BERLIN — The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) is "a clean state," its then leader, Socialist Unity Party head Erich Honecker once said. "It has unshakeable ethical standards of decency and morality."

Honecker was talking, in this case, about prostitution. The practice was was outlawed in 1968 under Paragraph 249 of the penal code, which referred to it as a "criminal refusal to take part in socialist life." And to enforce the crackdown, the party looked to the Stasi, East Germany's secret police force, which had 91,000 full-time staff and twice as many unofficial informants.

And yet, even in this state that took so much pride in its moral integrity, prostitution still existed. It took place everywhere, all the time, with the knowledge, tacit agreement and even encouragement of the state and party leadership. And as Axel Nixdorf reveals in his new documentary, Prostitution in the GDR: Socialism, Stasi, Sex, it not only brought in foreign currency, but also knowledge and power that could be used against individual citizens.

A complaint received by the Stasi in 1989, from two West German visitors to the Leipzig spring fair, sheds light on the reality of prostitution in the GDR. They said they were, to put it mildly, "shocked at the prevalence of prostitution."

Prostitution not only brought in foreign currency, but also knowledge and power.

During the fair, certain hotels were an absolute market for sex — if you were paying with foreign currency, that is. The Merkur Hotel, for example, was openly advertising as a "meeting place where lonely travelers can live out their fantasies," the visitors said.

In the harbor town of Rostock, the Free German Federation of Trade Unions ran the International Sailors' Club, which was well known as a platform for this kind of activity. In the 1970s, the authorities decided that from then on only sailors with a valid shore pass — and women, of course — would be allowed entry to the establishment. For Rostock historian Steffi Brüning, that is a clear sign that the state knew exactly what was going on at the club.

In East Berlin, police officers were surprised to see "cars with the same license plates returning again and again" to a particular address that was under surveillance. The cars were from a fleet belonging to the Socialist Unity Party. The question of whether the visitors were officials or drivers was never resolved.

Leipzig, Germany in 1980 — Photo: Dietmar Rabich

But it was not only clients with access to foreign currency or friends in high places who allowed prostitution to flourish in the GDR. Everyday citizens could also find sex for sale at certain cafés, clubs and street corners. Nixdorf quotes a Stasi report that details how a husband forced his wife to work as a prostitute on Nordstraße while he drove her colleagues around town for 10 (East German) marks each. Sex in the car cost 50, while in a flat it was 100. A pensioner who rented out his back room made 10 marks, while hotel employees could earn very generous tips.

As the Stasi noted, "financial difficulties" forced the couple in Leipzig to turn to prostitution. In the mid-1970s, a receptionist earned around 800 marks a month. She could earn around the same amount in a single night working in bars or hotel rooms. This could be seen as an unintended consequence of the gender roles promoted by the state: women in the GDR were supposed to be equal and free from the demands of capitalist family structures.

The state's tolerance of prostitution is a typical example of its double standards. Ideology was important, but so were foreign currency and information. To persuade them to work as unofficial informants for the Stasi, prostitutes were threatened with imprisonment or having their children taken away. This meant they had to pump Western clients for information and, even more importantly, report GDR citizens who may be planning to flee to the West or commit other offenses.

To a great extent, the state gave women free rein to gather information. Sex worker Monika from Karl-Marx-Stadt (now renamed Chemnitz) sometimes earned 5,000 East German marks per job, which she then exchanged for Deutschmarks on the black market, at a ratio of 12:1.

The state's tolerance of prostitution is a typical example of its double standards.

"I kept the money in various hiding places," she told Focus magazine after German reunification. "I must have been really good. The men came back regularly for years."

To protect herself, she went directly to the Stasi and registered as unofficial informant Petra Meyer. At the same time, she serviced high-level officials and was under surveillance herself. She received a Mercedes as a reward for her hard work, as well as denunciations from envious neighbors.

Not everyone was lucky enough to have such success. Many prostitutes ended up in prison, or were sent to so-called closed hospitals — "clap houses," as they were known on the street — to be treated for sexually transmitted diseases or "antisocial behavior." If you compare the official statistics on gonorrhoea and syphilis, the proportion of infections among women in the GDR was higher than in New York, according to a former employee at the establishment in Leipzig.

The fall of the Berlin Wall brought an end to this atmosphere of surveillance, blackmail, and sex. Hotel lobbies began welcoming an international clientele. Suddenly, class enemies were everywhere, as was their currency, says historian Steffi Brüning, who wrote her dissertation on prostitution in the GDR.

But it was not all good news. The struggles of the post-reunification years saw many women return to a life of prostitution. Regimes come and go. The world's "oldest profession," on the other hand, has a way of surviving no matter the circumstances.

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