well researched/written book: not only does it shed much historical light from that of a quasi-inflammatory perspective, it does so in a way that is as readable as it is engaging.
By fundamentally focusing on the plight of the urban prostitute in the German cities of Hamburg and Leipzig, Harris has herein written a profoundly provocative, and at times, poignant analysis of the world’s so-called oldest profession. Provocative, because on the one hand, Harris investigates the complex continuities that continued to traverse the Wilhemine, Weimar and Nazi eras horribly complicated conception of German citizenship. Poignant, because even though we all know how badly waitresses are to this day horribly regarded (and paid), the following is still disturbing to read: ‘’So unrespectable were waitresses during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, that many were forcibly treated for venereal disease. In fact, in some cities, such as Frankfurt, all waitresses were automatically examined for venereal disease because such a large number of them had worked previously or concurrently as prostitutes.’’
As is mentioned earlier in the same chapter, the American Abraham Flexner ‘’conduced an exhaustive and highly reliable investigation into prostitution across Europe at the turn of the twentieth century;’’ which, with regards waitresses,’ led him to conclude: ‘’prostitutes are employed to push the sale of drink, by drinking with and otherwise entertaining their already more or less intoxicated patrons; screened corners and a quick succession of new faces characterise the so-called clip-joints and American bars, which are bitterly denounced as perhaps the most demoralising form of prostitution has as yet assumed.’’ The latter of which is all the more substantiated when Harris thereafter writes: ‘’Most waitresses amongst the some 37,000 employed in Germany in the immediate pre-war period earned only tips; some were even forced to pay the restaurant owner for the privilege of serving a certain number of tables.’’
Is it any wonder Hitler came to power when such myopic male greed was clearly rampant? From within the parameters of early twentieth-century German economics and society, perhaps not. Prostitution, along with much of German societal need and expression – whether it was the theatre or painting or whatever – was intrinsically hemmed into a ghostly, ghastly corner.
In the book’s final chapter ‘The Prostitute and the State,’ Harris again quotes an American investigator, Raymond Fosdick, who in his own book on European police systems declared that ‘’German society was filled with rules and ordinances. ‘In Berlin,’ he noted, ‘the police president has recently issued ordinances regulating the colour of automobiles, the length of hatpins and the methods of purchasing fish and fowl.’’’
To be sure: ‘’there were ‘ten times as many punishments for misdemeanours in German cities as in English cities.’’’
Having up until last month lived in Berlin, I have to say, the city continues to subscribe to that of a vast network of unnecessary rules and regulations – which are so intrinsically cumbersome – I’m amazed it hasn’t yet crumbled beneath the weight of its own bugbear bureaucracy.
Selling Sex in the Reich is a very worthy reflection of many aspects of German society, the historical sexual trajectory of which, Harris has captured with both balance and panache.