Magnus Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg (modern Kołobrzeg) in a Jewish family, the son of a well-beloved physician and ‘Medizinalrat’, Hermann Hirschfeld. In 1887-1888 he studied in Breslau Philosophy and Philology, then from 1888-1892 Medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin. In 1892 he took his doctoral degree. After his study he traveled through the U.S.A. for eight months, visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and living from the proceeds of his writing for German journals. Then he started a naturopathic practice in Magdeburg; in 1896 moved to Berlin-Charlottenburg.
Early contributions to sexology
Around 1900, Hirschfeld developed the theory of a third, “intermediate sex” between men and women. He was interested in the study of a wide variety of sexual and erotic urges, at a time when the early taxonomy of sexual identity labels was still being formed. His scientific work extended that of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and influenced Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter.
Gay rights activism
Magnus Hirschfeld’s career successfully found a balance between medicine and writing. After several years as a general practitioner in Magdeburg, in 1896 he issued a pamphlet Sappho and Socrates, on homosexual love (under the pseudoym Th. Ramien).
In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee with the publisher Max Spohr, the lawyer Eduard Oberg, and the writer Max von Bülow. The group aimed to undertake research to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that since 1871 had criminalised homosexuality.
They argued that the law encouraged blackmail, and the motto of the Committee, “Justice through science”, reflected Hirschfeld’s belief that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals. He was a tireless campaigner and became a well-known public figure.
Within the group, some of the members scorned Hirschfeld’s analogy that “homosexuals are like cripples”. They argued that society might tolerate or pity “cripples”, but never treat them as equals. They also disagreed with Hirschfeld’s (and Ulrichs’s) view that male homosexuals were by nature “womanish”. Benedict Friedlaender and some others left the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and formed another group, the ‘Bund für männliche Kultur’ or Union for Male Culture, which however did not exist long. It argued that male-male love is a simple aspect of virile manliness rather than a special condition.
The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, under Hirschfeld’s leadership, managed to gather over 5000 signatures from prominent Germans for a petition to overturn Paragraph 175. Signatories included Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Käthe Kollwitz, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, August Bebel, Max Brod, Karl Kautsky, Stefan Zweig, Gerhart Hauptmann, Martin Buber, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Eduard Bernstein.
The bill was brought before the Reichstag in 1898, but was only supported by a minority from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, prompting a frustrated Hirschfeld to consider what would, in a later era, be described as “outing” — that is, forcing some of the prominent and secretly homosexual lawmakers who had remained silent out of the closet. The bill continued to come before parliament, and eventually began to make progress in the 1920s before the takeover of the Nazi party obliterated any hopes for reform.
In 1921 Hirschfeld organised the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform. Congresses were held in Copenhagen (1928), London (1929), Vienna (1930), and Brno (1932).
Hirschfeld was both quoted and caricatured in the press as a vociferous expert on sexual manners, receiving the epithet “the Einstein of Sex”. He saw himself as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloging many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality. He coined the word “transvestism,” for example.
Hirschfeld co-wrote and acted in the 1919 film Anders als die Andern (“Different From the Others”), where actor Conrad Veidt played probably the first homosexual character ever written for cinema. The film had a specific gay-rights law reform agenda — Veidt’s character is blackmailed by a lover, eventually coming out rather than continuing to make the blackmail payments, but his career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.
Institut für Sexualwissenschaft
In 1919, under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld was given a former royal palace for his new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin. His Institute housed his immense library on sex and provided educational services and medical consultations. People from around Europe visited the Institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality.
Christopher Isherwood writes about his and Auden’s visit to the Institute in his book Christopher and His Kind. They were visiting Francis Turville-Petre, a friend of Isherwood’s who was an active member of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The Institute also housed the Museum of Sex, an educational resource for the public which is reported to have been visited by school classes.
The Institute and Hirschfeld’s work are depicted in Rosa von Praunheim’s documentary film Der Einstein des Sex (The Einstein of Sex, Germany, 1999 – English subtitled version available).
In 1904, Hirschfeld joined the Bund fur Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Mothers), the feminist organization founded by Helene Stöcker. He campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortion, and against policies that banned female teachers and civil servants from marrying or having children.
Hirschfeld’s work continues to be controversial. Critics have claimed that some of his financial support came from closeted but prominent German homosexuals whom he blackmailed. Though he was immensely popular in some circles, in others he was reviled. Gatherings at which he spoke came under attack from anti-gay groups: in one such instance in 1921, his skull was fractured and he was left lying in the street.
Others criticised his view that homosexuality was, at root, hormonal, arguing that this opened the door for others who were seeking a cure for homosexuality.
On May 10, 1933, Nazis in Berlin burned works of Jewish authors, and the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, and other works considered “un-German”.
When the Nazis took power they attacked the Institut and burned down many of its books on May 6, 1933. The press-library pictures and archival newsreel film of Nazi book-burnings seen today are usually pictures of Hirschfeld’s library ablaze. At the time of the book burning, Hirschfeld was away from Germany on a world speaking tour.
Hirschfeld never returned to Germany. He died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday in 1935 in Nice, where he is buried.
Hirschfeld’s works are listed in the bibliography:
- Steakley, James D. The Writings of Magnus Hirschfeld: A Bibliography. (1985).
The following have been translated into English:
- Racism, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.
- Homosexuality of Men and Women; translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash.
- The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress, Prometheus Books.
- Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist, AMS Press, 1974.
- The Sexual History of the World War, Cadillac Publishing Co., 1946.
- Hirschfeld, Magnus Von einst bis jetzt: Geschichte einer homosexuellen Bewegung 1897-1922. Schriftenreihe der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft Nr. 1, Verlag rosa Winkel, Berlin 1986 (Reprint of a series of articles by Hirschfeld for the 1920’s gay magazine Die Freundschaft).
- Dose, Ralf Magnus Hirschfeld: Deutscher, Jude, Weltbürger. Teetz, Hentrich und Hentrich, 2005.
- Herzer, Manfred Magnus Hirschfeld: Leben und Werk eines jüdischen, schwulen und sozialistischen Sexologen. Second edition. Hamburg, MännerschwarmSkript-Verlag, 2001.
- Kotowski, Elke-Vera & Julius H. Schoeps (ed.) Der Sexualreformer Magnus Hirschfeld. Ein Leben im Spannungsfeld von Wissenschaft, Politik und Gesellschaft. Berlin, Bebra, 2004.
- Wolff, Charlotte. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. London, Quartet Books, 1986.
- Blasius, Mark & Phelan, Shane. (Eds.) We Are Everywhere: A Historical Source Book of Gay and Lesbian Politics. New York, Routledge, 1997. See chapter: The Emergence of a Gay and Lesbian Political Culture in Germany.
- Dynes, Wayne R. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York and London, Garland Publishing, 1990.
- Gordon, Mel Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Los Angeles, Feral House, 2000.
- Grau, Günter (ed.) Hidden Holocaust? Gay and lesbian persecution in Germany 1933-45. New York, Routledge, 1995.
- Lauritsen, John and Thorstad, David. The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, 1864-1935. Novato, CA, Times Change Press, 1995 (second revised edition).
- Steakley, James D. The Early Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany. (1975).