Ferne Nachbarn, Cohesive Difference, Destini incrociati? Recently these concepts have been driving an increasingly lively discussion between German and Italian historiographies, calling into debate the view of the “Parallelgeschichte” of the two national histories, underlining their peculiar interweaving as well as their profound differences and asymmetries within the framework of European history..It has proven to be difficult to collocate the history of women and gender in this dialogue, especially as regards recent history. As a result the research conducted to date in these fields, both comparative and transnational, or within the respective national historiographies, has not contributed to the shaping of the interpretational concepts mentioned above.
Mareen Heying's study, the result of a doctoral research run in cotutelle by the Ruhr-University of Bochum and the Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna, certainly makes an interesting contribution to this area, integrating the history of women and gender into the history of sexuality and the body, and the history of labour and social movements. Indeed, during the Sixties and the Seventies and the expansion of social movements, the two societies tended to converge in an intensification of reciprocal relations and perceptions, through the development of similar social and political conflicts. The residual heritage from that historical phase forms the starting point of this study, which focuses on the political and civil struggle of Italian and German prostitutes to achieve complete decriminalization of prostitution and recognition of their status as workers and citizens. Unlike the promoters of the earlier abolitionist movements, the protagonists of the movements studied by Heying were the prostitutes themselves, while figures performing the role of “conscience constituents” played only supporting parts, examples being social workers in the Federal Republic of Germany and feminists in Italy. According to the author, this was a movement that arose out of society itself and, through civil protest, indirectly promoted an alternative idea of society and politics. One consequence was the use and spread of the term “sex worker” within the movements, introduced by the American movement to underline the status of prostitutes as social subjects rather than victims.
The campaigns for the rights of Italian and German prostitutes took shape between the late Seventies and the early Eighties in the wake of the experiences in the United States and France of groups of activists in San Francisco and Lyon. The first groups in Germany emerged in places where social movements had already grown significantly: Hydra in Berlin in 1979, Huren wehren sich gemeinsam (HWG) in Frankfurt am Main in 1984, and Rotstift in Stuttgart in 1985. In Italy, the committee for the rights of prostitutes, called Lucciole (fireflies), was established in 1982 in Pordenone, a provincial city in a supervised border region, as a reaction to continuous harassment of local prostitutes by American NATO soldiers. These different origins partly explain the subsequent developments.
The German movement extended across numerous cities, mainly in the form of self-help groups (Selbsthilfegruppen), and enjoyed considerable media visibility thanks to the organization of thirty national conferences and the publication of periodicals connected to the numerous local groups. In contrast, the Italian movement initially extended to a few centers which soon closed down, a couple of conferences that lacked any representation from southern Italy, and the publication of a single magazine for a couple of years. Right from the start it tended to collaborate with political parties. In the resulting close relationship of the Italian movement with politics, the primary role of the political parties in the promotion of dialogue between civil society and political society emerges clearly, as well as their ambivalent role of simultaneously promoting but also containing the demands of the movements and women’s rights. Between the Eighties and Nineties the Italian left-wing political parties, partly in collaboration with the Lucciole committee, submitted more than twenty parliamentary proposals to reform the 1958 law (also known as the “Legge Merlin”), aiming to achieve the full decriminalization of prostitution with the reopening of brothels and the legalization of the act of soliciting, but without any success. This reform would have introduced into the political arena a totally new and logical approach to prostitution, which would have become a fully legal activity. However, the closure of the brothels and the termination of that trade was perceived as an important social success in post-war Italy. Reversing it would have been perceived as a significant step backward.
In Germany, according to Heying’s reconstruction, there was not only a better-articulated development, but the federal structure of the state also encouraged alliances with communal and regional councils and the gradual institutionalization of the movement. On the strength of the red-green coalition, this led to the 2002 law and the elimination of paragraph 138 of the civil code, which included prostitution among activities contrary to public morality (“sittenwidrig”). This reform finally enabled German prostitutes to be acknowledged as workers by law and registered in health and labor institutions. Evidently, the different legal circumstances also helped to shape the development of the two movements. Prostitution in brothels had been legal in Germany since 1927, but the prostitutes had no civil rights and were obliged to undergo periodic medical checks. In Italy, brothels and obligatory health checks had been abolished in 1958, while the universalist approach of the Italian health and pension systems, which were independent of employment occupation, made a request for legal acknowledgement for the profession superfluous in regard to health and pension rights.
Although in the specific historical context of the Seventies the “labour approach” was decisive for the recognition of prostitution and sex, leading broadly to the redefinition of prostitutes’ citizenship in Western society, paradoxically in Italy, “a democratic Republic founded on labour” according to Article 1 of the constitution, the question of work was irrelevant to the recognition of sex workers’ rights. In reality, in both Italy and Germany, the working conditions of prostitutes at the end of the century were subject to new forms of exploitation and risk: the growing number of prostitutes arriving through transnational migration, the emergence of AIDS and the growing market for narcotics transformed the situations of both countries, generating new social conflicts and reversals in legal rights. The body of the prostitute, having been acknowledged at the zenith of the movements as a working instrument on a par with other female bodies, has once again become pathologized and constrained in the wake of these circumstances, while the level of physical violence from the state has increased. The recent campaigns for rights have clearly failed to completely eliminate the social stigma that still attaches to prostitution in modern Western societies. According to the author, the efforts of these movements to fully decriminalize prostitution and to introduce a new, logical approach to the question of prostitutes’ citizenship appear to have achieved more in Germany than Italy, also in terms of media visibility and recognition.
Overall, this commendable study, rightly honoured with a prize in 2018 from the Arbeitskreis Historische Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung and with a grant from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, provides a valuable insight into the differing development of women’s movements in the two societies in question and the unequal success of women in these countries in gaining the status of active social and political subjects. While the German and Italian histories in this study seem to follow closed paths, in reality similar phenomena originated in the same period, but presented different characteristics and results. This account is achieved through a complex approach combining political, institutional, social, and media history, and succeeds in using oral history to bring together the subjective perspectives of the individual protagonists. It is strongly recommended reading for anyone who wants to start exploring the academic field of relations and comparison between Italy and Germany.
 Christof Dipper (ed.), Deutschland und Italien 1860–1960. Politische und kulturelle Aspekte im Vergleich, München 2005; idem, Ferne Nachbarn. Vergleichende Studien zu Deutschland und Italien in der Moderne, Köln 2017; Karrin Hanshew, Cohesive Difference. Germans and Italians in a Postwar Europe, in: Central European History, 1, 2019, pp. 65–86; Christoph Cornelißen / Gabriele D’Ottavio (eds.), Germania e Italia. Sguardi incrociati sulla storiografia, Bologna 2019; Filippo Triola (ed.), Destini incrociati? Italia e Germania tra Otto e Novecento, Berlin 2020.