'Hirschfeld understood that science is political'

100 years ago, Germany’s ‘Einstein of Sex’ began the gay rights movement

Although he never became a household name like Freud, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld fought to decriminalize homosexuality and improve LGBTQ healthcare

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Magnus Hirschfeld in New York City, early 1930s (public domain)
Magnus Hirschfeld in New York City, early 1930s (public domain)

During the years before Nazism destroyed Europe, a German Jew in Berlin pioneered what became the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

Magnus Hirschfeld was the first clinician to prove that gays are at a higher risk for committing suicide, and he founded the world’s first community health center for LGBTQ individuals. On the legal front, Hirschfeld spent decades attempting to convince German leaders to abolish “Paragraph 175,” a law that criminalized homosexuality.

A hundred years ago, Hirschfeld made headlines around the world as Germany’s “Einstein of Sex.” In the summer of 1919, he opened the pioneering Institute for Sexual Research in the heart of Berlin. The German government gave Hirschfeld a villa to house his immense archive, a Museum of Sex, and various clinical spaces.

During the institute’s short life, Hirschfeld lived on the top floor with his lover. Far from isolating himself as an academic, he was a fixture of Berlin’s drag scene nicknamed “Tante Magnesia.”

Also in 1919, Hirschfeld co-wrote and acted in a groundbreaking film called, “Different From the Others.” The plot was in tune with with Hirschfeld’s development of therapeutic protocols for doctors to help patients accept their sexuality, instead of repressing it.


“Hirschfeld understood that science is political,” said historian Heike Bauer, author of the 2017 book: “The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Bauer commented on Hirschfeld’s use of science to pursue gay rights.

“Hirschfeld conducted what might have been the first statistical surveys of same-sex suicide because he realized that the lives — and deaths — of lesbians and homosexual men were taboo subjects. His research on same-sex suicide was part of the broader fight for the decriminalization of homosexuality,” said Bauer, a professor at Birbeck College, University of London.

At right, German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (public domain)

‘The woman in every man’

Born on the Baltic coast in 1868, Hirschfeld followed his father’s path by becoming a physician. One day in medical school, Hirschfeld was traumatized by a lecture he’d never forget.

Magnus Hirschfeld (toward lower right of image, in glasses) at a party held at his institute in Berlin during the 1920s (public domain)

The subject was “sexual degeneracy,” and the professor brought in a gay man who’d been in an asylum for 30 years. The victim was paraded naked in front of the class and his various “deficiencies” were examined. Apparently, Hirschfeld was the only student who left the room disturbed.

After medical school, Hirschfeld spent eight months in Chicago. He delved into the gay scene and determined that queer men and women faced similar challenges in Chicago and Berlin.

Mother and child at a so-called ‘Negro Village’ in Germany, a ‘human zoo’ for the masses (public domain)

In 1896, the young doctor attended Berlin’s appalling “Human Zoo” exhibition. Slaves from Germany’s colonies in Africa were caged for the enjoyment of visitors who marveled at the victims’ exoticism and “authentic” settings.

After his visits to the “Human Zoo,” Hirschfeld determined that homosexuality was universal and crossed cultures. Deeply troubled by the suicides among his LGBTQ patients, he set out to prove that queerness occurs naturally and should not be illegal.

For that purpose, Hirschfeld founded his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897. Known as the world’s first gay and trans rights organization, the group’s main goal was for Germany to abolish “Paragraph 175,” a mission publicly supported by Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, and other famous Germans.

The next year, Germany’s parliament debated on whether or not to get rid of “Paragraph 175.” The law was kept intact, and Hirschfeld’s failed efforts were called “an aggressive act of Jewish horniness.”

Li Shiu Tong and Magnus Hirschfeld at a gathering of the World League for Sexual Reform, 1932 (public domain)

Undeterred by defeat, Hirschfeld partnered with German feminist Helene Stocker in her quest to decriminalize abortion. Both activists understood the importance of collaborating to advance their respective movements, including putting an end to laws about when some German women could marry and have children.

“The woman who needs to be liberated most is the woman in every man, and the man who needs to be liberated most is the man in every woman,” said Hirschfeld of the women’s rights movement.

‘Justice Through Science’

One year after Hirschfeld opened his Institute for Sexual Research in the heart of Berlin, the acclaimed sexologist nearly lost his life.

All of Hirschfeld’s activism had earned him many enemies among volkisch nationalist Germans. He was also resented by some members of the Jewish and gay communities for rocking the boat.

Magnus Hirschfeld is pilloried in the Nazi party broadsheet (public domain)

In 1907, Hirschfeld outraged many Germans when he testified in court on behalf of an army officer accused of having gay sex.

“Homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation just like normal love,” Hirschfeld famously said at the proceedings. For this, he was labelled a “public danger” and his face appeared on posters next to the popular phrase, “The Jews are our undoing.”

Magnus Hirschfeld (right) in what has been called the first pro-gay film, ‘Different from the Others,’ 1919 (public domain)

During a 1920 confrontation with volkisch activists in Munich, Hirschfeld was beaten to within an inch of his life. Throughout the assault, the perpetrators blamed him for introducing homosexuality to Germany. He was left for dead by his assailants, but recovered.

In 1930, Hirschfeld read the writing on the wall and fled to New York. He embarked on his so-called “straight turn,” a tour during which Hirschfeld billed himself as “a European expert on romantic love.” Simultaneously, he was marketing an aphrodisiac called “Titus’s Pearls” for a Dutch firm.

Three years after Hirschfeld set up shop in America, the Nazis set their sights on his institute in Berlin. In an orgy of violence, staff members were assaulted and 20,000 books were burned. The Nazis also confiscated patient lists — nicknamed “pink lists” — in order to locate and persecute queer Germans.

Nazis burn the archives of the Magnus Hirschfeld institute in Berlin, Germany, 1933 (public domain)

During the final years of his life, Hirschfeld took a world tour including five weeks in pre-state Israel. He generally admired Zionism but expressed skepticism about the movement’s “chauvinistic” qualities and insistence on Hebrew.

The tour included time in Egypt, where Hirschfeld met with leading feminist Huda Sha’arawi. He wrote about “homoerotic love practices” among Egyptian men that “even Muhmmed could not change.”

According to author Bauer, Hirschfeld’s prejudices were on display in his writings about the world tour. For example, Hirschfeld aligned himself with a leader who believed in “converting” gays and he claimed Islam was “sexually tolerant.” Bauer also criticized Hirschfeld for minimizing the plight of Palestinian Arabs.

“Despite Hirschfeld’s own life and death being subjected to violence because of his sexual reform work and Jewishness, his writings about these travels shows that contrary to his political claims he did not always fully apprehend everyone on equal terms,” wrote Bauer.

In 1935, Hirschfeld died in Nice, France, at age 67. His tombstone was engraved with his lifelong motto, “Justice Through Science.” Six decades later, Germany abolished “Paragraph 175.”

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