Sexualized Violence and Forced Prostitution in National Socialism 


Contribution by Brigitte Halbmayr, co-author of the book Sexualisierte Gewalt. Weibliche Erfahrungen in NS-Konzentrationslagern (Vienna: Mandelbaum, 2004). Organized by the Autonomen Feministinnen Wien and presented at the Frauengedenken (memorial reading for women victims) which took place in front of the former camp brothel, in conjunction with the liberation celebration at the memorial site of the Mauthausen concentration camp on 9 May 2004 (with minor updates by the author).


Prisoner brothel
Prisoner brothel, presumably spring 1943
Prisoner brothel, presumably spring 1943
In June 1942, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the first prisoner brothel in a concentration camp to be opened at Mauthausen. A few months later, a brothel was opened in Gusen. Some ten prisoners from the women's concentration camp Ravensbrück were forced to work as prostitutes and were sexually abused. With a formal ‘granting of privileges’ the SS attempted to provide incentives for male prisoners to work hard. Only selected prisoners were allowed to visit the brothel upon submission of a formal application and payment of a fee. Only prisoners who had received a reward note from the SS for their work in the arms industry were able to raise the fee. The inconsistency between the brothels instituted by the state on the one hand and the prosecution of prostitutes in the Third Reich, on the other, is remarkable: prostitution was punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp.

Additional photos re Mauthausen:

We are standing here in front of the former camp brothel of the Mauthausen concentration camp. A particularly perfidious form of exploitation of women took place in this barrack. The SS’s concept was to offer male prisoners, whose work was particularly important, an additional incentive to perform their duties by giving them the possibility to have contact with women. Only a small group of men were afforded this privilege. At the same time, this was seen as a means of putting a stop to homosexuality among the male inmates. The political prisoners additionally considered it an attempt by the SS to intensify the hierarchical organization of the camp society, thereby weakening solidarity among the prisoners. Neither the prisoners, nor (certainly not) the SS, gave much thought to the fate of women compelled to perform forced sexual labor.

The camp brothel remained in operation for nearly three years, from mid 1942 until spring 1945. A prisoner’s brothel also existed in Gusen during approximately the same period. The women brought there to perform forced sexual labor were from Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. The SS sent many women to perform this work under false promises, namely, that after six months of brothel service they would be released from the concentration camp—there is evidence of only two women being released. For all others, this promise was merely chicanery. For forced sexual labor, the SS primarily recruited women whom they had imprisoned in the concentration camps on the grounds of supposed or actual prostitution: A prime example of the double standards inherent in SS regulations. Also, only “Aryans” were to work in the brothels; however, it has been documented that also a Roma woman from the Austrian province of Burgenland and a Polish woman were forced to work in the brothel at Mauthausen. This is yet another example of how the SS flouted their own regulations. It is also known that the SS were keen on sending lesbian women to the brothels for “re-orientation,” to put them back on the “right path” of heterosexuality through sexual contact with men.  

What do we know about the lives of these women who were forced to provide sex to prisoners in a brothel, such as this one here in barrack 1?—Very, very little. There are almost no statements from these women. For one, they were not asked. For another, the shame surrounding what they had suffered, the fear of humiliation, and the stigmatization even from other survivors led these women to remain silent about their experiences. Apart from very few exceptions, our information sources are limited to a few SS documents and several testimonies from men.  

We know from former male prisoners that the women forced into the brothel received better food, had better clothes, and had sufficient opportunity to wash themselves. Based on a barracks plan of barrack 1, it is possible to deduce that they slept in the back part two to a room, and carried out their activities in the front part in small, single berths. There were always ten women bound to the brothel at a time. During the day they were strictly separated from the male prisoners. They were usually forbidden to leave the barrack, and were under constant surveillance by female SS guards. Forming relationships with the “clients” was strictly forbidden, the men’s short visits to the women—a maximum fifteen minutes—were observed through peepholes in the entry doors. (There are also numerous rumors that the SS men, too, abused the women—which was naturally not permitted, but nonetheless entirely plausible.)   

We know about the further fate of only those women who were sent from the prisoner or SS brothels back to Ravensbrück; many of these women returned with sexually transmitted diseases or were pregnant. They were then frequently used for medical experiments or given abortions. We know that two women who originally wore the political prisoner’s red triangle were degraded by the SS in the camp hierarchy and from then on, had to wear the black “asocial” triangle. Former fellow prisoners in Ravensbrück spoke of the emaciated figures, gaunt bodies, and the dead gazes of the women who returned from the brothels.  

The existence of camp brothels makes clear how women during national socialism were sexually humiliated and exploited as well as robbed of all self-determination. Women were forced into sex work with male prisoners in a total of ten concentration camps. Following Mauthausen and Gusen, further brothels were constructed in the concentration camps Auschwitz-Stammlager, Auschwitz-Monowitz, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuen-gamme, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Mittelbau-Dora. In SS jargon, the camp brothel was also called a “special building,” and was later set up in less prominent places than here in Mauthausen or Gusen: The SS also began attempting to hush up the existence of the facilities whenever possible. 

Sexual exploitation of persecuted and imprisoned women was a permanent feature in the national socialist repression and elimination enterprise. Forced sexual contact with male prisoners and SS soldiers, forced sterilizations, forced abortions, medical experiments, rapes, shaving their hair off—the list of major physical forms of violence is long. Another long list includes forms of sexualized psychological violence, which ranged from degrading looks and insinuating slurs to being under constant threat of sexual attacks by the SS.  

The sexual exploitation of the persecuted and imprisoned women during national socialism represents a zenith of patriarchal gender relations, which were drafted long before, and became established over many generations. Normalized concepts of masculinity and femininity and normalized heterosexuality have been handed-down in images and attributes over the ages.  

Fundamental during the NS era was the connection between sexual policies and reproductive policies: women’s sexuality was seen exclusively in terms of its significance for reproduction and establishing the “Aryan race,” or the “German Volksgemeinschaft.” Parallel to demure, pure “Aryan women” was the construct of “the other woman,” whose “carnality,” and “depravity,” marked her as “socially incapable.” These women were sent to the concentration camps, classified as “asocial.” 

Deviations from the norm, such as relations to forced laborers or to Jewish men, were punished by imprisonment in a concentration camp, as were cases in which a future criminal act was anticipated. Jewish women, as well as Roma and Sinti women, were in particular danger as they were persecuted for being non-Aryan.  

The differentiation of the women according to racist categories was thus fundamental. The task of the “Aryan” German woman was to produce and raise “racially pure” offspring who would aid in realizing the thousand-year German empire. Women unwilling to comply with this demand and women who could not (from the outset, because of the racial laws) were threatened with persecution.  

For many years, the experiences of women in the NS concentration camps, particularly the forced sex workers, remained unacknowledged. “The great silence” was based, for one, on the fear that addressing the camp brothels as such would downplay the horror of a concentration camp and convey a false impression of living conditions at the camp. For this reason, at the memorial sites, in the guided tours through the former camp grounds, as well as in the ground plans of the camp, the existence of a former camp brothel was covered over whenever possible. Also, the (male) survivors were interested in keeping this theme taboo, particularly in terms of their own involvement in brothel activities. On the other hand, this taboo was also closely tied with the women affected by forced prostitution. These women were mainly part of group who were forced to wear the black “asocial” triangle, a persecuted group that lacked respect among the other groups of prisoners, and whose members have been subjected to discrimination until the present day. This is visible, for example, in the claims and entitlements for damage payments in Austria. It was first in 2005 that those who were persecuted based on their sexual orientation as supposed “asocials” were recognized as victims of national socialism in compliance with the Victims Welfare Act (in addition, forced sterilization is now also considered a form of health damage caused by persecution). The belated recognition, however, enables only the very few persons who are still alive to receive a restitution payment.  

The fate of these persecuted groups fell from sight, as opposed to that of the political prisoners. The social stigmatization throughout the decades made it impossible for the women to make their stories public. Also, the (predominantly) male historical research had a difficult time with this theme, and querying this group of persecuted persons occurred only gradually.  

We do not know how many women had to perform forced sex work in the prisoner brothels of the concentration camps, such as here in Mauthausen or Gusen. In all probability, there was also a brothel for the SS guards near the Mauthausen camp.  

Furthermore, we know from interviews that the SS soldiers sexually abused women, unrelated to any specific location and without any regularity, but often—for example, during banquets at the SS dining halls. 

We know very little about all of these women who were the victims of male violence, and there are very few written testimonies.

We can no longer ascertain their memories and pass them on to others as a warning.     

We can—and must—keep alive our memory of the many unknown and nameless victims and thereby grant the women a belated recognition of their suffering.