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Remembering Magnus Hirschfeld

by Dimitra Kyrillou

Berlin today is considered one of the most LGBT friendly places in the world. But the city’s connection to the struggle for sexual liberation stems from a long time earlier. Back to the 1920’s and 30’s - until 1933, during the short life of Weimar Republic, Berlin became the hub of free sexual expression for all, including lesbians, gays and trans people. One figure was central to the representation of gay identity and demands at that time: Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 – 1935).

Born in Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, Poland), in an Ashkenazi Jewish family of doctors, Hirschfeld initially studied philosophy and philology only to discover that he was more attracted to medicine, which landed him in Berlin in 1896. He got actively involved in the struggle against Paragraph 175, a disgraceful German penal code established in 1871, which made homosexual conduct between men a punishable offence.

What motivated him to take action was not the expression of his own homosexuality, but the experience he received from gay patients of his. Many were depressed, or even pushed to commit suicide, just because they did not “fit” in the social norms and conventions. In 1897 he launched the 'Scientific Humanitarian Committee', which campaigned for the repeal of paragraph 175. This committee and Hirschfeld himself became the focus for the homosexual movement for the next 40 years.

Of course, this was also a political struggle, in which he involved the 'Social Democratic Party' (SPD). This party, despite its strategic weaknesses was important in theory and practice in support of women and in defense of gay people. Specifically it had stood on the side of Oscar Wilde when he was tried and convicted for sodomy in 1895.

Hirschfeld devoted himself in campaigning but also in theorizing and explaining homosexual behaviour. He showed it was not an abnormality of human sexuality but a practice met through history and in different and diverse cultures. He wrote extensively on the subject and published many books such as “Sappho and Socrates” (1896), “The homosexuality of Men and Women” (1914) and “Berlin’s Third Sex” (1904). In the last not only did he openly provide a kind of gay “city guide” of that era, but he attempted to use his medical experience and questionnaires he had given to his patients, so as to theorise on sexual behavior.

The result is rather unequal as he concluded that homosexuals formed a “third sex”, an intermediate between female and male. The truth is that describing male homosexuality as “a form of effeminacy” is both simplistic and mistaken and therefore he caused furious disagreements from contemporary scientists and homosexuals. Nevertheless, what he perceived uniquely right through his research and observations was the notion that sexuality far from being an issue for medicine. It was neither something fixed and concrete in one’s life. It has a spectrum (Zwischenstufe) of expressions and desires, therefore all human beings are potentially intersexual variants comprised of masculine and feminine characteristics.

Although he fell in the trap of trying to identify femininity and masculinity, his non-binary concept deserves to be acknowledged as far ahead from the ideas of his time. He was actually a pioneer - and in a way - the forefather of modern queer theory!

The end of World War I found Germany in revolt. Although the German revolution was finally defeated, the Weimar republic which succeeded the “Reich” opened many new possibilities for progressive reforms. Always under the pressure of a militant working class, which had already initiated political struggles such as the right to abortion and homosexual people’s demands for dignity and self-determination.

At the same time that German conservatives and nationalists were warning of “sexual crisis’” and gender war (Geschlechterkrieg), more and more individuals felt confident to have sex that was fun and pleasure and not just reproductive. That was the ground on which Berlin thrived as the international center of lesbian, gay and transgender culture.

In this general atmosphere Hirschfeld established in 1919 his Institute of Sexual Research. This housed his immense archives and library on sexuality and provided educational services and medical consultations. “Through science to justice” was his motto and he devoted his energy to make it truth.

He and his colleagues were involved in gender re-identification and reassignment procedures. He always actively supported the women’s movement demand for free and safe abortions against paragraph 218 and never gave up the fight to repel paragraph 175.

In the meanwhile, he didn’t miss the chance to co-write and act in the 1919 film “Anders als die Andern” ("Different From the Others"). The film clearly focused on the reform of the gay rights law. Conrad Veidt played one of the first homosexual characters ever written for cinema. His character is blackmailed by a male prostitute and eventually comes out rather than continuing to pay make the blackmail and pays the price: His career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.

Hirschfeld played himself in the film, the title cards has him say:

The persecution of homosexuals belongs to the same sad chapter of history in which the persecutions of witches and heretics is inscribed... Only with the French Revolution did a complete change come about. Everywhere where the Napoleonic code was introduced, the laws against homosexuals were repealed, for they were considered a violation of the rights of the individual... In Germany, however, despite more than fifty years of scientific research, legal discrimination against homosexuals continues unabated... May justice soon prevail over injustice in this area, science conquer superstition, love achieve victory over hatred!

The film ends with Hirschfeld opening a copy of the penal code of the Reich to strike out with a giant X - Paragraph 175. When the film first came out in Berlin in May 1919, German conservatives, who already hated Hirschfeld, seized the chance to accuse him as francophile…

He did not step back. In 1921 the Institute organized the 'First Congress for Sexual Reform', which led to the formation of the 'World League for Sexual Reform'. It became an international focus for intellectual circles. Congresses were held in Copenhagen (1928), London (1929), Vienna (1930), and Brno (1932). Various personas such as Christopher Isherwood, Andre Gide, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Sergei Eisenstein visited the Institute and got involved in its campaigns.

Less well known is the cooperation with revolutionary Russia. The early Bolshevik government supported the league by sending state officials like Alexandra Kollontai, Grigorii Batkis, even the Health Komissar Nikolai Semashko, who exchanged visits and experience, confirming how liberating the politics of the early USSR were in issues of oppression and discrimination. Hirschfeld was basically a social democrat in politics but didn’t hesitate to work along with communists, activists and women’s groups on the ground of defending common goals and demands.

For that reason, they all faced hard repression when Nazis came to power in 1933. On 6 May, Nazi students stormed the institute, beat up its staff and collected books and texts, which were burnt in public a few days later. The institution was closed forever. Luckily Hirschfeld himself was out of the country at the time. He died in exile in Nice in 1935.

His name and work remained hidden from official history until the return of the gay movement with May ’68 and Stonewall. It was only after that, that activists and researchers came to re-discover the gay pioneer who dared come out of the closet and examine sexuality openly. Hirschfeld’s story is also a bitter reminder that the achievements of a movement can be swept by the Nazi menace and this is a timely warning for all the militants who fight against oppression.

This is an extended version of a text written for the Turkish webpage marksist.org

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