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Magnus Hirschfeld

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Magnus Hirschfeld
Born14 May 1868
BirthplaceKołobrzeg, Poland
Died14 May 1935
Place of deathNice, France


Magnus Hirschfeld (14 May 1868 – 14 May 1935) was a German physician and sexologist. An outspoken advocate for sexual minorities, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, an organization that Dustin Goltz characterizes as having carried out "the first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights."[1]

Early life Edit

Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, Poland) in a Jewish family, the son of a highly regarded physician and 'Medizinalrat' Hermann Hirschfeld. In 1887-1888 he studied philosophy and philology in Breslau, then from 1888-1892 medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. In 1892 he earned his doctoral degree. After his studies, he traveled through the United States 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 he moved his practice to Berlin-Charlottenburg.

Sexuality rights activism Edit

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 pseudonym Th. Ramien). In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee with the publisher Max Spohr, the lawyer Eduard Oberg, and the writer Franz Joseph 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 criminalized 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.

Within the group, some of the members rejected Hirschfeld's approach of asking that homosexuals be treated like disabled people; they argued that this approach meant society might tolerate or pity them, but never treat them as equals. They also disagreed with Hirschfeld's (and Ulrichs's) view that male homosexuals are by nature effeminate. 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 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, gathered over 5000 signatures from prominent Germans on 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 Hirschfeld to consider what would, in a later era, be described as "outing": 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; during his 1931 tour of the United States, the Hearst newspaper chain dubbed him "the Einstein of Sex." He saw himself as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloging many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality. He developed a system which categorised 64 possible types of sexual intermediary ranging from masculine heterosexual male to feminine homosexual male, including those he described under the word he coined "Transvestit" (transvestite), which covered people who today would include a variety of transgender and transsexual people.

Hirschfeld co-wrote and acted in the 1919 film Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"), where Conrad Veidt played one of the first homosexual characters 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.


In 1904, Hirschfeld joined the Bund für 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.

Institut für SexualwissenschaftEdit

Under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld purchased a villa not far from the Reichstag building in Berlin for his new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research), which opened on 6 July 1919. The Institute housed Hirschfeld's immense archives and library on sexuality and provided educational services and medical consultations; the clinical staff included psychiatrists Felix Abraham and Arthur Kronfeld, gynecologist Ludwig Levy-Lenz, dermatologist and endocrinologist Bernhard Schapiro, and dermatologist Friedrich Wertheim.[2] The Institute also housed the Museum of Sex, an educational resource for the public which is reported to have been visited by school classes.

People from around Europe and beyond came to the Institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality. Christopher Isherwood writes about his and W. H. Auden's visit in his book Christopher and His Kind; they were calling on Francis Turville-Petre, a friend of Isherwood's who was an active member of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Other celebrated visitors included German novelist and playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, German artist Christian Schad, French writers René Crevel and André Gide, Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and American poet Elsa Gidlow.[2]

In addition, a number of noted individuals lived for longer or shorter periods of time in the various rooms available for rent or as free accommodations in the Institute complex. Among the residents were Isherwood and Turville-Petre; literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin; actress and dancer Anita Berber; Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch; Willi Münzenberg, a member of the German Parliament and a press officer for the Communist Party of Germany; and Rudolf Z/Dörchen, one of the first transgender patients to receive sexual reassignment surgery at the Institute.[2]

The Institute and Hirschfeld's work are depicted in Rosa von Praunheim's feature film Der Einstein des Sex (The Einstein of Sex, Germany, 1999; English subtitled version available). Although inspired by Hirschfeld's life, the film is a work of fiction containing invented characters and incidents and attributing motives and sentiments to Hirschfeld and others on the basis of little or no historical evidence. Hirschfeld biographer Ralf Dose notes, for instance, that "the figure of 'Dorchen' in Rosa von Praunheim's film The Einstein of Sex is complete fiction."[2]

Later life and exile Edit

When the Nazis took power, they attacked Hirschfeld's Institute on 6 May 1933, and burned many of its books as well as its archives (see Institut für Sexualwissenschaft).

By the time of the book burning, Hirschfeld had long since left Germany for a speaking tour that took him around the world; he never returned to Germany. Hirschfeld came back to Europe in March 1932, stopping briefly in Athens, then spending several weeks in Vienna before moving on to Zurich in August 1932.[3] While in Switzerland, he worked on a book recounting his experiences and observations from his world tour, published in 1933 as Die Weltreise eines Sexualforschers (Brugg, Switzerland: Bözberg-Verlag, 1933), and subsequently in English translation in the United States under the title Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist (New York City: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1935) and in England under the title Women East and West: Impressions of a Sex Expert (London: William Heinemann Medical Books, 1935).

Hirschfeld had initially stayed near Germany, hoping to return to Berlin if the political situation improved. With the Nazi regime's unequivocal rise to power and with work on the book about his world tour completed, he decided to establish himself as an exile in France. On his 65th birthday, 14 May 1933, Hirschfeld arrived in Paris, where he would live in a luxurious apartment building at 24 Avenue Charles Floquet, facing the Champ de Mars.[3] A year-and-half later, in November 1934, he moved south to Nice, on the Mediterranean coast.[4] Throughout his stay in France, he continued researching, writing, campaigning and working to reestablish a French successor to his lost institute in Berlin.[3]

The last of Hirschfeld's books released during his lifetime, L'Ame et l'amour, psychologie sexologique [The Human Spirit and Love: Sexological Psychology] (Paris: Gallimard, 1935), was published in French in late April 1935;[5] it was his only book which never appeared in a German-language edition. In the preface, he described his hopes for his new life in France: "In search of sanctuary, I have found my way to that country, the nobility of whose traditions, and whose ever-present charm, have already been as balm to my soul. I shall be glad and grateful if I can spend some few years of peace and repose in France and Paris, and still more grateful to be enabled to repay the hospitality accorded to me, by making available those abundant stores of knowledge acquired throughout my career."[6]

Death Edit

On his 67th birthday, 14 May 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in his apartment at the Gloria Mansions I building at 63 Promenade des Anglais in Nice.[4] His body was cremated, and the ashes interred in a simple but elegant tomb in the Caucade Cemetery in Nice.[3] The upright headstone in gray granite is inset with a bronze bas-relief portrait of Hirschfeld in profile by German sculptor and decorative artist Arnold Zadikow (1884–1943), who like Hirschfeld was a native of the town of Kolberg. The slab covering the tomb is engraved with Hirschfeld's Latin motto, "Per Scientiam ad Justitiam" ("through science to justice").[2][7] (The Caucade Cemetery is likewise the location of the grave of surgeon and sexual-rejuvenation proponent Serge Voronoff — whose work Hirschfeld had discussed in his own publications.)

On 14 May 2010, to mark the 75th anniversary of Hirschfeld's death, a French national organization, the Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle (MDH), in partnership with the new LGBT Community Center of Nice (Centre LGBT Côte d'Azur), organized a formal delegation to the cemetery. Speakers recalled Hirschfeld's life and work and laid a large bouquet of pink flowers on his tomb; the ribbon on the bouquet was inscribed "Au pionnier de nos causes. Le MDH et le Centre LGBT" ("To the pioneer of our causes. The MDH and the LGBT Center").[8]

Notes Edit

  1. Goltz, Dustin (2008). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Movements. In Lind, Amy; Brzuzy, Stephanie (eds.). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality: Volume 2, pp. 291 ff. Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 978-0-313-34039-0
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Ralf Dose, Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement (New York City: Monthly Review Press, 2014); ISBN 978-1-58367-437-6
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Charlotte Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology (London: Quartet Books, 1986). ISBN 0-7043-2569-1
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hans P. Soetaert & Donald W. McLeod, "Un Lion en hiver: Les Derniers jours de Magnus Hirschfeld à Nice (1934-1935)" in Gérard Koskovich (ed.), Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935): Un Pionnier du mouvement homosexuel confronté au nazisme (Paris: Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle, 2010).
  5. Gérard Koskovich, "Des Dates clés de la vie de Magnus Hirschfeld," in Koskovich (ed.), Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).
  6. Magnus Hirschfeld, Sex in Human Relationships (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1936), pp. xix-xx; translated from the original French edition by John Rodker.
  7. Donald W. McLeod & Hans P. Soetaert, "'Il regarde la mer et pense à son idéal': Die letzten Tage von Magnus Hirschfeld in Nizza, 1934–1935"; Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 45 (July 2010): pages 14–33.
  8. Frédéric Maurice, "Magnus Hirschfeld, vedette posthume du festival 'Espoirs de Mai' à Nice,'" Tê (16 May 2010).

Further reading Edit

  • Bullough, Vern L. (2002). Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York, Harrington Park Press, an imprint of The Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56023-193-9.

External links Edit

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