Burning the Library

Magnus Hirschfeld never set out to be a pioneer.

Born in the 19th century Prussian city of Kolberg (now part of Poland) as the son of a prominent Jewish physician, it seemed only natural that he would follow in his father's footsteps .   After taking his doctoral degree in 1892, he maintained a practice as a general practitioner and naturopath as well as being an avid writer. His writings focused on diverse aspects of human sexuality and he had ample material from his own private life to draw from.

While he tended to view his own sexual orientation as a "private mater", it is now accepted that he was a homosexual and a transvestite (and possibly even a foot fetishist). Rather than pursue the closeted lifestyle that most German homosexuals of his time pursued (under the German Penal code, homosexuality had been a criminal offense since 1871), he wrote a series of works proposing that homosexuality represented an "intermediate sex" (he also coined the term "transvestite).

Along with other gay activists, he founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897 to encourage a liberalizing of laws against homosexuality. They even sponsored a bill to overturn the laws against homosexuality (the petition favouring the bill was signed by numerous prominent Germans including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Martin Buber, and Richard Kraftt-Ebing) in 1898. It failed to pass but their movement continued. While many of Hirschfeld's ideas about homosexuality would probably be scorned today (homosexual males being feminine, homosexuality being a disease that deserved pity rather than arrest, etc.), he was a true pioneer at a time when such pioneers were rare. His published works on sexology influenced many later researchers including Havelock Ellis.

On the site of a former royal palace in Berlin, Hirschfeld opened the Institut fur Sexualwissenshaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in 1919. In addition to housing Hirschfeld's immense library of books on sexology, it was a centre for medical research and consultation for patients from all over Europe. Hirschfeld continued to make public appearances and was regularly referred to in the news media as the "Einstein of Sex".  His writings were extensive and included a 23-volume "Yearbook for the Sexual Intermediates" (the first periodical for homosexuals). He also helped write one of the first gay-themed films in 1919 Anders al die Andern (Different from the Others) which was banned by the German government in 1920.

It was during his public appearances that he faced the wrath of anti-gay (and anti-Semitic) activists. At one appearance in 1921, his skull was fractured and he was left lying in the street.  Despite these encounters, he was a well-recognized public figure and renowned sexual expert.  It was only natural that Einar Weigener sought him out in 1930 for help in achieving the first sex-change operation (which certainly added to Hirschfeld's notoriety). International conferences were organized and progress was being made.

And then it all fell apart...

The rise of Nazism put an end to Hirschfeld's crusading.  He went on an extended lecture tour in 1930 and decided not to return to Germany. The Nazis began to organize a campaign to purge Germany's libraries of "un-German material" and it was on May 6, 1933 that several vans with over one hundred students and a brass band (!) broke into the Institute while the band played. They seized Hirschfeld's entire library of over ten thousand books which went up in flames in a public bonfire three days later. A busted sculpture of Hirschfeld was marched through the street and then tossed into the flames.

The Nazis also seized the Institute's files which listed the names and addresses of many homosexuals living in Germany. The information was used to compile their notorious "pink list" of homosexuals who were sent to the concentration camps along with other "marginal populations".  Hirschfeld eventually settled in France where he died of a stroke in 1935.  He lived long enough to see virtually all traces of the gay emancipation movement he fostered in Germany wiped out.  He is buried in Nice.

While it is tempting to dismiss the destruction of the Institute and library as a sad consequence of the Nazi rise to power, the example is an uncomfortable one.  How often are modern scientists forced to defend themselves due to "unpopular" research that contradicts accepted norms and beliefs?  And how easily can extremists gain power under the right circumstances?

Any library can go up in flames with enough fuel.

           

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