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  • Destination:Alexandria, Buenos Aires, Constantinople; "White Slavers" in Late Imperial Austria
  • Nancy M. Wingfield (bio)

Now Anne of Austria shared their drinks,Collinga knew her fame,From Tarnau in GaliciaTo Juan Bazaar she came,To eat the bread of infamyAnd take the wage of shame.

—Rudyard Kipling, "The Ballad of Fisher's Boarding-House"

Few forms of socially deviant behavior received so much attention in the sexually saturated Austrian fin de siècle as Mädchenhandel, or trafficking in girls, also called white slave trafficking. Trafficking in women and girls had not been unknown in preindustrial Cisleithania, but the discourse from the turn of the century embodied concerns about the need for social control in increasingly anonymous, modernizing, urbanizing, and capitalist society.1 Certainly, Mädchenhandel was in many ways a modern crime, a crime associated particularly with Jews, who were popularly believed to supply white, unwilling girls to serve as prostitutes in brothels worldwide. Ever-expanding and improving communication and transportation [End Page 291] networks, which both facilitated large-scale immigration and permitted women to travel alone as never before, as well as the anonymity of the growing metropolises in Habsburg central Europe facilitated the practice. Indeed, commercial sex was a flourishing enterprise in the expanding urban centers of the nineteenth-century Habsburg Monarchy, where prostitution was tolerated and thus regulated.

Popular debate on white slavery in late imperial Cisleithania expanded after the passage of a law eliminating the periodical-press stamp beginning on 1 January 1900, allowing for the proliferation of inexpensive and often illustrated newspapers among an increasingly literate audience. Not only did the muckraking sensationalist newspapers of the capital address the topic, but it was also the subject of discussion in provincial journals intended for women, which besides serving a didactic function (warning them of possible danger) also permitted women who were not involved in trafficking to follow with prurient interest and feigned or real horror the fates of their unfortunate sisters.2 This discourse focused above all on Bukovina and Galicia, two impoverished regions in the eastern reaches of the empire, both with large Jewish populations.3 Reflecting a variety of European-wide developments, among them eugenics, criminology, and racial nationalism, the rhetoric facilitated the language of difference. This debate included tropes like the corruption of "innocent girls," especially by eastern European Jewish "Others" who kidnapped and even "enslaved" girls and took them to racially different faraway places to ply the sex trade. A closer examination of the issue, however, reveals a more complicated picture that involves young women, attracted by the anticipated wealth of foreign liberators, hastily marrying these men and going abroad with them in the hope of a better life, often with the full support of their often poverty-stricken families. In order to supply the monarchy's tolerated bordellos with fresh supplies of sexual talent, pimps and other panderers, many of them Christian, regularly arranged for the transport of prostitutes to bordellos throughout Austria-Hungary and neighboring Germany.4 [End Page 292] It was, however, the white slavers—both male and female, and popularly identified as Jewish—and those girls and women they trafficked abroad, often, but not always, poor Jews from the eastern regions of the empire, who aroused the greatest public indignation.

The worldwide traffic in women had become a concern among European reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the mid-1880s, English feminist and social reformer Josephine Butler, whose International Abolitionist Association had branches throughout Great Britain and Europe dedicated to the elimination of prostitution, had been made aware of the trade in women and girls connected with prostitution. Association member William A. Coote soon formed national committees for the suppression of white slave traffic in various European capitals and also in Egypt, South America, South Africa, and the United States. Western European Jewish reformers had noticed a conspicuous involvement among eastern European Jews in white slaving.5 Thus, in 1885 the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls, Women, and Children was established in London, and in 1897 the Hamburg branch of B'nai B'rith formed a Jewish Committee to Combat White Slavery. Anti-Semitic diatribes like Alexander Berg's...


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