When the State trafficks women

Posted on July 16, 2013

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This post discusses the Nazi providing women for sex in Concentration Camps. Thanks to @everay1 for writing it Content note:rape, The Holocaust,violence against women.

The likes of Ruhama are not the first to see prostitution as a scourge that needs to be eliminated.  Adolf Hitler saw sex work as a sign of moral degeneracy and, on taking power in Germany in 1933, moved quickly to stamp it out, having sex workers arrested and sent to concentration camps.  This much is well known. A second chapter of the story of sex work in the Third Reich remained almost unknown until very recently.

After the outbreak of war Heinrich Himmler, Head if the SS, was concerned that armaments production in the male concentration camps should be maintained and the inmates given incentives. He was also desperately worried about the spread of homosexuality and came up with the idea of the ‘Sonderbauten’ or ‘special buildings’ as they were called. These were brothels. Female camp inmates, not all of them sex workers, were trafficked to various camps including Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen and forced to provide sexual services to male prisoners who they saw for fifteen minute appointments. When not working they were kept in special segregated accommodation, under the close watch of often brutal female guards. They had better food than other prisoners and could wear ordinary clothes but these were hardly a compensation for the scarcely believable degradation to which they were subjected.

Men who had earned privileges through good behaviour and hard work could apply for a brothel visit. Those who received permission were given a humiliating genital examination and a prophylactic injection before being taken to the room. Sex was only allowed in the missionary position and SS guards watched closely to ensure this happened. The women might see up to forty men a day. If they acquired STIs they were sent back to the camp they came from. Those that became pregnant were forced to have abortions.

What motivated the men who used the service? The need to relieve sexual frustration was one motivation but survivor testimonies also refer to many men wanting to talk or simply feel the physical closeness of a woman. In the pitiless world of the concentration camp they simply sought a few minutes of tenderness. They were as much victims as the women.

After the war a veil of silence was drawn over the whole episode. Many survivors were ashamed to talk about their experiences. The idea that the Nazis had made sex available to camp inmates didn’t fit the prevailing orthodoxies about the nature of Nazi oppression and raised a number of questions that remain deeply uncomfortable. Forced prostitution and rape were not recognised as war crimes in international law until 2002 and the issue of the brothels was not considered by the various war crimes trials. Even today the museums at several of the sites are remarkably coy about this aspect of the camps’ history. Visitors’ guides at a number of camps make no mention of the brothels and you will look in vain for a Sonderbau on the plan you are given.

That abolitionists became pimps and traffickers is only part of the story. The story needs to be considered in the wider context of the place of women in Nazi Germany. In propaganda they were idealised as carers, nurturers, above all as mothers. In practice women were subjugated to men in all aspects of their lives. Their key role was as breeding stock, to have children for the Master Race, preferably lots of them. Abortion was strictly forbidden, at least for Aryan women. In the Third Reich women had no rights.

There are some familiar themes here: the complicity of women in the oppression of women as well as the long term psychological damage done by trafficking and forced prostitution. No-one can read about this and not be appalled at the humiliation and degradation inflicted on the women. It needs to be remembered however that these women had not been imprisoned specifically to work as prostitutes. They had been imprisoned for not conforming to the Nazi ideal of womanhood, many of them for being sex workers, but by no means all. Sex workers or not, they all suffered the same fate, the same oppression. If we can learn anything from this it is that the rights of sex workers and the rights of women are indivisible, a lesson that some feminists sadly still need to learn.