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The legacy of Magnus Hirschfeld

A gay liberation movement destroyed by hatred

May 14 marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld. Seventy-two years before Stonewall, Hirschfeld founded one of the world’s earliest gay rights groups. Its primary goal was the elimination of Paragraph 175 — the legislation that made gay sex illegal in Germany.

Following its catastrophic defeat in the First World War, Germany established a new democratic republic, known as the Weimar Republic. Weimar-era Berlin was a tilt-a-whirl of economic uncertainty, political upheaval, sexual liberation and personal freedom.

The city boasted 120 newspapers, 40 theatres, as many as 80 gay bars, and — according to a police commissioner of the time — 25,000 rent boys. The flourishing gay culture in Weimar Berlin led Christopher Isherwood to quip famously that he went to the city because “Berlin meant boys.”

This was also Hirschfeld’s world. By the time the roaring ‘20s were in full, decadent swing, he was a minor celebrity. In 1919, the same year he opened his Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft), Hirschfeld co-wrote and appeared in what might be the first gay rights film, Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern).

Although it was perhaps the most visible, Hirschfeld’s was not the only gay liberation organization operating in Germany during the Weimar years. In addition to the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee), was the Community of the Special (Gemeinschaft der Eigenen) led by Adolf Brand, which promoted nudism, sport and a return to a manly culture based on the ideals of ancient Greece and Sparta.

Contrary to Hirschfeld’s view that homosexuality is inborn, Brand believed that men are inherently bisexual and that only through the love of friends can true cultural and intellectual beauty be achieved.

In Brand we may have the first whiff of the straight-acting-non-scene gay of today’s dating websites.

The third and largest of Germany’s gay groups was the Human Rights League (Bund für Menschenrecht) led by publisher Friedrich Radszuweit. The League functioned as both a political engine and a social institution. The organization’s members held that the only way for gays to win respect was to act respectably. In Radszuweit’s view, “respectable” meant conforming to heterosexual norms. Radszuweit could be seen as the progenitor of the sweater-fag set. 

On May 6, 1933, Fascist thugs attacked Hirschfeld’s institute. Four days later at Bebelplatz, Nazis burned Hirschfeld’s collections in what Austrian journalist Joseph Roth later described as an auto-da-fé of the mind. On the same site in present-day Berlin is a monument to the book burnings.

Among the works looted from Hirschfeld’s institute and burned were poems by Heinrich Heine, whose haunting prophecy marks a nearby plaque: “Where books are burned, in the end people will burn.”   

Ralf Dose of Berlin’s Magnus Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, a highly active grassroots organization founded to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the institute, says Hirschfeld pioneered in Western cultures the notion that gay, lesbian and transgendered sexualities are variants of human sexuality, not crimes or diseases.

The permanent exhibition at Berlin’s Schwules Museum focuses on Hirschfeld’s legacy. Museum director Karl-Heinz Steinle echoes Dose on the liberating effect of Hirschfeld’s sexual studies: “It says every person has female parts and male parts…. It gives such a freedom and a possibility for everyone; it means everything is possible, everything is human.”