Germany - World War II - Himmler Ran Camp Brothels to Boost Productivity, Says Historian 

Interview by Catherine Hickley


September 15, 2009 (Bloomberg) -- The brothels that Heinrich Himmler set up in concentration camps form a bizarre, brutal and little- known chapter in the history of the Third Reich. Robert Sommer says it’s time to recognize that the women forced to work in them were victims of Nazi terror.

The exploitation of these women has been glossed over for many reasons -- some political, some personal, says Sommer, a bearded, 35-year-old historian who wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject. Now released as a book, “Das KZ-Bordell” (“The Concentration Camp Brothel”) represents the first complete study of forced sex workers at camps including Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, according to his publisher, Ferdinand Schoeningh.

“It’s a scandal that it has taken such a long time” to gain serious attention, says Sommer, frowning with concentration during an interview in Bloomberg’s Berlin bureau. “These are people who haven’t been compensated and their suffering has never been recognized.”

Himmler, Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command and the head of the SS, ordered the brothels to be built in 10 concentration camps between 1942 and 1945, according to Sommer’s research. About 200 women prisoners in all were compelled to work as prostitutes for privileged prisoners.

Productivity Incentive

Himmler’s twisted goal: to increase labor productivity in camp factories and quarries by introducing a reward system that included visits to the camp brothel.

“The SS wanted to make a lot of profit with the concentration camps, but it wasn’t working,” Sommer says.

“Productivity was low because the living conditions were very bad. Himmler looked at different systems, such as Stalin’s gulags, and noticed that there was an incentive system. Instead of copying their system, he thought the best way was to use male sexuality, because he saw it as a major driving force.”

The brothels were reserved for a few prisoners, mostly Germans and Austrians. Sommer estimates that fewer than 1 percent of inmates visited them. Jews were denied entry.

After the war, the abuse that women endured in the brothels was hushed up, partly because they were reluctant to speak out for fear of being stigmatized. Nor were they eligible for postwar compensation, Sommer says. Foreigners among them were afraid of being labeled collaborators when they returned home.

Political Considerations

The brothels also ran afoul of the political aims of German authorities in those years, Sommer says. In the West, schools focused on camp inmates as victims of Nazi murder; the authorities hesitated to muddy that picture by discussing the access some prisoners had to forced sex workers, he says. In the East, the camps were portrayed as centers for anti-fascist resistance; the Communist regime hardly wanted it known that some resistance fighters used brothels, he says.

The women were recruited by force from Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Most were Germans, imprisoned for being “asocial,” a Nazi term that could mean they were prostitutes, alcoholics, or simply from deprived family backgrounds, Sommer says. Many had been forcibly sterilized before their imprisonment. Others were Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. None were Jewish; some were political prisoners.

When they left for the brothels, they were told they would only be there for six months. All were forced to stay longer.

“They tried to make it look like it was voluntary,” Sommer says. Yet the brothels also offered better conditions than those prevailing elsewhere in the camps.

Most Survived

“Most of the women survived,” he says. “The food was much better than for regular prisoners. The women were not permanently beaten and they could work indoors, which was very important in winter, when many women prisoners died of exposure. Male prisoners gave them gifts of food.”

Many of the male visitors weren’t interested in or capable of having sex, Sommer’s research shows. The women often took on a consolatory role, talking and listening to fellow prisoners. In some cases, inmates even fell in love, risking their lives to be with the forced sex workers at unauthorized times. Jealousies erupted when more than one prisoner fell for the same woman.

Sommer has also worked on a traveling exhibition about the brothels. He has combed archives, visited the camps, read transcripts of previous interviews and spoken to former prisoners. He was unable to speak to any of the women, and says his research and recognition of the women’s exploitation has come too late.

“I don’t know of one who is still alive,” he says.

“Das KZ-Bordell” is published by Ferdinand Schoeningh (445 pages, 38 euros).

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