The cross of honor

Karl Kraus
Translated by Peter Winslow[1]


In Austria, there is a climax of criminal liability for young women who fling themselves into the arms of vice. A distinction is made between women who are guilty of engaging in unlicensed prostitution; women who falsely state that they are registered with the police morals division; and women who are licensed to engage in prostitution, but who are not licensed to wear a cross of honor. This distinction is confusing at first, but is entirely commensurate with the facts at hand. A woman who caught the attention of a detective (nothing catches the attention of a detective in Vienna more than a woman does) said that she was registered with the police morals division. She had said it in jest, and he went looking for the truth in it. Because her statement turned out to be false, she was brought in for questioning on the suspicion of unlicensed prostitution. And because this suspicion too proved to be unjustified and because it turned out that the woman was not a prostitute at all, the district attorney charged her with having made a false statement. The woman had, so the accusation read, “made a statement to the detective purporting to have a social status which she, in fact, did not have.” She was neither a licensed nor an unlicensed prostitute, she was therefore a fraud, and she escaped conviction only because her hearing saw the judge inquire as to what she had been thinking at the time and she said: “Nothing.” In reiteration: she claimed that she was registered with the police morals division. Because this was false, she was brought in for questioning on the suspicion of engaging in immoral conduct. Now she was able to show that she was not immoral enough to have been engaging in any immoral conduct, but she was not able to show that she was moral enough to have been registered with the police morals division. There was, therefore, nothing left to do than to charge her with having made a false statement; this is, after all, a charge on which even murderers are convicted in Austria absent any evidence showing that they are in fact murders. But let’s take this a step farther. If a woman is licensed to engage in prostitution, it could come to pass that she conceals said fact and, in fraudulent manner, says that she is not licensed to engage in prostitution. She would then be making a statement purporting to engage in immoral conduct which she is not engaging in because she is licensed to do so, but which she is engaging in because she has no right to do so given that she has, in truth, only the right to engage in the immoral conduct for which she has a license. Such cases are rare in practice, and the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Justice lacks any consistency from one case to another. The most difficult of these cases, however, recently took place in Wiener-Neustadt. A brothel there is home to a woman who is licensed to engage in prostitution and who has long remained a stranger to social respectability. She has never claimed to have engaged in any immoral conduct in which she does not engage, nor has it ever been proven against her that she has falsely stated not to have engaged in any prostitution for which she has a license. But the devil had it out for this hitherto unblemished woman, and she sashayed about the salon one evening wearing a military cross of honor pinned to her bosom. “Her actions aroused the patrons’ […]”——well, what do you think her actions aroused? Not what you think, but the opposite: indignation. And when a fille de joie[2] arouses the indignation of men patronizing a brothel, it is truly high time for the district attorney to step in. In statement of fact, the woman was charged with having caused an arousal which she had no license to cause. The first judge acquitted her. He said that the cross of honor is not a military decoration and that the indignation had merely led to the kind of trouble that the police are meant to deal with. His statement was, of course, an admission that the woman would have been guilty, had she been wearing, say, the Order of Takowa. While it is evident that journalists are subject to criminal liability for wearing a military decoration without being authorized to do so, it is not evident that prostitutes are subject to that same liability; in Wiener-Neustadt, however, the feminist movement seems to have made such progress that both sexes are believed to be capable of chasing military decorations in equal measure. In any event, the first judge said that the cross of honor is not a military decoration.[3] But the district attorney was of a different opinion; he appealed, and the appeals court ordered the defendant to pay a fine of twenty Kronen. A cross of honor, the appeals court said, is an honorary award equivalent to any military decoration. The Court of Justice has even deemed that “the wearing of such cross in a brothel” is an especially aggravating circumstance. And when the defendant was asked what she had been thinking at the time, she said: “Nothing.” But this time that response was worth nothing. For it would seem that a respectable woman could sooner presume to be a prostitute than that a prostitute could presume to wear the cross of honor. But what then was her excuse? It was a gift, she said, given to her by a civilian. He was a gentlemen and gave her the cross of honor as recompense for the wages of shame. But she ought to have just slipped it into her stocking. Wearing an honorary award in a brothel is an entitlement reserved solely for the patrons of the brothel, and should their actions arouse the indignation of the women, then the women shall open themselves to the liability of a criminal act. If, however, a patron should give a woman a cross of honor instead of twenty Kronen, then she shall be enjoined from ever wearing that cross and she shall be obliged to pay the court the twenty Kronen she never received. For the judiciary is a whore who will not be gypped and who exacts the wages of shame even from the poor and destitute.





[1] I have followed Ungar and kept the English title as “The cross of honor” (see “The Cross of Honor,” Ungar: 29).
[2] This is Zohn’s very nice solution to Kraus’s “Freudenmächen,” another term for ‘prostitute’ (see “The Good Conduct Medal,” Zohn: 40).
[3] Kraus recorded a reading of this essay, and the recording is available on the CD entitled Karl Kraus liest aus eigenen Schriften. In this reading, Kraus makes two changes to the text. The first change comprises but a slight change in word choice here and there, which is, so I would venture, inconsequential to the overall meaning of the text. The second change comprises a significant omission of text: namely, the ca. 100 words between “[h]is statement was, of course, an admission […]” and “[…] the first judge said that the cross of honor is not a military decoration.”



Works cited


Kraus, K. “Das Ehrenkreuz.” Die Fackel, Nos. 272-273. (1909): 2-5. Print. (source text)

———“Das Ehrenkreuz.” Karl Kraus liest aus eigenen Schriften. Preiser Records: 1989. Audio CD.

———“The Cross of Honor.” No Compromise: Selected Writings of Karl Kraus. Trans. Ungar, F. Ed. Ungar, F. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977: 29-32. Print.

———“The Good Conduct Medal.” In These Great Times. A Karl Kraus Reader. Trans. Zohn, H. Ed. Zohn, H. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990: 39-41. Print.