Today in History: Magnus Hirschfeld

Jim Burroway

May 14th, 2008

Magnus HirschfeldToday is the 140th anniversary of the birth of Magnus Hirschfeld, the famous German gay rights advocate and founder of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin. He was born on May 14, 1868.

Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897. The Committee was established to perform sexual research in support efforts to repeal Paragraph 175, Germany’s anti-sodomy law. Over time, tthe committee was able to gather more than 5,000 signatures on a petition to the Reichstag calling for Paragraph 175’s repeal. The bill was first brought before the Reichstag in 1898, and for more than two decades it continued to garner more support until the Nazi takeover in 1933 obliterated all hopes for its repeal.

After the first World War, Hirschfield founded the Institute for Sexual Research in 1919. The goal of the institute was similar to the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, but its scope was more ambitious. Hirschfield’s institute was intended to conduct research in four major areas: sexual biology, sexual pathology (medicine), sexual sociology, and sexual ethnology. In addition to publicly lobbying for the repeal of Paragraph 175, the Institute also performed premarital counseling, held public lectures on sexological subjects and offered expert testimony in criminal cases.

To support its activities, the Institute established what would become the world’s largest library and archives dedicated to sex research. That library eventually grew to include more than 20,000 volumes, 35,000 photographs and a large art collection. It also maintained some 40,000 biographical letters with names and addresses.

Book BurningAll that changed when the Nazi’s came to power in 1933. On May 6, of that year, a crowd of students and stormtroopers stormed the Institutes’s offices while Hirschfeld was away on a speaking tour of the U.S. The raiders carted off all the contents of the priceless library and burned it in a public bonfire. They destroyed more than 10,000 books, articles, magazines, and other research material. After the Institute’s sacking, Hirschfeld remained in exile, where he tried to re-establish the Institute in Paris. He was unsuccessful however, and he died in 1935 on his 67th birthday in Nice.

Paragraph 175 remained in effect, and was expanded in 1935 by the Nazi regime to include “lewdness”, which could include kissing or fondling. It was also elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony. It is estimated that a quarter of a million gay men and women were swept up in Nazi raids, with tens of thousands dying in concentration camps. After the war when the camps were emptied, several hundred gay men were re-arrested by allied authorities to serve out their sentences under Paragraph 175 because the law was regarded as a legitimate criminal law rather than a political one. In fact, between 1945 and 1969 about 100,000 men were indicted and about 50,000 men sentenced to prison. Paragraph 175 wasn’t repealed until March 10, 1994.

Hirschfeld-UferOn May 6, 2008, the city of Berlin renamed a stretch of the Spree river for Magnus Hirschfeld in commemoration for the Nazi’s distruction of the Institute 75 years earlier. The riverbank is located near the site of the former Institute.

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