Nazi brothels: The hidden horror of the concentration camps

A concentration camp identification card from a female prisoner of Ravensbrück, who was sent to work in another camp as a prostitute. The word “Bordellfrau” should escape no one’s notice. Yes, it’s true: There really was nothing beneath the Nazis. For all their obsession with “purity” and “virtue”, they were in fact a band of pimps. And the head pimp-daddy of them all was a name that should be familiar to everyone who knows even a little of their history. Here’s my translation of an article that lays it all bare, with commentary in between:

Whatever is contemptible, gets concealed — even in the top-secret messages of mass murderers. Even internally, the SS avoided concrete references to the millionfold murder of Jews, and wrote, instead, of their “special treatment”. Just as shady, apparently, was another set-up in Heinrich Himmler’s apparatus. How else could one explain that the concentration-camp brothels, which as of 1942 were set up in all the major KZs, were shamefully called “special buildings”?

Today, it’s well known that the concentration camps were huge hells on Earth. But who also knows that among the miserable “living” conditions, sadistic tortures and total absence of rights for the inmates, all the way up to “annihilation through work”, we can now add sexual exploitation?

The pedantic Himmler, of all people, was the biggest pimp in German criminal history, if the number of “his” slave-prostitutes was anything to go by. This chapter of history has been opened by a traveling exhibition by the KZ-Ravensbrück memorial site, which can currently be seen in Weimar.

Yes, that’s right, folks…this guy here was the biggest pimp in Germany at the time, although I suspect that the megabrothel owners of today probably outrank him in terms of numbers of women prostituted, as well as earnings:

Doesn’t look like a pimp, does he? Well, wait for it. What he wrote reveals just what kind of dirty mind was at work in that prissy little man’s head:

In the concentration-camp system, the sexes were supposed to be strictly segregated. Women, as well as men, were quickly taken into so-called “protective custody” soon after the Nazi takeover. At first they were imprisoned in normal jails, but by the end of 1933, the first KZ, Moringen* in Niedersachsen, was converted into an all-female concentration camp. After an interim repurposing of the former male KZ Lichtenburg*, in Sachsen-Anhalt, from 1937 to 1939, the all-female KZ Ravensbrück*, in the Uckermark, was opened just a few months before the outbreak of World War II. Only in rare exceptions, such as Auschwitz, were male and female barracks located next to one another.

At the height of the war, as the numbers of KZ prison-laborers grew in importance, Himmler sent out an order on March 23, 1942: “I consider it of utmost importance that in the freest form, the hard-working female prisoners be brought into bordellos”. Also, a “certain small piecework rate” would be paid, the “Reichsführer SS” told the head of the newly-founded “business management head office”, Oswald Pohl*, who was responsible for the running of all the KZs. The reason Himmler gave: “When these two conditions are met, the work capacity [of the male prisoners] will rise enormously.”

So we can see that Himmler, like so many “men’s rights” assholes today, thought that men would be more productive and efficient if their sexual “needs” were taken care of by women specially enslaved for the purpose, and that outside of this context, the genders were to be severely segregated. And he even knew how to twist such words as “free”, same as menzers and “alt-right” fascists today!

So. How did these “free” KZ-brothels function, and how were they set up?

About two months later, the first camp brothel went into business on a trial basis, in the KZ Mauthausen in Upper Austria. The women, either under false pretences or under duress, were recruited in Ravensbrück. According to Nazi criteria, they had to be “Aryan” and healthy, with no sexually-transmitted diseases. The brothel was housed in Barrack 1, right beside the camp’s parade ground. There, 24 women from Ravensbrück had to service exclusively selected KZ prisoners, typically prisoner-overseers or odd-job men. They were paid with “certificates” that the Lager-SS distributed at will to “helpful” or particularly “performance-minded” prisoners.

It was characteristic of the KZ system that control and repression were extensively performed by prisoners. High in the prison hierarchy in most camps were those in “BV” (“Befristete Vorbeugehaft”, i.e. temporary preventive custody), which in prison-camp reality was typically replaced with “Berufsverbrecher” (career criminals). Out of this group, the SS selected most of its functionary prisoners, such as “trusties”. In many camps, these prisoners sacrificed other inmates to their interests, preferably captives out of “low” categories such as homosexuals and Jews.

To utilize this heedless confrontation even better in the SS fashion, prison brothels were set up. Until early 1945, in ten of the larger KZs, “special buildings” were set up, among them in Auschwitz I and III, Dachau, Flossenbürg, and Sachsenhausen. Nearly all the women came from KZ Ravensbrück; if they remained healthy and kept to the strict rules, they “worked” on average six to twelve months in the camp brothel, and then were sent back to the women’s KZ.

So we can see that the prissy Himmlerian habit of segregation and controlled interaction fits right into a larger pattern within the KZs: namely, that of pitting prisoners against one another. Gentiles against Jews, straights against LGBTs, men against women, hardened criminals against the innocent. But at least one group of prisoners wasn’t falling into the trap…and yes, it WAS a trap:

Soon after 1945, the first reports of the camp brothel at Buchenwald became public. Carl Gärtig, who had been imprisoned at Buchenwald since 1938 and had worked in its mess hall during the final years of the war, told his impressions in late April of 1945, just two weeks after the camp’s liberation by the US Army: “The ‘special building’ was a swamp-flower of the worst corruption and other horrors, a truly Nazi model business.” Gärtig, like many “political” prisoners, refused the “offer” categorically: “Visiting the brothel signified a recognition of Nazi tactics, of playing prisoners off against each other.” Even so, there was much “demand”, and only partly in the frame of the SS’s rules: “One night, there was even a big brawl between the camp guards and the criminals, because the criminals had broken into the brothel that night and drunkenly menaced the women. The camp guards, however, quickly and thoroughly cleaned out the pigsty.”

In Buchenwald, a group of predominantly political prisoners dominated the “self-government” of the camp; that distinguished this KZ from most of the others, in which the BVs dispensed death. According to Buchenwald survivor Eugen Kogon, the camp directorate tried to alter this (for them) unsatisfactory situation with the camp brothel: “On the SS side, the purpose of the exercise was to corrupt the political prisoners who had access [to the brothel], spy on them, and distract them from politics.” For that reason, in Buchenwald, “internal advice went around not to use the facility”.

What do you bet that the political prisoners who refused to use the brothel were either devout Christian antifascists…or just straight-up leftists? Carl Gärtig, for instance, was a Communist. Eugen Kogon, on the other hand, was a Catholic, born out of wedlock to a Jewish mother, who landed in a prison camp because of his religious opposition to Nazism. That’s the kind of social conscience it takes to staunchly turn one’s back on the blandishments of fascism, up to and including the sexually exploitative ones. If you’re willing to face prison for your religious beliefs and/or political convictions, it’s not that hard to dispense with the dubious joys of sex capitalism. On the contrary, it makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of being the change you want to see in the world.

Meanwhile, as to those who DID use the facility…well, here are the joys of sexy, sexy “sex work” for you, in all their Nazi-KZ glory:

The inmates, there or in other KZs, who sought out the brothel, usually had two Reichsmarks or a certificate of the same value to pay, had to visit the camp hospital for examination beforehand, got to visit one of the women for 20 minutes, and afterwards had be “sanitized”, that is, disinfected. So wrote Eugen Kogon in the best-selling classic, “The SS-State”*.

Two measly Reichsmarks for 20 minutes of loveless ceiling-staring and waiting for the poor slob to finish so he could go off and be “sanitized” of all your nasty-wasty woman-germs? Sure sounds like liberation to me. And if the pattern of classic pimps holds true here, then Himmler’s goons probably kept all or most of that money for themselves anyway, adding insult to injury for the enslaved women, who were “paid” in scrip like turn-of-the-century coal miners, and exploited down to their last orifices in ways that even the lowest laborers were not. Such sexy fun!

So, why haven’t you heard much about this until now? Well, maybe because there was only so much horror the post-war German mind could take. And only so much shame that could bear to be revealed to the foreign occupation forces. But it was never really a sworn secret; like so much else, it was just something no one wanted to talk about…

Though the existence of camp brothels was never a secret after 1945, the suffering of the inmates was still kept pretty quiet. Only in Mauthausen and Gusen* were the barracks in which the women were made to prostitute preserved. In the memorial works, the topic has for decades been very much subordinated, often even totally unmentioned.

Only with the rise of gender studies did that change. From the 1990s onward, detailed studies of individual camp brothels emerged, roughly contemporaneous with the first serious examinations of the Wehrmacht brothels in the occupied lands. Since 2009 there is a compilation available: “The KZ-brothel; Forced Sexual Labor in Nazi Concentration Camps. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2009. 445 pp, 38 euros.” For it, historian Robert Sommer had to use literally the last opportunity to query women and some individual brothel visitors. Thus the horrifying history of sex in hell became comprehensively recognizable, almost seven decades after the building of the camp brothels.

…until almost no one was left to talk about it at all.

*Denotes links added by me. Unstarred link as in the original.

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