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Propaganda and Prostitution Reform During Germany’s Weimar Republic

Historical ReflectionsThis is the second in a series of posts dedicated to celebrating the 40th volume of our journal Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques.


The latest issue of Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques is devoted to the special topic of “War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany.” This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between the issue’s Guest Editor, Jean Elisabeth Pedersen, and one of the six contributors, Julia Roos.



Pedersen: What first drew you to the study of the “black horror” campaign?

Roos: My first book focuses on conflicts over prostitution reform during Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933). It was in this context that I first came across the issue of the brothels for colonial French troops established in the occupied Rhineland during the 1920s. Middle-class German feminists and their conservative allies appealed to racialist fears and nationalist resentment over these brothels to discredit Germany’s own system of police-controlled prostitution. I realized that the protest against the brothels was an important facet of the broader propaganda campaign against France’s colonial occupation troops, which used the racist epithet, “black horror on the Rhine.” What fascinates me about the “black horror” campaign is the fresh light it sheds on the different ways in which World War I unsettled established racial stereotypes and hierarchies between whites/Europeans, on the one hand, and Africans and other colonized peoples, on the other hand. It also offers rich possibilities for exploring the legacies and postwar permutations of wartime propaganda discourses centered on women’s and children’s sexual victimization by racial “Others.”

Pedersen: Did any of your perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed your article for our special issue?

Roos: Yes. I became much more acutely aware of the importance of studying 1920s propagandistic discourses and imagery in close connection with wartime developments in these areas. I also got much more interested in prewar and wartime debates over the uses and dangers of deploying colonial troops in the European theater. Germans’ reactions to colonial French occupation troops during the 1920s are only fully intelligible against the backdrop of wartime allegations of “barbarism” German propaganda had leveled at Allied colonial troops, and Allied propaganda had leveled at Germany, respectively.

Pedersen: What aspect of writing the article did you find the most challenging? The most rewarding?

Roos: When writing about the film, Die schwarze Schmach (The Black Horror, 1921), one of the biggest challenges concerned gauging audience reactions. I had to rely largely on film reviews in the daily press and trade journals, which helped fill some gaps. Still, it has to remain somewhat unclear to what extent film critics accurately captured broader popular views and sentiments. One of the most rewarding outcomes for me was to have gained a better sense of the tensions and contradictions in Weimar-era debates over atrocity propaganda.

Pedersen: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

Roos: Hopefully, my contribution will help stimulate fresh debate about the political nature and international dimensions of the backlash against atrocity propaganda in the aftermath of World War I. This topic is of potential relevance to a broad range of scholars and laypeople interested in international relations, race, propaganda, and the rise of fascism during the 1920s and 1930s.

Pedersen: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

Roos: I hope to contribute to a more multi-faceted analysis of Weimar-era debates over atrocity propaganda. Existing historical literature often emphasizes the opportunistic and amoral nature of 1920s German propaganda discourse. The ban of the film, The Black Shame, suggests that the use of atrocity propaganda directed against France’s African troops was more controversial within German society than historians tend to acknowledge.



Look for more posts devoted to this volume of Historical Reflections in the coming weeks, as well as the forthcoming issue of the journal (to be published in the summer of 2014)!