by Kathryn Hadley
I have vivid memories of a school trip to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, 35 kilometres north of Berlin: the crematories, the so-called ‘Station Z’ built for the extermination of prisoners in 1942, the infirmary... I have no recollection, however, of the camp brothel.
Robert Sommer’s latest book The Concentration Camp Bordello: Sexual Forced Labor in National Socialistic Concentration Camps (Das KZ-Bordell) provides, however, for the first time a comprehensive study of this dark, hushed-up and largely ignored chapter of the history of Nazi Germany. Sommer is a cultural studies scholar based in Berlin. His study will be published in July by Schoningh Verlag, Paderborn. It is the result of a nine-year project based on the study of archives, concentration camp memorial sites and interviews with historical witnesses.
It is often believed that the Nazi regime forbade and fought prostitution. Sommer’s research reveals, however, the existence of brothels in Nazi concentration camps and of a network of state-controlled brothels, which operated across half of Europe, especially after the outbreak of the Second World War. There existed brothels in the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mittelbau-Dora and Mauthausen.
The first concentration camp brothel was founded in Mauthausen in Austria in June 1942. Heinrich Himmler had allegedly visited the camp in May 1941 and ordered the construction of a brothel. The construction of brothels in forced labour camps was part of a rewards scheme in an attempt to increase labour productivity. Himmler extolled the benefits of providing ‘the hard-working prisoners with women in brothels’ in a letter to Oswald Pohl, the SS officer in charge of the concentration camps, on March 23rd, 1942. At the time of the opening of the brothel in Mauthausen, it is estimated that approximately 5,500 prisoners worked in the camp. By the end of 1944, over 70,000 forced laborers worked in the complex. The SS recruited 10 women for Mauthausen, which signified between 300 and 500 men per prostitute.
Buchenwald prisoners’ brothel opened on July 11th 1943. A total of ten ‘Sonderbauten’ or ‘special buildings’ are believed to have been built in concentration camps between 1942 and 1945. Estimates reveal that some 200 women worked in Nazi camp brothels. Over 60% of them were of German nationality. No Jewish women were employed in the brothels for ‘racial hygiene’ reasons.
There has been considerable debate over the extent to which these women volunteered. Many women were lured by false promises that they would be released afterwards. The suggestion that some women volunteered may be one reason why former brothel inmates continue to be stigmatised and why the existence of camp brothels has been largely ignored. For some women, however, working in the brothels was the key to their survival. Lieselotte B. was a prisoner at the Mittlebau-Dora camp. She was quoted in an article on the website of Der Spiegel:
‘The main thing was that at least we had escaped the hell of Bergen-Belsen and
Ravensbruck […] The main thing was to survive at all’.
For further information on the attitudes of the Nazi state towards women, read our article Women and the Nazi State
Sommer’s research indeed shows that those employed in the brothels had a greater chance of escaping death in the camps. Almost all of the women forced into prostitution survived. Very little is known, however, about what became of them and most of them never spoke about their experiences.
His research has also inspired a travelling exhibition entitled ‘Camp brothels – forced sex work in Nazi concentration camps’ which is due to tour several memorial sites next year.
The article on the website of Der Spiegel includes further testimonies as well as a photo gallery.