Petruccelli on Stauter-Halsted, 'The Devil's Chain: Prostitution and Social Control in Partitioned Poland'

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The following book review from H-Poland may be of interest to some H-Women list members.


Keely Stauter-Halsted


David Petruccelli

Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Devil's Chain: Prostitution and Social Control in Partitioned Poland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. 392 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5419-6.

Reviewed by David Petruccelli (Diplomatic Academy of Vienna) Published on H-Poland (October, 2018) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

This is a splendid book. Extensively researched, written with verve, and brimming with fresh insights and erudition, The Devil’s Chain traces the emergence of prostitution onto the Polish national consciousness in the second half of the nineteenth century and the way that the interpretation and reinterpretation of the problem intersected with a burgeoning discourse about the nation. The book is admirably broad in its approach. It integrates recent findings in the historiography of prostitution from other, mostly Western European, contexts. This breadth of vision is necessary in order to pinpoint what is distinctive about the Polish case, which Keely Stauter-Halsted suggests has much to do with the fact that Poland’s territories were divided up between the Russian, German, and Habsburg empires in the late eighteenth century. A Polish state only reemerged in 1918, near the end the story she tells. Stauter-Halsted argues convincingly that Polish thinkers projected deeply felt anxieties about this national division onto the question of prostitution. By drawing on diverse topics, such as domestic prostitution, human trafficking, mass migration, and the rise of a eugenic discourse, she crafts a compelling account of “Poland's difficult transition to modernity” (p. 2).

The book’s ten chapters are roughly divided into three sections. The first three chapters examine how prostitution came to be perceived as a problem in the Polish lands in the late nineteenth century. Stauter-Halsted opens with a chapter describing the fears about prostitution as typical of a “moral panic,” a term she draws from the scholarship of Stanley Cohen. The prostitute served as a figure that could crystallize diverse anxieties of the rising bourgeoisie concerned about urbanization, modernization (or the lack of it), and the lasting political division of Poland. The second chapter turns to the realities of prostitution. By showing that prostitution was common in the rural as well as urban economies and that women easily moved into and out of prostitution, Stauter-Halsted demonstrates that the image of paid sex as an irreversible moral descent was largely a myth of an out of touch bourgeoisie. This rising urban middle class is at the center of the third chapter, which explores the extent to which prostitution penetrated the bourgeois home through domestic servants and the regulation system that was meant symbolically to delineate and segregate sex work.

The next three chapters examine the problem of “white slavery,” as sex trafficking was broadly called in the decades before the First World War. The white slavery panic swept much of the world in the last decades of the nineteenth century, crystallizing inchoate anxieties about social and economic change. In Polish society, broadly perceived as a principal source of trafficking victims, the discourse of white slavery tapped into insecurities related to the country’s division between partitioning powers, belated modernization, and place on the civilization scale. The fifth chapter situates the white slave trade in a broader pattern of migration from the Polish lands in the late nineteenth century, an interpretive framework that complicates simplistic notions of agency and exploitation. The sixth chapter examines the central role of Jews as intermediaries and agents in mass migration out of Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, and shows how this solidified a myth of the Jew as the white slaver in Poland. This chapter complements recent studies of migration agents operating in Eastern Europe, notably by Tara Zahra (The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World [2016]). By casting the white slaver as a Jew, Polish commentators avoided engaging with deeper social factors favoring migratory prostitution and contributed to the broader symbolic expulsion of Jews from the moral nation.

The final four chapters examine the personalities and ideas motivating efforts to reform prostitution in late imperial Poland and the new Polish republic. In the seventh chapter, Stauter-Halsted shows how female activists mobilized in the early twentieth century against the problem of prostitution. These activists drove a shift in public understanding of prostitution, from an emphasis on the prostitute as an immoral actor to a focus on the iniquity of pimps and procurers who victimized these women. They constructed what Stauter-Halsted designates a “shadow state,” building de facto social welfare institutions in an ostensibly apolitical field tolerated by the imperial powers. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for the rebirth of the Polish state. The eighth chapter examines the role of physicians, key props of the regulation system, and the ninth chapter addresses the rising influence of a eugenics discourse in the Polish lands in the years before the First World War.

In her final chapter, Stauter-Halsted traces the legacies of these debates in the newly independent Polish state between 1919 and 1939. If discussions immediately before the war had prepared the ground for subsequent transformations, the devastations of war, ongoing economic turmoil, and renewed fears of venereal diseases provided the immediate impetus for the broad reconceptualization of the prostitute as a member of the nation rather than an outsider to it. And yet, despite their role instigating this shift, the feminist and eugenicist reformers failed to push through a shared abolitionist agenda. Stauter-Halsted lays the blame for this failure on the political dysfunction of the new state. This is one of the less convincing arguments of the book, confined as it is to what reads almost as a coda. An attempt to do justice to this complex picture would need to bring together the changing gender roles and shifting migratory patterns of the interwar years, the waning prospects for abolitionist activists in much of Europe in the 1930s, Poland’s shifting relationship with the League of Nations, the reregulation of prostitution in Nazi Germany (viewed by parts of the Polish political class as inspiration until late in the decade), and the legacies of a Polish reform movement that evolved, as Stauter-Halsted so convincingly demonstrates, in opposition to state actors.

While Stauter-Halsted’s command of the scholarship on prostitution, trafficking, and related fields ranges across boundaries and periods, the book’s focus is decidedly national. This is a reflection at one level of the book’s subject matter. As Stauter-Halsted writes in the introduction, historical writing is invariably shaped by the preoccupations of the social actors studied, and many of her subjects clearly thought intensely about the future of the Polish nation. Yet at times, Stauter-Halsted also imposes this national identity on her subjects. For instance, she uses a study by “a Dr. Bonhoffer in Wrocław” to illustrate the integration into Polish medical discourses of Western European ideas about heredity and prostitution (p. 298). He makes an odd choice as a representative of Polish medical thought. The now-Polish city of Wrocław was then Breslau, one of the most important cities in the German Empire, and the doctor in question was most likely the German psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, father of the pastor and later anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Such missteps are rare—and indeed, elsewhere she refers to Bonhoffer as a “German psychiatrist” (p. 281)—but this example underscores the challenges facing a book on prostitution in Poland at a time when no Polish state existed.

While Stauter-Halsted skillfully depicts the way that debates about gender, sexuality, and ethnicity blurred the moral boundaries of the nation, she seems to take for granted the existence of physical boundaries, though without maps it is not clear to the reader precisely where they lay. And by prioritizing the Polish national identity among the figures in her book, she risks reproducing the national lens that she seeks to problematize. Many of these experts were not only part of a Polish reading and writing class, but also those of the German, Russian, and Habsburg empires. Imperial networks of professionals and activists, which would have included some of these “Polish” figures, would have developed distinct approaches to the problems associated with prostitution in these years. Poland, as the only territory divided between these three great European land empires of the late ninteenth century, might provide new insights into the divergences and commonalities between different European imperialisms and their influence on national thought of subject groups.

If anything, this criticism underscores the way that the book’s shortcomings, as well as its strengths, ought to stimulate further research. As it is, The Devil’s Chain achieves a great deal, bringing together a wealth of material and themes into a compelling, persuasive, and novel account of Poland’s development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book should stand as a model for studies of other national contexts. It deserves a wide readership, both among experts in European history and among scholars of prostitution, migration, and sex trafficking.

Citation: David Petruccelli. Review of Stauter-Halsted, Keely, The Devil's Chain: Prostitution and Social Control in Partitioned Poland. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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