Guest Post: Julia Roos’ Response to Victoria Harris

Julia Roos, the author of Weimar through the Lens of Gender, has asked the Weimar Studies Network to publish her response to Victoria Harris’ review of her book in the current issue of German History. We happily comply with her request, as the support of a lively scholarly debate is the stated aim of this forum. However, the opinions expressed in the following text are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors.

“Victoria Harris and I disagree in our evaluation of the political nature of Weimar-era prostitution reforms. While Harris’s own work stresses more or less unbroken continuities in the history of prostitution across the divides of 1918 and 1933, I believe that the general decriminalization of female prostitution in 1927 marked a consequential shift in established gender hierarchies and produced meaningful new legal protections for women working in the sex trade. Ultimately, our divergences on the issue of prostitution reform reflect larger analytical differences over questions of Weimar’s democratic potentials and its proper place in the trajectory of early twentieth-century German history. Differences of interpretation are the bread and butter of a lively intellectual debate; ideally, they move the scholarship forward by promoting the exploration of new problems and perspectives. Unfortunately, because Harris’s review of my book often does not focus sufficiently on the substantive issues at stake, it tends to convey an inaccurate account of some of my key arguments. In the hope that this will help facilitate productive future discussion between Victoria Harris and me, as well as within the larger community of scholars of Weimar Germany, I feel compelled to respond to Harris’s major criticisms. I am grateful to the editors of Weimar Studies Network for creating a much-needed space for intellectual exchange.

In her review of Weimar through the Lens of Gender, Harris claims that I argue that the 1927 anti-venereal law, which decriminalized female prostitution and abolished police-controlled prostitution (Reglementierung, or, regulationism) in favor of a system of medical supervision of people infected with sexually transmitted diseases, was unambiguously progressive and “gender-neutral in its application.” (Harris, Review, p. 151.)

In fact, the main thrust of my argument centers on the political ambiguities of 1920s prostitution reforms. I do argue that with the fall of state-regulated prostitution in 1927, prostitutes gained a range of new legal protections that allowed them, for instance, to resist illegal arrest. Under the old system of regulationism, prostitutes registered by the police had no right to a court hearing and suffered numerous restrictions on their freedom of movement, residence, and association (no penalties applied to prostitutes’ male clients). After 1927, many of these restrictions fell away. This marked an important advance in women’s rights. However, as I emphasize throughout the book (and as early as page 2), the 1927 law also introduced repressive new provisions for the compulsory treatment and hospitalization of “negligent” venereal patients. Regular health checks of prostitutes typically continued. In my separate chapters on the Left and liberal feminists, I pay close attention to the problematic impacts of eugenic beliefs and class prejudice on Weimar-era prostitution reforms. I underline the gender bias in the law’s implementation. My conclusion captures the nuances of my argument: “Clearly, many aspects of prostitution reform were ambivalent. Thus, the decriminalization of prostitution came at the prize of new criminal penalties for the spread of venereal infections. The scope of people potentially subjected to compulsory hygienic controls for STDs increased. After 1927, most health offices still targeted primarily women as suspected sources of venereal contagion. Last but not least, Social Democrats’ and bourgeois feminists’ collaboration with women of the religious Right in the effort to repeal Reglementierung left its imprint on the Law for Combating Venereal Diseases, which contained several exceptions to the general decriminalization of prostitution. Despite these limitations, however, it is vital to acknowledge some of the positive achievements of 1920s prostitution reforms. For a brief historical moment, Germany introduced prostitution policies that in certain ways were remarkably tolerant for their time. Like other progressive Weimar-era innovations in areas such as labor law and welfare policy, prostitution reform provoked a powerful conservative backlash that ultimately helped destroy Weimar democracy.” (Roos, Weimar through the Lens of Gender, p. 212.)

If we do not acknowledge the tangible gains in women’s and prostitutes’ rights achieved between 1918-19 and 1933, we cannot explain why attacks on Weimar’s alleged “immorality” played such a powerful role in destroying Germany’s first experiment in liberal-parliamentary government.

According to Harris, I contend that “the police, once stripped of their right to control prostitutes, became anti-democratic and authoritarian.” (Harris, Review, p. 151.)

In reality, I do not claim anywhere that the formation of an authoritarian opposition to the republic within Weimar’s bureaucracy was solely the outcome of 1920s prostitution reforms. Rather, I use the example of the police’s backlash against prostitution reform to highlight the importance of conflicts over gender in the formation of the bureaucratic “anti-state” that helped bring down the republic.

Harris objects to my account of prostitution under Nazism in my conclusion, claiming that “recent research suggests that in the Third Reich, prostitutes continued to work much as they had done before.” (Harris, Review, p. 151.)

Though I certainly do not romanticize prostitutes’ working conditions during the Weimar years, I very much doubt that their lives went on as before after 1933. Most obviously, this does not hold true of Jewish women working in the sex trade. It also does not capture the experience of the many prostitutes forcefully sterilized for alleged “moral feeble-mindedness” (moralischer Schwachsinn) under the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny of 14 July 1933, or of those incarcerated as “anti-socials” in Nazi concentration camps. During the Third Reich, state-regulated prostitution was reintroduced and massively expanded. Police regulation of prostitutes was again intensified, and unregistered streetwalkers were suppressed rather brutally. Recent work by historians such as Insa Meinen, Christa Paul, and Annette Timm highlights the central role of the regulated brothel for Nazi racial and imperialist goals, as well as the dehumanizing conditions characteristic of the lives of German and foreign prostitutes working in the brothels for the German Wehrmacht, foreign laborers, and concentration camp inmates. The very real threat of forced sterilization and incarceration in a concentration camp also diminished the lives of those women in the sex trade fortunate enough to avoid these horrors.

Harris claims that “Roos does not engage with the rich historiography on prostitution in Germany, noting by name in the text only one historian’s article, published in 1976.” (Harris, Review, p. 151.)

This statement is factually inaccurate. In the main body of the text, I mention by name at least five historians of Germany who have worked on prostitution: Ann Taylor Allen, Richard Evans, Elisabeth Meyer-Renschhausen, Ursula Nienhaus, and Christa Paul (all of these are included in the index). Numerous other works on the history of prostitution in nineteenth and twentieth-century Germany are included in the expansive apparatus of footnotes and bibliography; many of these are quite recent. A considerable portion of the path-breaking work on the history of prostitution has been done by scholars working on countries other than Germany (for instance, Alain Corbin and Judith Walkowitz), and I consciously strove to connect the German case to a larger comparative framework. I believe this inclusion of comparative literature has enriched my analytical perspective. Thus, for instance, my discussion of state-regulated prostitution engages a broad range of different theoretical approaches, from interpretations positing the system’s archaic roots in political backwardness (Evans) to Foucaultian notions of regulationism as a highly modern “carceral system” (Corbin).

Hopefully, these clarifications will help scholars of Weimar Germany sort out the real — and by no means insignificant — issues that separate Victoria Harris’s views from mine.”

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