The Nazis Tolerated Gays. Then Everything Changed

With an openly gay man at the helm of the SA, homosexuals saw a period of relative tolerance before being persecuted in the Third Reich. Sex workers experienced the opposite process. Here's how the two are linked

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Auschwitz prisoner No. 22375, a homosexual, photographed in 1942.
Auschwitz prisoner No. 22375, a homosexual, photographed in 1942. Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images
Boaz Neumann
Boaz Neumann

“One can organize the question of female prostitution, which by comparison with this question [of male homosexuality] in principle is completely harmless, in a way that is acceptable for a civilized people. In this area, we will be generous beyond bounds.”

– Heinrich Himmler, speech to SS commanders, Feb. 1937

For many years, the fate of sexual minorities, and of homosexuals in particular, in Nazi Germany was not studied and the subject was not part of any public dialogue. I shall focus here on the history of gays, and of prostitutes as well, in Germany during the Third Reich. As will become apparent, my choice to discuss these two groups is not arbitrary, as their fates were intertwined.

What, then, were the place and status of homosexuals and prostitutes in Nazi Germany? Based on the conceptions underlying research over a lengthy period – conceptions that presupposed a connection between political oppression and persecution, on the one hand, and sexual oppression and persecution, on the other – individuals from both groups could expect to be subject to vicious harassment. Both posed a threat to German society’s conservative outlook at the time, which sanctified the nuclear family and the normative heterosexuality that was supposed to prevail within its framework. Historical research in the last generation offers a far more complex picture.

The Sturmabteilung (SA), or Storm Troopers, were in effect the military arm of the Nazi Party. It was an all-male, anti-Semitic, aggressive, radical organization headed by Ernst Roehm – an open homosexual. “Open,” that is, in terms of that period: He never made his sexual orientation public, but everyone knew about it. The fact that the head of the SA was an openly gay man is dramatic and, as far as I know, unprecedented for a right-wing, radical, fascist party. The Nazi Party was the only one during the period of the Weimar Republic whose leadership included declared homosexuals. And in fact, of all the parties in Germany, it was the Social Democrats who attacked the Nazis in election campaigns over Roehm’s sexual preferences

My discussion of Roehm is based on the research of Australian historian Eleanor Hancock [author of the 2008 book “Ernst Roehm: Hitler’s SA Chief of Staff”]. As a gay person in a society that identified homosexuals as “feminine” – after all, we are talking about the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and ‘30s – he consciously cultivated a contrary ideal of a “manly” homosexual. “Masculinity,” from his point of view, was based, among other traits, on courage, honor, decency, discipline and fraternity.

We should remember in this context that fascist movements in Europe as a whole, and in Nazi Germany in particular, had their origins in the collective male experience of the trenches of World War I. In contrast to “manliness,” Roehm identified the “feminine” with cowardice, compromise and hypocrisy – especially among of the bourgeois society – as well as with pacifism.

Hitler and Roehm, in the year before the fuehrer purged the SA head and his followers.
Hitler and Roehm, in the year before the fuehrer purged the SA head and his followers. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Roehm was a complex, even paradoxical, figure. He was in favor of law and order, as long as he was the one defining them. He was opposed to the political and social chaos that characterized the Weimar Republic, but could always be found at the right place and time when some sort of revolution was being fomented, including the Nazis’ failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich of 1923, in which he led one of the militias.

Roehm was a decorated soldier in World War I, even “earning” a scar on his face. From his point of view, the experience at the front removed the mask off society’s hypocritical face. That, he insisted, was also the proper way to look at life: as a constant revolution, one that includes the liberation of sexual urges. As he saw it, politics and society were based, and deserved to be based, on fraternity among men. As Roehm wrote in his 1928 memoir, “The struggle against the cant, deceit and hypocrisy of today’s society must begin with what is most basic in life, that is, the sexual urges.... If this struggle is successful, only then will it be possible to rip the masks off the illusions of all of life’s social and legal arrangements.” Roehm presents a radical conception here, one that I would even dare term “progressive,” in regard to sex and sexuality.

Roehm also worked to one degree or another for the advancement of gays. Homosexuals, he argued, should accept themselves as such, even though he himself identified himself more than once as bisexual during police interrogations. He fought against Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which termed the homosexual act criminal, and called for reforms in the state’s attitude toward gays. He was a member of the Society for Human Rights, the largest organization of homosexuals during the Weimar period – not a self-evident membership, because many homosexuals of the time were apolitical and/or afraid to come out of the closet.

‘Private’ and public Nazi

At the end of the 1920s, Roehm corresponded with Karl-Günther Heimsoth, who was active in the cause of homosexual rights. Heimsoth, according to Hancock, was the first physician to argue that male homosexuality was not a pathology. In a certain sense, he was the far-right marker of the German homosexual movement. Heimsoth was critical of Röhm for not promoting the interests of gays in the political arena.

In February 1929, Roehm wrote Heimsoth that he was proud of being a homosexual, which he said he had first “discovered” about himself in 1924. He added that he did not feel sad or miserable in the least because of his sexual orientation, even if it had occasionally caused problems. He asked Heimsoth, who based his explanations of homosexuality, in part, on astrology and psychoanalysis, to prepare him a horoscope that would explain to him “how I became what I am.” He confessed to Heimsoth that he remembered having homosexual feelings and even some experiences during his childhood, but also that he had had sexual relations with many women, from which he derived no special enjoyment. As an adult, he developed a loathing for women.

SA chief Ernst Roehm wrote that he was proud of being a homosexual, even if it had occasionally caused problems.

With his appointment as SA chief of staff, however, Roehm ceased to be a private individual and even what might be called a “private” Nazi: Now he was a well-known public figure. He headed the military wing of the Nazi Party, and ascended to the top ranks of leadership by Hitler’s side. The Social Democrats exposed his homosexuality in public: Beginning in 1931, they attacked him and the Nazi Party for corrupting the country’s youth and for appointing a homosexual to such a senior position. Ultimately, the Social Democrats’ anti-homosexual campaign did not harm either Roehm or the party. He was tried five times on the charge of violating Paragraph 175, which categorized the homosexual act as criminal, but was acquitted in each instance.

Roehm assailed his accusers but did not deny his homosexuality. At the same time, he was hurt by the attacks on him and in their wake may have become more vulnerable in terms of intra-party politics, and increasingly dependent on Hitler. Colleagues in the Nazi Party had known about his sexual proclivities since the mid-1920s, and Hitler, too, was aware of them when he appointed him SA chief.

In 1932, Roehm offered to resign his position so as not to be a detriment to the party, but Hitler rejected the idea. Subsequently, after the Nazis rose to power, in 1933, the Fuehrer found it necessary to defend Roehm against his critics and noted that his homosexuality was of no relevance. A gifted propagandist, Hitler lashed out at Roehm’s various detractors while taking into account their respective identities and worldviews: Thus, in the face of his homophobic opponents, he maintained that Roehm was not actually gay, or that he had been gay but had promised to stop indulging in sexual relations with men. To others, Hitler said that he didn’t really care what Roehm did, as long as he didn’t seduce children. The most substantive argument, from the Fuehrer’s viewpoint, was that he appreciated Roehm’s great achievements and knew he could count on him absolutely. Here, perhaps, lies the answer to the question of why Roehm was so certain about Hitler’s support and could not anticipate that the leader would ever order his liquidation, as he did on June 30, 1934, the “Night of the Long Knives” – when he carried out his purge of the SA.

‘Sense of shame’

Hitler thus appointed Roehm to the powerful position of SA commander knowing that he was gay, but without that affecting the Nazis’ general anti-homosexual stance. Hitler apparently thought that if he ignored the whole subject, it would be forgotten. Indeed, the Nazi press never referred explicitly to Roehm’s homosexuality. The attacks on him were viewed as political attempts to harm the party. The SA, too, in light of the fact that its leader was a declared homosexual, did not intervene in the private life of its members, including with respect to their sexual proclivities. This approach was diametrically opposed to that of the SS, whose commander, Heinrich Himmler, was an extreme homophobe.

The precedent set by Roehm was a source of hope for many homosexuals. After the Nazis rose to power, they shut down organizations, banned publications and attacked meeting sites for gays – but officially, at least, homosexuality itself was not a cause of persecution and arrest. Gay people were hunted down and incarcerated for political activity on the grounds that it was considered anti-Nazi, but not due to their sexual orientation per se. It was only after Roehm was killed that homosexuals began to be persecuted by the Nazis on the basis of their sexual identity.

Nazi policy toward homosexuals became more stringent only from mid-1934, owing, among other reasons, to the activity of the homophobic Himmler and the growing power of the SS under his leadership. As long as Roehm held his high position, the Nazis displayed a modicum of “tolerance” for homosexuality if it was confined exclusively to the private and intimate sphere.

A Nazi raid on The Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin, Germany, May 6, 1933.
A Nazi raid on The Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin, Germany, May 6, 1933. Credit: Landesarchiv Berlin

Nevertheless, Roehm was not actually liquidated because he was gay. His homosexuality served only as a rhetorical ploy to justify the purge of the SA’s top ranks. At a certain stage, he and the organization he headed stopped being a political asset and became a political burden to the Nazis. Until 1933, he and his Brown Shirts were in essence the Nazis’ only military force: They carried out the difficult work of establishing a presence on the streets, countering demonstrations and provocations, “dealing with” problematic people and more. When the Nazis moved from managing a party to managing a country, the SA became a problem.

The Nazis’ anti-homosexual policy reached a peak in 1935, with the broadening of Paragraph 175 in the criminal code and introduction of tougher punishment for relations between men. Henceforth, convictions were not necessarily based on there having been full sexual relations between two men: A mere kiss, or an immodest glance, or what was termed an “offense to the sense of shame” now sufficed.

The maximum punishment was raised from six months in prison to five years, and under the amendment to the statute, even 10 years’ imprisonment could be imposed, for example, on men convicted of conducting sexual relations with employees subordinate to them by exploiting their authority, having such relations with men under the age of 21, or for engaging in homosexual prostitution.

From the mid-1930s, Nazi policy toward homosexuals underwent a radical change; they were now persecuted and dispatched to concentration camps solely because they were homosexuals. At the same time, it’s important to point out that they were not persecuted in the same way as other groups – certainly not like the Jews. It’s also noteworthy that the regime’s approach to lesbians, which I haven’t dealt with here, was different and far more moderate than that involving male homosexuals.

The Nazis set out to annihilate the Jews of Europe, at the very least, if not more. In contrast, they persecuted homosexuals only in Germany and without any plan entailing a “final solution.” The party leaders, headed by Hitler, were obsessive about Jews, but not about homosexuals. There were homosexuals who were not persecuted, others who were but with relative moderation and some who were cruelly oppressed. Many times the attitude toward a particular homosexual was a function of his individual political and social standing.

Jews were persecuted everywhere, whereas homosexuals were victimized mainly in the big cities, where their subculture was typically highly developed. Ultimately, it’s estimated that 70 percent of the homosexuals who were tried and convicted under Paragraph 175 served their prison terms and upon their release, were drafted into the Wehrmacht, in which they served the German state loyally.

Heredity vs. culture

In Himmler's view, a person who was liable to develop same-sex tendencies would reconsider if he had intercourse with the opposite sex, even if for payment.

The critical point in the Nazis’ approach to homosexuals was their perception of homosexuality not as biological-hereditary but as what might today be termed a socio-cultural construct.

Many Nazi experts viewed the notion of sexuality altogether as a socio-cultural construct, and applied the same approach to homosexual sexuality. It was perceived as one of many expressions of the human sexual experience, which was seen as diversified and multifaceted. And precisely for the same reason, homosexuality was seen as posing such a threat to every German, because, given the appropriate social-cultural circumstances, it could induce them to change their sexual inclination.

Accordingly, it was seen as possible and desirable to “reeducate” homosexuals, which is what the Nazis did. At the Goering Institute in Berlin (named for its head, Matthias Goering, a German psychiatrist and a cousin of Hermann Goering), convicted homosexuals were forced to have sexual intercourse with prostitutes while researchers observed them. Those who succeeded in the task and achieved sexual gratification were released; those who failed and showed themselves to be incurable, were sent to a concentration camp.

Thus the eradication of homosexuality did not entail the physical annihilation of the homosexual, as the identify was not a biological-hereditary one. As such, “reeducation” was called for, and in extreme cases where it failed, castration. In contrast, the Jew, even if he denied his Jewishness or stopped being a Jew, and even if he became a believing Nazi, was still considered a Jew.

Notwithstanding all of the above, there is no mistaking the fact that the situation of homosexuals in Nazi Germany was dire. Over and above the prejudices, stereotyping and relentless persecution, their life and death in concentration camps was horrific. In addition to enduring all the ordeals undergone by prisoners who were not homosexuals, the latter suffered doubly – both as prisoners of the Nazis and as homosexuals. Their mortality rate in the concentration camps was high in relation to every other group. The historian Wolfgang Roell, who investigated the fate of the homosexuals in Buchenwald, showed that they were among the groups at the bottom of the camp hierarchy and as such were also more likely to be victims of violence. Homosexuals were generally assigned to the category of “extermination through work.”

The camp’s system also drew distinctions among homosexuals, and created hierarchies within the community. There were “normal homosexuals,” “homosexuals who reverted to their evil ways” and also “homosexual Jews.” The latter group suffered the most, of course.

German soldiers at the entrance to a brothel set up in a former synagogue in Brest, in occupied France, in 1940.
German soldiers at the entrance to a brothel set up in a former synagogue in Brest, in occupied France, in 1940. Credit: Bundesarchiv

Racial prostitution

I turn now to a discussion of the Nazis’ attitude and policy toward prostitutes, so as to complete the big picture in regard to their approach to sexual minorities. The discussion is based primarily on the research of historian Julia Roos. As in the case of homosexuals, this, too, is a complex history, deceptive and certainly surprising. Until a certain stage, the Nazis persecuted prostitutes, but beginning about the mid-1930s, they started to institutionalize prostitution.

The story begins in the period of the Weimar Republic. In 1927, the German government promulgated the Law for Combating Venereal Diseases. Until then, prostitution was illegal in Germany. The law decriminalized the phenomenon, and women were now able to engage in prostitution legally. Even prior to that year, some big cities did allow the phenomenon, supervising prostitutes by means of compulsory medical examinations, restrictions on areas of activity and the like. In other words, prostitution was illegal but at the same time was informally established. The 1927 law, by ending criminalization of prostitution, reflected well the liberal spirit of the Weimar Republic, in this case in the form of freedom of occupation.

The reasons for the change were many and varied. The first was the growing political strength of women in the wake of their enfranchisement in 1919 in the Weimar Constitution. German feminists of the time also assailed inherent hypocrisy and dual morality of the law. They argued that a situation in which the prostitute was considered a criminal, but the client got off scot-free was unacceptable. The Social Democrats and the liberals were sharply critical of the morality police, who hounded prostitutes and whose very existence conflicted with the democratic spirit of the new republic. Moreover, the criminalization of prostitution, which was intended, among other reasons, to prevent the spread of venereal diseases, failed.

In practice, most prostitutes were not registered, but nonetheless plied their wares freely. The assessment of the sponsors of the 1927 law was that legalization would reduce the rate of infection by ensuring financial assistance to those who were infected and punishing those who knowingly transmitted sexual diseases. The 1927 law also did away with the morality police and outlawed registered houses of prostitution. The police, it bears noting, were vehemently against this liberal legislation, which they considered dangerous and unrealistic. Their major concern was that the liberal law would result in the streets being flooded with prostitutes and leave the security forces helpless and unable to contain the phenomenon. In the wake of the law’s passage, prostitutes began to unite and form organizations to protect their economic and social rights.

The Nazi party thus acted against the background of the liberal Weimar atmosphere, which it considered permissive and licentious. Already in “Mein Kampf,” Hitler argued that the struggle against prostitution and syphilis was one of mankind’s greatest missions. As he saw it, the impotence of the decision makers in the Weimar period in dealing with the spread of venereal disease was symptomatic of the deep moral, ethical and racial crisis in which Germany was mired. According to Hitler, any attempt to combat prostitution must begin by extirpating its spiritual basis, namely the moral plague he had identified in the civilization of the big city.

The Nazis accused, among others, the Jews and the communists of spreading venereal diseases in order to reap profits from them. The Jews were also accused of being sex traffickers. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Nazis severely denounced the liberal law of 1927. They were unable and unwilling to accept the fact that prostitutes were roaming the streets of the cities without supervision and heightening the danger of the spread of diseases. The Nazis’ aim was to reverse the legislation, outlaw prostitution and persecute prostitutes mercilessly.

Relentless harassment was definitely in line with the Nazis’ right-wing, conservative approach, in the same way that it was consistent with the Nazis’ attack in principle on Weimar permissiveness. This policy also served them in their efforts to placate and gain the support of conservative political forces and the Church. At the start of their rule, the Nazis still needed the backing of as many elements as possible in order to stabilize the political arena and shape the state according to their worldview.

As early as February 1933, shortly after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, his deputy Hermann Goering initiated a change in the criminal code that significantly enlarged the power of the police in their battle against prostitution. That May, the Nazis outlawed street soliciting. The police, for their part, stepped up the pressure. In the spring-summer of 1933, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of prostitutes were detained and placed in protective custody. Some were made to undergo coerced medical treatments for venereal diseases. Christian circles could only welcome this development.

By the summer of 1944, brothels had been established in eight major camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau.

Here, seemingly, the story should have ended. The Nazis, as was their wont, operated against the liberal, permissive approach of the Weimar Republic and persecuted prostitutes relentlessly. Within a short period a dramatic change occurred, with the regime not only beginning to accept prostitution as a fact of life, but also to institutionalize and regulate it. The state quickly began to establish brothels that were under police supervision. That move was based on an emergency decree of February 28, 1933 – the same decree that enabled the establishment of the concentration camps.

As the Nazis consolidated their power, they had increasingly less need for their political partners, notably the conservatives and the Church. Accordingly, the opposition of the latter to the regularization of prostitution no longer influenced the Nazi decision makers.

It was primarily the SS and its leader, Himmler, who promoted the change. From the mid-1930s, the army, too, lent its support to the project, in order to prevent the spread of diseases among troops and to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Thus, the political goals of the SS and the military aims of the Wehrmacht were stronger and more important than the elimination of “vice” in Germany.

The eruption of World War II was accompanied by an accelerated process of institutionalizing prostitution amid full cooperation between the SS, the army, the police and the civilian authorities. At the same time, the police brutally suppressed prostitution that was conducted outside the framework created for the purpose. Prostitutes who violated the rules and decrees were often categorized as “asocial” and incarcerated in concentration camps. The Nazi brutality seems to have succeeded in eliminating street prostitution almost completely.

The first aim of the regularization of prostitution was, thus, to protect both soldiers and civilians from infection by venereal diseases. To that end, the state heightened medical supervision of the profession. An effort was also made to maintain the law for the preservation of racial purity in this connection as well. Brothels were therefore established for Germans, in which only German prostitutes worked. A prostitute who had intercourse with a foreign worker risked imprisonment or incarceration in a concentration camp. In cities where a foreign population, particularly forced laborers, resided, separate brothels were established for them, in which non-German women worked. In mid-1940, there were about 700,000 forced laborers in Germany, with their number soaring to approximately seven million by the end of the war. The Nazis were fearful of racial contamination in the wake of sexual contact between German women and foreign workers, a concern that was heightened by the absence of German men, who had been sent to the front.

In December 1940, Hitler himself ordered the establishment of special brothels for foreign laborers. The first of these began to operate in the Hermann Goering Works in Linz, Austria, shortly afterward. On January 20, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich sent an urgent circular to the relevant bodies in order to accelerate the establishment of brothels for forcibly conscripted foreign workers, in which only non-German or Gypsy prostitutes would work. Most of the prostitutes were Polish and French, as it was easier for them to transfer money home.

Heydrich absolutely forbade the employment of German, Dutch, Norwegian and Italian prostitutes in brothels that catered to aliens. German men were forbidden to enter these institutions. The German police were responsible for recruiting and regulating foreign prostitutes. Their schedules and the area in which they were allowed to move about were fixed and restricted. They were made to undergo all manner of coerced examinations. Those who became pregnant had to undergo abortions and, often, sterilization. Recalcitrant prostitutes were thrown into concentration camps. A foreign worker who was discovered to have had sexual contact with a German prostitute risked the death penalty. Jewish prostitution was strictly outlawed, as sexual contact with Jews constituted racial contamination and violated the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. Brothels of Jewish women for Jewish clients did not exist.

Himmler tours a brothel at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.
Himmler tours a brothel at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.Credit: Bundesarchiv

Black market at Auschwitz

On September 9, 1939, every city without a house of prostitution was obliged to establish one. The implementation of this regulation did not pass without objections by clerics, conservative officials and even rank-and-file citizens. In many cases, the opposition was prompted by a housing shortage, but for the decision makers it was far more important to provide accessible, safe sex for soldiers, civilians and forced laborers.

Himmler justified the encouragement and institutionalization of prostitution as a means of combating homosexuality. In his view, a young person who was liable to develop same-sex tendencies – after all, in the Nazi conception, homosexuality was a social-cultural matter rather than a biological-hereditary one – would reconsider his inclinations if he had intercourse with the opposite sex, even if for payment. Homosexuality was also perceived as a potentially grave threat to Nazism precisely because of the male bonding or homoeroticism on which the fascist phenomenon rested. In a speech to SS commanders in February 1937, Himmler stated, “One cannot prevent the entire youth from drifting toward homosexuality if at the same time one blocks all the alternatives.”

In fact, at the time he made his speech, state-regulated brothels were already operating in most of Germany’s major cities. When the war broke out, as we saw, even cities that had vehemently opposed the establishment of brothels within town limits were forced to comply by decree. In March 1942, Himmler for the first time ordered that industrious laborers in concentration camps be rewarded with a visit to a brothel. In March 1943, Himmler visited Buchenwald and regretted the absence of a brothel there. “This whole issue is not particularly pretty, but it is natural,” he said, “and if I can use nature as an incentive for higher performance, then I think we have to take advantage of this incentive.”

The regulated sexual services that the Nazis wished to offer were not, thus, intended only to protect the population from infection by venereal diseases, preserve racial purity and meet the natural needs of German men, and soldiers especially. They were also meant to help increase economic production. From this point of view, available sex was one of many incentives that were offered to forced laborers, along with cigarettes, permission to write and receive letters, or the right to buy food. Sex and the economy dovetailed neatly. By the summer of 1944, brothels had been established in eight major camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau.

To understand the significance of the institution of the brothel in Nazi Germany overall and in the camps in particular, a brief background is needed about the history of the brothels in Auschwitz, this based on research by historian Robert Sommer. The brothels that were established in the camp were intended primarily to reward non-Jewish inmates for high labor productivity and to give them an incentive. On April 20, 1943, the order was issued to establish a brothel in Auschwitz I, to serve non-Jewish prisoners. The first of these was built in Block 24a, adjacent to the entry gate to the camp with the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” on it. A number of rooms were redone for the project and painted in pastels, with peepholes drilled in their doors. Additional rooms were used as a shared bedroom for the women, and there was a room for medical examinations, a waiting room and a bathroom with a shower. Another brothel was established in Auschwitz III, the camp’s industrial area. Yet a third brothel was built for inmates from Poland and Ukraine. Again, there was no brothel with Jewish women intended for Jewish clients either in Auschwitz or anywhere else.

The women for the brothels were taken from the women’s camp in Birkenau. As with the brothels in the other camps, in Auschwitz, too, the authorities initially forced women to engage in prostitution, but soon enough they no longer had to force anyone, as many women “volunteered” for the work. Given the alternatives, prostitution was much in demand, as it offered women the best possible working conditions, under the circumstances. Before starting to work, women had to be checked medically by Dr. Carl Clauberg at Block 10, where he also conducted sterilization experiments on Jewish women.

The Auschwitz brothels began operating in October-November 1943, and continued until a few days before the camp’s evacuation. Some of the women stayed for a few days, others spent long months there. All told, 65 prostitutes worked in the Auschwitz brothels, 40 of them German citizens and the others Polish and Ukrainian. According to witnesses, they seemed to have arrived from a different world: Their hair was groomed, they wore eye makeup, their eyebrows were trimmed and they wore flattering clothes and high-heeled shoes. The received better food than other female inmates, had beds of their own, and worked in well-heated rooms. After the war, Sommer maintains, not one of them talked about the subject. The research about what went on around and in the brothels is based entirely on secondary testimonies.

The clients were exclusively German, Polish and Ukrainian inmates, with the racial-purity principle upheld here as well: a German client visited only a German prostitute, a Slav client availed himself of the services of a Slav prostitute. Jews, Russians and Gypsies were not permitted to visit prostitutes of any nationality.

A visit to a prostitute cost between one and two Reichsmarks. Very few could afford the privilege, mainly well-connected prisoners who held official positions in the camp. A far more prosaic reason prevented the majority of the inmates from visiting a brothel: They were simply exhausted, physically and mentally. According to one estimate, of 30,000 inmates who were entitled to avail themselves of the services of a prostitute in Auschwitz, in practice only about 100 did so. Some wished to have sexual intercourse one last time, knowing they were liable to die, and others simply wanted to talk with a woman. Some men fell in love with the prostitute and visited her more than once. Some of the prisoners were able to win the woman’s heart by means of gifts of items stolen from the warehouses of the victims’ confiscated property. A black market developed around the brothels. Some prisoners managed somehow to duplicate keys to the rooms and even to bribe SS guards to allow them to visit the brothel at night. Getting caught meant possible execution.

Before visiting a brothel, an Auschwitz inmate had to register, submit an orderly request in advance and undergo a medical examination, when he also would be informed of a list of restrictions. The client had to remove his pants completely, talking was forbidden during the visit, and intercourse was permitted only in the missionary position. An SS guard who watched the proceedings through a peephole was responsible for ensuring that these orders were fulfilled. At bottom, the idea was to prevent any contact between the prostitute and the client that went beyond the sexual act itself.

According to the testimonies, some of the prostitutes wanted to forge ties with inmates, in part so they would persuade their friends not to visit the brothels. One case apparently ended in a relationship that continued after the camp’s liberation. To avert such developments, the client was prevented from knowing ahead of time which woman he would be with.

Even though the activity of the Auschwitz brothels was a completely marginal phenomenon numerically, I have discussed it at some length because it is, in my opinion, paradigmatic in terms of the place and status of sex and sexuality in Nazi Germany. It encapsulates all the relevant elements of the subject. Above all, the brothels in general, and those in the concentration camps in particular, reflected the exploitation of female sexuality in the Third Reich. Sex and sexuality were also recruited as an economic incentive to increase the productivity of regular civilians, soldiers and forced laborers. And, as we saw, the network of brothels was also used as part of the struggle against homosexuality and became part of the effort to ensure that only one form of sexuality prevailed.

Whereas homosexuals in Germany encountered something of a tolerant attitude until the mid-1930s, and afterward became objects of persecution, in the case of prostitutes, the chronology was reversed. They were persecuted at the start of the Weimar regime, and afterward gained legitimization, in accordance with the regime’s goals. In addition, the separation between the different population groups in the brothels was part of the Nazi obsession to preserve racial purity, and the brothels also gave expression to the totalitarian features of the Nazi state, which sought to penetrate unto the most private human sphere. As such, the brothels in the camps were a microcosm of Nazi Germany.

This article is adapted from a chapter in the book “New Histories of Nazism,” by Boaz Neumann, which is being published to mark three years since the death of its author. The Hebrew-language book, edited by Avner Shapira and published by Modan, is part of Army Radio’s “University on the Air” series.