Never Forget: The anniversary where it all began

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology) in 1919, in Berlin, Germany. Its purpose was to study sexuality and gender variation. They offered medical care such as contraception and STI treatment, but also care for LGBTQIA people in a respectful and professional setting. Hirschfeld and his staff studied people in a humane manner, sometimes offering free care. He is reported to have said, “A sexual impulse based on science is the only sound system of ethics.”

From 1926 until 1933, Hirschfeld and his institute were regular targets of the Nazi party, including an assassination attempt on him in Austria. The campaign of violence culminated in the attack by the Nazi controlled Deutsche Studentenschaft on his clinic on May 6, 1933, ninety years ago. They broke in, raided the building for books and materials.  Those books were a major part of the first mass Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933, a fact that rarely gets mentioned when the topic of book burnings come up.

Hirschfeld escaped to France, attempting to restart the clinic in Paris in 1934, but lacked material and financial support.  He died in Nice, France on his 67th birthday, May 14, 1935.  If there’s one relief (what’s a non-religious term for “saving grace”?) about that, it’s that he died before the worst atrocities of the nazis truly began, and that he didn’t see the “allies” keep concentration camp victims in prisons for decades after the war.  “Paragraph 175” laws were enforced until 1969, only fully repealed in Germany after reunification in 1994.

This excerpt comes from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust:

6 May 1933: Looting of the Institute of Sexology

On 6 May 1933, the Institute of Sexology, an academic foundation devoted to sexological research and the advocacy of homosexual rights, was broken into and occupied by Nazi-supporting youth. Several days later the entire contents of the library were removed and burned.

The institute was initially occupied by The German Student Union, who were a collective of Nazi-supporting youth. Several days later, on 10 May, the entire contents of the library were removed to Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square. That night, along with 20,000 other books across Germany, they were publicly burned in a symbolic attack by Nazi officials on their enemies.

Founded in 1919, the institute had been set up by Magnus Hirschfeld, a world-renowned expert in the emerging discipline of sexology. During its existence, thousands of patients were seen and treated, often for free. The Institute also achieved a global reputation for its pioneering work on transsexual understanding and calls for equality for homosexuals, transgender people and women. Hirschfield himself was a passionate advocate for homosexual rights and had long appealed for the repeal of Paragraph 175, the law that criminalised homosexuality in Germany.

Jewish, gay and outspokenly liberal, Hirschfeld was an obvious target for the Nazis, and the seizure and destruction of the institute on 6 May took place only three months after Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany. During the attack and subsequent book burning, Hirschfeld was working in Paris. He saw the burning of his own library in a news report at the cinema. Among the texts thrown onto the bonfire at the Bebelplatz was Heinrich Heine’s Almansor, in which the author noted:

‘Where they burn books, in the end they will burn humans too’.

The article goes on from there.

I see no difference in the words and actions today by rightwing extremists, both in their violence towards Transgender and Non-Binary people and towards the medical profession trying to offer life saving care as they were in 1933.  The attempts to legalize kidnapping and abuse of children, of criminally charging and imprisoning doctors, of inciting extremists to commit violence and murder.  How long before terrorists do to Trans care clinics what “operation rescue” did to women’s health clinics in the 1990s (vis-a-vis bombings and assassinations of doctors)?

What is different now is how many people know of accept, and both see and treat gender non-conforming people as human beings.  The ideology of hate may catch on with rabid extremists, but it has not and will not in the general populace, especially the educated people under age 40.  We are closer to 1965 US public attitudes towards the Civil Rights movement and Black people than we are to 1933 German attitudes toward LGBTQIA people.

Several other items talking about the Dr. Hirschfeld and the anniversary are below the fold.

From the Magnus Hirschfeld website:

The first Institute for Sexual Science (1919-1933)

In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), sexologist and sexual-reformer, saw a long-cherished dream come true: on July 6, he opened the “Institute for Sexual Science” in Berlin-Tiergarten – the first of its kind in the world. Politically, the Institute’s emergence is to be viewed within the context of the progressive reform movements during the Weimar period; scientificially, the bio-medical explanations of human sexuality at the time formed the framework. The Institute’s foundation was the first attempt at establishing sexual science.

From the Holocaust Encyclopedia:

Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) was a German Jewish doctor and a leading researcher of sex, sexuality, and gender. He wrote and lectured widely on these topics, treated and advised patients, and worked to promote the rights of those who did not conform to existing gender or sexual norms. After Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, Hirschfeld was forced to live in exile. The Nazis vandalized his Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and forced it to close.


Hirschfeld’s ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality were groundbreaking and radical in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His work represented an emerging trend in Germany as sexual matters began to be discussed and studied more openly. During the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), Hirschfeld became especially prominent. The Nazi Party rejected these new ideas about gender and sexuality. The Nazis frequently attacked Hirschfeld’s work and destroyed many of his files and collections. Hirschfeld’s work is thus a prime example of the science and culture lost to Nazi violence.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the nature of human sexuality became an important area of scientific investigation and debate. Germany was at the forefront of this development. Hirschfeld himself became one of the most influential thinkers on the topic. In the late nineteenth century, he began producing pamphlets, books, and journals on sexuality and gender. He wrote these materials in a style meant to reach the general public as well as scholars and medical professionals.

Hirschfeld pioneered and promoted new theories of sexuality. He was especially interested in the study of same-sex love and desire. Hirschfeld challenged the common idea at the time that same-sex attraction was a pathological perversion and a vice. Instead, he argued that it was innate or inborn (angeboren). Hirschfeld insisted that a person’s sexuality did not determine their character or personality any more than being born left-handed or right-handed did.

From Europeana, published by the European Union:

Pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld
German doctor who was one of the earliest LGBTQ+ rights activists

Hirschfeld was born in the Prussian town Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, Poland) in 1868. His father was a prominent Jewish doctor in the town. Hirschfeld studied medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin.

After his studies, Hirschfeld traveled to the USA for eight months. There, he wrote articles for German journals. In Chicago, he became involved in the city’s gay subcultures, noticing similarities with Berlin. He developed theories that homosexuality was universal around the world.

Returning to Germany, he started a naturopathic practice in Madgeburg and eventually moved to Berlin.

Influenced by the trials of Oscar Wilde, as well as gay patients he treated, in 1896, under a pseudonym, he published Sappho and Socrates – a pamphlet about homosexual love.

From People’s World, 2018:

This week in history: Sex scientist Magnus Hirschfeld

Magnus Hirschfeld was born 150 years ago, on May 14, 1868. His pioneering work mustn’t be forgotten.

Over 100 years ago, the gay German sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld pioneered the understanding of human sexuality and the advocacy of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights at a time when it was deeply unpopular to do so. That took immense courage and determination. He was battling against the ignorance and prejudice of centuries.

While Oscar Wilde was being tormented in Reading Gaol, Hirschfeld launched the world’s first gay rights organization in Berlin. Whereas Wilde merely lamented the persecution of LGBTI people, Hirschfeld organized to fight it.

His Scientific Humanitarian Committee, founded in Germany in 1897, trailblazed the struggle for homosexual emancipation. A similar movement did not emerge in Britain until the 1960s, over half a century later. He truly was a man ahead of his time.

From Scientific American:

The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic

The Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin would be a century old if it hadn’t fallen victim to Nazi ideology

Late one night on the cusp of the 20th century, Magnus Hirschfeld, a young doctor, found a soldier on the doorstep of his practice in Germany. Distraught and agitated, the man had come to confess himself an Urning—a word used to refer to homosexual men. It explained the cover of darkness; to speak of such things was dangerous business. The infamous “Paragraph 175” in the German criminal code made homosexuality illegal; a man so accused could be stripped of his ranks and titles and thrown in jail.

Hirschfeld understood the soldier’s plight—he was himself both homosexual and Jewish—and did his best to comfort his patient. But the soldier had already made up his mind. It was the eve of his wedding, an event he could not face. Shortly after, he shot himself.

The soldier bequeathed his private papers to Hirschfeld, along with a letter: “The thought that you could contribute to [a future] when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms,” he wrote, “sweetens the hour of death.” Hirschfeld would be forever haunted by this needless loss; the soldier had called himself a “curse,” fit only to die, because the expectations of heterosexual norms, reinforced by marriage and law, made no room for his kind. These heartbreaking stories, Hirschfeld wrote in The Sexual History of the World War, “bring before us the whole tragedy [in Germany]; what fatherland did they have, and for what freedom were they fighting?” In the aftermath of this lonely death, Hirschfeld left his medical practice and began a crusade for justice that would alter the course of queer history.

Hirschfeld sought to specialize in sexual health, an area of growing interest. Many of his predecessors and colleagues believed that homosexuality was pathological, using new theories from psychology to suggest it was a sign of mental ill health. Hirschfeld, in contrast, argued that a person may be born with characteristics that did not fit into heterosexual or binary categories and supported the idea that a “third sex” (or Geschlecht) existed naturally. Hirschfeld proposed the term “sexual intermediaries” for nonconforming individuals. Included under this umbrella were what he considered “situational” and “constitutional” homosexuals—a recognition that there is often a spectrum of bisexual practice—as well as what he termed “transvestites.” This group included those who wished to wear the clothes of the opposite sex and those who “from the point of view of their character” should be considered as the opposite sex. One soldier with whom Hirschfeld had worked described wearing women’s clothing as the chance “to be a human being at least for a moment.” He likewise recognized that these people could be either homosexual or heterosexual, something that is frequently misunderstood about transgender people today.

There are many more unique articles available.



  1. Allison says

    I knew about Hirschfeld, perhaps because I’m trans and so tapped into this history.

    I didn’t know about paragraph 175, although it’s worth remembering that the USA had similar laws, which stuck around (and were enforced) as long as paragraph 175 did.