weimar republic

Tauentzien girls (lower class of prostitutes), Berlin 1920s.

Berlin in the 1920s had a very interesting and confusing legal stance on prostitution. Left-over laws from the reign of Friederich II did not allow for legally sanctioned brothel quarters within city limits, and yet individual female and male prostitution was to be carried out “under government surveillance” - in essence, it was permitted on a technicality despite being officially unlawful. “Whoring was, through the Wilhelmian era, alternately tolerated, then banned, then yet again ‘placed under surveillance.’ No matter what was decreed, however, prostitutes  and the citizenry who engaged their services always found ingenious ways to circumvent the murky codes. Only two sanctions were consistent: 1. Berlin refused to allot a legal district for the practice of harlotry - the ‘Mediterranean’ solution, and 2. public solicitation for sex was strictly prohibited" (Gordon, Voluptuous Panic). 

So, in essence a prostitute could ply his or her trade anywhere in the city as long as he or she did not verbally reveal her profession. Hence, an elaborate cosmopolitan code of dress and gesture developed in the Berlin demimonde through which sellers advertised their wares to buyers: “Customers could recognize the compliant goods instantly by their characteristic packaging. In other words, whores would promote themselves by looking like whores" (Gordon, Voluptuous Panic). A fascinating paradox, because of course looking that way made your trade obvious to law enforcement officials and yet they there was little they could do about it.

However, “the problem, unfortunately, became acute in the Weimar period when prostitute fashion was widely imitated by Berlin’s most virtuous females. For instance, one historical badge of shame for Stricht-violators, short-cropped hair, became the common emblem of the Tauentziengirl (above) at least for a year or two. Then in 1923, the short pageboy coif, or Bubikopf, achieved universal popularity as the stylish cut for trendy Berlinerinnen. Prostitutes had to change and update their provocative attire constantly in order to retain a legal means of solicitation" (Gordon, Voluptuous Panic).


It’s Only Paper —- Hyperinflation in Weimer Germany.

After World War I the Kaiser was kicked out of Germany, the German Empire was dismantled, and a new German republic was formed.  The new “Weimer Republic” was certainly in a financial pickle.  The government had no gold, then considered the standard of wealth for nations.  After four years of war the German treasury had been emptied and replaced with tremendous debts.  The new government also governed a nation in chaos, which required even more money in spending to solve. Finally Germany was forced to pay reparations to the Allied Powers, in other words Germany had to compensate her former enemies for damages which occurred during the war.

So without any gold, how was the Weimar Republic supposed to pay off its debts and fund a working, viable government?  In 1919 Germany suspended the convertibility of its paper money into gold and began issuing bills which were backed by nothing.  The Weimar Republic’s solution was very simple; to print all the money they needed.  While the prospect of creating free money sounds tempting, there are terrible consequences.  Money, just like any other good or commodity, is only valuable in its rarity.  The less money in circulation, the more valuable it is, the more money in circulation, the less valuable it is.  When the value of money decreases it is called inflation.  Inflation is a normal occurrence when it comes to money which isn’t backed by a valuable hard commodity.  Sometimes governments need to print more money to supply a growing population or expanding economy.  It’s also not uncommon for governments to print money to pay for goods and services.  When money decreases in value to the point of worthlessness, this is called hyperinflation.

In 1919 inflation became rampant in Germany as the Weimar Republic began to print paper bills like crazy.  In 1918, around the end of World War I, one German mark could buy a loaf of bread.  By 1922, 163 marks could buy a loaf of bread.  As the German government printed more and more bills, the value of money fell as the price of goods and services skyrocketed.  When small denomination bills became worthless, the government began to print bills of larger denominations. Ultimately the Republics attempts to print money to pay its debts was fruitless.  When nations pay foreign debts, they have to pay in the currency of creditor nation.  So to pay off France, the German government had to exchange it’s marks for francs.  However, the more money they printed, the value of the mark fell, and the value of the franc rose.  In desperation, the Weimar Republic continued to print more.

By early 1923, the cost of a loaf of bread was 1,500,000 marks.  Money became so worthless that people had to lug wheelbarrows full of bricks of cash to buy groceries.  Workers were paid twice daily, before lunch and at the end of the workday, so that they could buy goods before their money lost value.  As money became worth the value it was printed on, people came up with creative ways to use the useless bills.  Children used bricks of cash as building blocks while others used them as fuel for heating (see pics above).  Some people even used money as wallpaper.

By 1923, the Weimar Republic was printing bills in ridiculous denominations.  Pictured above is a bill dated November, 1923 which is denominated 10 billion marks.  While a large number, it wasn’t worth much as the price  of bread in late 1923 had risen to 200 billion marks per loaf.

In 1924, after suffering severe economic consequences, the Weimar Republic ceased its reckless printing of money.  To reverse hyperinflation the German National Bank introduced a new currency called the “rentenmark”.  The new currency was exchanged at 1 rentenmark for 1 trillion marks.  As Germans exchanged their old bills for the new currency, the supply of money in Germany began to shrink and prices returned to normal.  In the meantime the German government destroyed the exchanged old currency which amounted to a total of 1,200,000,000,000,000,000,000 marks.

Berlin cabaret poster, 1920s.

"The idyllic gay portrait of dapper German officers in capes and peaked caps transfixed by demure Line-Boys (teenage male prostitutes that worked Berlin’s fancy hotel lobbies, gay clubs, and bars in the Tiergarten in gangs of 4 or 5) on Tiergarten benches disappeared from view in 1919. It was beggars who retained the combat dress of the defeated army. Berlin’s gay community at the beginning of Weimar adopted a different wardrobe, the sailor’s blouse and cap (alongside the tailored morning-coat of the perfumed dandy). In homosexual Dielen, middle-aged Sugar-Lickers (nighttime gay patrons), Coolies (older Gymnasium or university students who hired Line-Boys and frequently claimed to be straight), Doll-Boys (youngest and penniless gay hustlers that worked solely for food, lodging and cigarettes), even crotchety waiters wore the crisp blue-and-white insignia of jaunty marines on shore leave. The change of uniform had various meanings. Partly, it was a matter of identification - straights didn’t wear them - and they were a Wilhelmian echo of adolescent androgyny. More significantly, Berlin’s core homosexual community had expanded beyond the units of the Potsdam garrison."

-Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin.

The artist Reneé Sintenis and a Hot Sister ca. 1927.

Hot Sister was generic Berliner slang for a lesbian, however Sintenis and her friend seem to be sporting the more specific attire of Bubis - “masculine or butch women [who] often wore male clothing, especially fedoras and leather ties. Recognized by their long leather coats in winter and ubiquitous cigars. Some Bubis sported delicately drawn ‘mustaches’ (imitating Spanish aristocratic women). Reputed to be the best automobile drivers in Berlin. Attracted to Mädis (ultrafemmes), who referred to them as Daddies” (Mel Gordon, Voluptuous Panic).


Die Büchse der Pandora | 1929 | Georg Wilhelm Pabst | Germany

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