Cornelie B., born in 1890, was first arrested for prostitution in 1907. After numerous encounters with the police and internments in various institutions, her last recorded interview with the authorities dates from 1940. Her story, which is told in the prologue of Victoria Harris' revealing study, is compelling and well worth returning to in the light of the concluding chapter. Her troubled life is in fact indicative of the history of prostitution in industrialised urban Germany between 1914 and 1945; it is as much the story of an individual woman as of state interference.
Harris, a research Fellow in history at King's College, Cambridge, uses micro-historical approaches to unravel the myths we tend to associate with prostitution. Her study, which focuses on Hamburg and Leipzig, serves as a reminder that political and social shifts work long term, with the First World War as a shared European turning point in perceptions of and dealings with prostitution.
She argues, drawing on a wealth of data and specific case studies (based, among other things, on police files), that in the 30 years under investigation the prostitutes were in fact not victims but women who reacted actively to the difficult economic circumstances they found themselves in. They were predominantly but not exclusively working class, and the numerical ups and downs of recorded cases of prostitution mirror female employment patterns in Germany as a whole.
Selling Sex in the Reich approaches the topic by increasingly widening the focus. While the introduction provides the historical and scholarly context, the section of the book titled "The prostitute experience" considers individual fates in a period when women had limited educational opportunities and lacked financial security.
At the same time, however, there were attempts by prostitutes to unionise and to improve conditions, not least with the help of their own publication, Der Pranger, in the 1920s.
"The prostitute milieu" analyses the wider context - the pimp and the procuress who were, contrary to stereotype, not "in any sense an isolated, criminal underworld community".
"The prostitute and society" gives insights into reactions by the wider public - such as petitions and letters of complaint - with a useful focus on local, mundane, day-to-day reactions and concerns instead of occasional wider moral panics. It becomes clear that anxieties associated with prostitution are significant in times of change and crisis - deviant female behaviour being perceived as having a destabilising impact on state and society; "the whore" becomes the scapegoat, allowing policymakers to reassert traditional roles.
The book's final chapter, "The prostitute and the state", draws the threads together: it shows that prostitute-management strategies and the controlling interference of the state in individual lives did not emerge as radically at the end of the Weimar Republic as we like to believe; what happened in reality was that the authoritarian measures reached their apogee in the Nazi era.
The case study of a Hamburg employee in the 1920s illustrates a worryingly smooth transition from being a well-educated social worker to becoming responsible first for sending prostitutes to institutional homes and then to concentration camps. For the theories of internment and treatment of prostitutes, the year 1933 appears less significant than a host of postwar policies and localised disparities.
Harris' eye-opening and thought-provoking analysis of the history of prostitution in German society contributes substantially to our understanding of continuities across periods and to a more precise characterisation of the prostitutes' working environment.
What is more, she challenges popular ideas associated with the topic and questions scholarly approaches that may perpetuate simplistic patterns of interpretation.
A study on a European scale, as Harris suggests at one point, would be an exciting follow-up and a book to look forward to.
Selling Sex in the Reich: Prostitutes in German Society, 1914-1945
By Victoria Harris
Oxford University Press, 232pp, £55.00
Published 25 March 2010