Ninety years ago this month, the Institute for Sexual Science (ISS) in Berlin was vandalized and looted, its library burned, in an early organized spectacle of the power of the Nazi party, which came to rule in Germany five months earlier. The institute’s founder, Magnus Hirschfeld, watched its destruction in a Paris cinema, newsreels capturing members of the Sturmabteilung (SA, or Brownshirts) piling his books onto a large (and engineered in advance) pyre, the last he would see of his home and life’s work.
As scholar Heike Bauer describes in her book The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture, Hirschfeld’s career as a sexuality researcher and advocate for German LGBTQ+ people (in contemporary language) began in 1897, with the founding of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The group’s goals included the repeal of Paragraph 175, the portion of the German criminal code that made sex between men a crime punishable by prison and/or “prompt loss of civil rights.” A petition put forward by the committee to remove the law eventually gathered 6,000 signatures, including those of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Stefan Zweig. (The law was finally removed in 1994.)
The Institute was opened in 1919 as a research center; medical center; a home to Hirschfeld, his partner, and widowed sister; and a rooming house of sorts, whose residents at times included Walter Benjamin and Christopher Isherwood. Gender-affirming treatment, including hormones and surgery, was provided to “transvestites” (as they were called at the time), some of whom moved into the institute, “a space, literally and metaphorically, to live,” writes Bauer.
The Nazi Party was formed the same year the ISS opened.
By the time the Brownshirts arrived on the morning of May 6, 1933, there had been “months of observation and threats against the institute, inaugurat[ing] a new phase in the intensification of Nazi terror.” writes Bauer. But the Nazis had targeted Hirschfeld since the ISS’s opening. He’d been heckled and smoke bombs had been set off at his appearances. In 1920, he was beaten almost to death, enabling him to read his own obituary when he was prematurely reported as deceased. Hitler singled him out as “Jewish swine” being protected by the government.
Hirschfeld’s work, coupled with his support of birth control, German abortion law reform, and feminism in general, made him an enemy of the Nazi platforms of traditional gender roles, compulsory motherhood, and the elimination of the Jewish people from Europe. Antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ+ oppression, whether from the state or “unsanctioned” extremists, were inextricably linked in Hitler’s Germany. The support of autonomy for women, or equality for “sexual minorities,” was labeled as “Jewish” or “cultural Marxism” (which was and still can act as a synonym for “Jewish”). Hirschfeld was caricatured in the virulent propaganda magazine Der Stürmer and included in an anti-Jewish poster as an example of opposition supporters.
It’s difficult to watch the current extremist turn in the United States and not see the parallels: state legislatures have taken up (and in some states, passed) more than 500 bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights, health care and expression, seeking to limit or eliminate protections based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation, in some cases prohibiting the acknowledgement of their very existence. Books, while not yet burned, are being banned from public libraries based on the complaints of small groups; the targeted literature includes not just LGBTQ+ topics, but also history, race, and ethnicity. Armed extremist groups show up at drag story hours and Pride events regularly, some using the same conspiratorial lies regarding secret Jewish agendas for LGBTQ+ acceptance. Comparisons to our current time to Weimar Germany have been made by right wing commentators (Tucker Carlson most prominent among them), the threat of what followed unspoken but not unheard.
America has been here before: the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s resulted in the investigation, interrogation, and firing of thousands of Americans working for the federal government. Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign, begun in 1977, sought to remove lesbian and gay teachers from schools around the country, operating in concert with the Moral Majority’s larger lobbying and organizing that birthed the Religious Right. The AIDS crisis followed, mobilizing both the LGBTQ+ community and Christian conservative movements in response.
There’s perhaps only one lesson to be learned from the destruction of the ISS: despite the Nazi destruction of a community’s history, the suppression of “forbidden” knowledge, imprisonment, torture, and murder, the peoples they sought to eliminate did not cease to exist.