Prostitutes in the Weimar Republic: Moving beyond the Victim-Whore Dichotomy

Jill Suzanne Smith (Bowdoin College, Maine)

Few figures are as ubiquitous in literary and visual representations of the Weimar Republic as the prostitute, and yet current scholarship tends to read prostitutes in one of two simplistic (and clichéd) ways: either as symbols of Weimar’s supposed ‘sexual decadence’ or as victims of the Republic’s socio-economic woes.

While it is true that these two most common images of prostitutes remained present in Weimar society and its cultural artifacts, the idea of prostitutes as rational workers emerged during the Weimar era as well. The historian Julia Roos (U.S.), for example, shows in her archival research that prostitutes’ active participation in the public debate over prostitution reform created a ‘counter-discourse’ that “contradicted widespread stereotypes of the prostitute as apathetic and ‘degenerate.'” Indeed Roos argues that an analysis of prostitution is central to an investigation of the drastic changes in gender roles that took place during the Weimar Republic.[1]

Instead of reading prostitution simply as an indicator of the entrenchment of patriarchal structures, it can also be read to expose cracks in those very structures. Establishing the connection between social history and visual arts, the art historian Marsha Meskimmon (Great Britain) demonstrates how, in the works of women artists in Weimar Germany, prostitutes appeared “as individualized and ordinary working women rather than as highly stylized images of decadence or seduction.”[2]

With Roos’ and Meskimmon’s ground-breaking work in mind, I argue that by exploring and interrogating the blurred lines between prostitutes and New Women, women artists and writers created a discursive space in which they and the viewers or readers of their work could contemplate various experiences of urban life, economies of desire, and both the opportunities and limitations of women’s work. I demonstrate this by offering examples from both the visual and literary arts, but my primary object of analysis is Vicki Baum’s bestselling novel Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hotel), serialized in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in 1929, and its conflation of a white-collar woman and prostitute in the character of Flämmchen. I show how the novel, which has remained relatively untouched by critical scholarship, poses alternative models of morality, examines possibilities for the expression of female desire, and provides a space in which prostitution can be defined as work. Thus it transcends its role as a Weimar Zeitroman to anticipate the late 20th-century discourse on prostitution as sex work and the ongoing feminist debates surrounding women’s socio-economic and sexual negotiations.


[1] Julia Roos, Weimar through the Lens of Gender: Prostitution Reform, Woman’s Emancipation, and German Democracy, 1919-1933 (forthcoming from University of Michigan Press, 2010), 104-105.

[2] Marsha Meskimmon, We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 33.

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