How a liberal German sex pioneer founded a notorious scientific sex institute and fell foul of the Nazis.
In 1928 two writers, Christopher Isherwood and Andre Gide, visited a respectable science institute in Berlin and enjoyed a decorous and elegant lunch presided over by a dignified old lady with silver hair. Isherwood was shocked when he realized that a female guest was actually a man whose disguise was accepted by everyone else as a matter of course.
After lunch they were given a tour by a “silly solemn old professor with his doggy moustache, thick-peering spectacles, and clumsy German-Jewish boots” who took them to the extraordinary Gallery of Derangements of the Sexual Instincts. There were displays of fetish objects donated by research subjects of the institute, including a home-made masturbation machine made of a bicycle wheel and used female shoes. There were historical sex aids from across the world and antique steam driven vibrators. The visitors looked at lacy female pants found on the corpses of ferociously masculine Prussian officers and female rubber body parts used by male transvestite prostitutes. The museum exhibited photos and fantasy art including sadistic drawings by ‘Lustmord’ prisoners convicted for crimes of sexual violence and murder. There were torture instruments from a German brothel and paper sailor-dolls made by German homosexuals during the Great War. The dolls were naked except for sailor caps and boots, and had aroused genitals and smiling faces. For a final touch tiny red drops were splattered on for deadly battle wounds. Gide was startled when the professor asked an obliging museum employee to unbutton his shirt to reveal two female breasts.
The professor was Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) whose Institute of Sex Science thrived in the twisted chaos of the post-World War One era and the extraordinary erotic freedom of Weimar Berlin. A troubled world that inadvertently helped create the Nazis, and would be ultimately destroyed by them.
Magnus Hirschfeld: the ‘Einstein of Sex’
Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jew, sexologist, prolific writer and liberal campaigner. In 1916 he helped to established Prussia’s progressive health and social welfare. He was a defender of transexualism, sexual minorities and women and his legacy was an influence on sex marriage counselling, the gay rights movement and sex therapy. He was known as the ‘Einstein of sex’ studying and categorising sexual behaviours such as sado-masochism, phenomenon such as hyper-eroticism and coital hallucination, and the darker side to sexual pathology such as the eroticism of war, self-castration and lust-murder.
Hirschfeld supported the doctrine of ‘sexual relativity’ where, between the idea of a full man and a full woman, sexual and gender possibilities were naturally determined by a complex production and balance of hormones. To support his beliefs he developed a system which categorised 64 types of sexual intermediary across androgyny, transsexualism, homosexuality and hermaphrodites. It was Hirschfeld who first coined the term transvestite and transsexual. By the end of his career he believed that 15-20% of the population manifested sexual intermediary.
Part of his investigation was through a detailed questionnaire on a person’s intimate and sexual make-up, their family background, political views, diet and lifestyle. The surveys were used to apply science to love, sex and marriage guidance. The nature of the questions reflected the contemporary fascination of whether sexual behaviour was caused by ‘natural’ chemical imbalances, or by environment and childhood incidents.
Hirschfeld initially believed that homosexuality should be classified as the third sex, was an innate natural condition and that homosexuals were by nature effeminate. His research and theories often caused controversy, sometimes within the gay community, and especially with more militant homosexuals who believed that homosexuality was an expression of pure, virile manliness, and regarded Hirschfeld as a cross-dressing, cosmopolitan sissy. There were rumours, perhaps circulated by his enemies, that Hirschfeld attended secret Institute tea parties as a full-figured matron. Hirschfeld also had the slippery habit of absorbing the views of his critics into his evolving arguments.
Through his Latin motto, “Per Scientiam ad Justitiam” (“through science to justice”), Hirschfeld use scientific research and argument to defend the rights of homosexuals and to campaign to repeal German penal code that had criminalised male homosexuality since 1871 (most western laws banning homosexuality overlooked lesbians as part of the generally dismissive attitude of women and female sexuality). His campaign, supported by prominent German intellectuals and writers such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, started to make progress in the 1920s before the rise of the Nazis.
Hirschfeld was a brilliant public relations expert exploiting not just all forms of print but also the new media of cinema. He appeared in the 1919 silent film, Different from the Others, which is regarded as the first film to openly deal with homosexuality. Hirschfeld played himself making a passionate plea in court against German homosexuality laws. The film triggered a fierce debate and was eventually banned in 1920.
The Institute of Sex Research
The Institute of Sex Research was opened in 1919 by Hirschfeld and the psychotherapist Arthus Kronfeld. It was a hive of activity with clinics, laboratories, consulting rooms, lectures, a museum and its library with the largest collection of pornography at the time.
As well as being a research library and archive it offered marriage and sex counselling, sex education, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and the world’s first modern sex gender surgery. It continued to campaign for the rights and welfare of homosexual and transgender people and to counter the threats posed by religious and fascist parties.
How the Institute financed its large numbers of staff and activities always remained a mystery, especially as many services were available for free. There were rumours that rich gay Germans contributed to its running costs and even that one infantilist industrialist handed over a fortune for a secret nursery to be available with sex objects crafted to look like old toys. Hirschfeld was wealthy himself and also developed and sold aphrodisiacs and anti-impotence tablets to pharmacies and in the museum gift shop. His patented compounds were seized by the Nazis and licensed to Swiss pharmaceutical firms.
The burning of books
As a prominent gay Jew Hirschfeld was an early Nazi target and one physical attack left him with a fractured skull. He refused to be cowed but by early 1933 the Nazis had started purging Berlin’s thriving homosexual night scene and outlawed gay publications and groups. Many started fleeing the country.
In May Nazi student groups all over Germany scoured local libraries and universities to burn any books regarded as un-German, socialist, subversive or Jewish. The Nazis proclaimed this as a ritualistic cleansing by fire for a pure national culture. The burnings were accompanied by torch-lit parades, speeches, bands, songs, fire-oaths and incantations.
In Berlin, some 40,000 people gathered to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver an inflammatory speech.
“No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!…The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end…you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed…here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.”
The burning of the Institute’s library and archives in the streets of the Opernplatz is thought to captured by the notorious news reel footage and imagery used by the Nazis. In one chilling foreshadowing one of the books burned was Heinriche Heine’s Almansor in which he writes, “where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people”.
The Institute was an early target that was also part of a hidden agenda by SA and other Nazi leaders anxious to destroy their secrets lurking in the Institute’s archives or questionnaire profiles. For many it did not help as Hitler initiated a purge of gay men in the SA. The records of the Institute were believed to have aided the Nazis in rounding up homosexuals and others considered sexually deviant. Many were sent to death camps or slave labour.
The Institute buildings were taken over by the Nazis, bombed into ruins by the Allies and eventually demolished in mid-1950s.
During the burning of the books Hirschfeld was on a lecture-tour of the US. He returned to Europe and stayed close to Germany, hoping for the political situation to improve but he was never to return home again. He continued researching, writing and trying to rebuild his lost Institute but it seemed neither it nor he could thrive cut adrift from the sexual sustenance of Weimar Berlin. In May 1935 he died of a heart attack in Nice and was buried in the Caucade Cemetery.
In 1982 a group of German researchers and activists founded the Magnus Hirschfeld Society to study the history of research on sexuality and gender, establish new research and retrieve lost and dispersed records and artefacts of Hirschfeld’s work. Thirty years later the society secured a grant to establish a foundation to support research and education about Hirschfeld, Nazi persecution of sexual minorities and to fight prejudice.
As an eccentric scientist and spokesman for sexual freedom Hirshfeld always attracted the scorn and opprobrium of scientists, fascists, communists, nationalists and even fellow homosexuals. But he advanced the understanding of sexual behaviour and was a genuinely egalitarian pioneer who had the fortune to live and flourish in Weimar Berlin and the misfortune to be destroyed by Nazi Germany.
Further information and reading
Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin
Superb coffee-table book on the strange, grotesque and seductive world of Weimar Berlin.
Christopher and his Kind
Christopher’s Isherwood’s excellent account of his 1930s experiences which inspired his novel Goodbye to Berlin, later adapted into the Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret and the film Cabaret (1972) for which Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award for playing Sally.