Before the Nazis forced him into exile, Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the first doctors to fight for equal rights for everyone
‘We’re not talking about earthy love, but about pure, real, sparkling love,’ a young doctor from Berlin, going by the name of Th. Ramien, wrote in a pamphlet called Sappho and Socrates.
Often cited as one of the first texts defending and normalizing homosexuality, it tells the story of soldier who, during his wedding reception, takes his own life because he is forced into marriage with a woman.
‘[We’re talking] about this unfathomable feeling of highest earthly happiness, which poets describe so lyrically in its godly magic,’ Ramien continued.
‘This condition in which, whether awake or in dreams, the subject of love reigns over us, which we guard it with jealousy, whose sight and touch elate.’
Doctor Ramien, however, never existed.
He was a pseudonym, a front, adopted by Magnus Hirschfeld, a German sexologist and physician who likely expected his pamphlet to create a backlash.
What he probably didn’t quite expect was that his courage, and his revolutionary view of homosexuality, would be the foundation for the world’s first LGBT liberation movement.
After all it was 1896, homosexuality was prohibited and the young doctor had only just moved his naturopathic practice from the city of Magdeburg to Charlottenburg, one of Berlin’s most affluent districts.
But Hirschfeld wasn’t alone in his belief that the love between people of the same gender was just as natural as the traditional love between man and woman.
Less than a year after Sappho and Socrates was published, he had people on his side, including famous writer Franz Joseph von Bülow, lawyer Eduard Oberg and Max Spohr, one of the world’s first publishers of LGBT books.
On 14 or 15 May 1897, they founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which campaigned for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The world’s first LGBT organization had officially taken up its work, four days before Oscar Wilde was released from prison.
Its motto – justice through science – betrayed Hirschfeld’s idea that scientific understanding homosexuality was the way to eliminate hostility towards the community.
Apart from fighting for the rights of the LGBT community, the committee’s second main goal was to repeal the anti-gay Paragraph 175.
Established in 1871, the paragraph criminalized ‘coitus-like acts’ between men and would become even stricter under the Nazi regime.
As part of their work, they assisted defendants being tried for offences under the law; from 1899 onwards, they also published their Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types.
Once again a world first, it was the debut journal containing not just reports on the committee’s work, but also scientific, polemic and literary articles.
With Hirschfeld at its helm, the group collected more than 5,000 signatures on a petition to scrap Paragraph 175, among them signatures by the likes of Albert Einstein, author Hermann Hesse and Swiss poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
But it wasn’t all great and laudable: when a bill to abolish the law was only supported by a minority from the Social Democratic Party of Germany in the Reichstag, Hirschfeld considered outing secretly gay lawmakers who didn’t vote on the bill.
In the end, he didn’t. Instead, he reintroduced the bill into the Reichstag in the 1920s, by which time it started making progress – until the Nazis rose to power, and all attempts to reform the law were struck down.
In between, Hirschfeld also became entangled in Imperial Germany’s biggest and most explosive sex scandal, involving the Kaiser’s best friend, Prince Philipp von Eulenburg, and General Kuno von Moltke.
The General sued journalist Maximilian Harden, who alleged von Moltke and the prince had an affair.
As an expert witness, Hirschfeld, who believed that gay army officers would help his cause, testified von Moltke was gay, but also said there was nothing wrong with him.
Most famously, Hirschfeld said ‘homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creating just like normal love’, a testimony which sent the German press into a frenzy, calling the doctor ‘a freak who acted for freaks in the name of pseudoscience’.
Combined with von Moltke’s wife testifying her husband was only interested in sex with the prince, Hirschfeld’s testimony led the jury to return a not guilty verdict.
Enraged by the jury’s decision, Judge Hugo Isenbiel overturned the verdict on the grounds that homosexuals ‘have the morals of dogs’, forcing the group into a second trial.
This time, Hirschfeld was less certain of von Moltke’s homosexuality, instead saying the two men had a very intimate, homoromantic relationship, which had no sexual element.
As if potentially dragging the Kaiser into a sex scandal and the Prussian government threatening to revoke the doctor’s license wasn’t bad enough, the trials and Hirschfeld’s controversial statements also lead to a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash.
Instead of helping his cause, it hindered the gay rights movement.
Newspapers depicted von Eulenburg, an outspoken anti-Semite, as a straight Aryan, whose career was destroyed by Jews like Hirschfeld.
At the same time, there was a stronger crackdown on Paragraph 175 through the government.
Prior to the trials, prosecution had, in parts of Germany, been lax, but now police arrested and tried gay men in number that would only be exceeded by the Nazi regime.
Hirschfeld’s best known work, however, was the Institute für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Research), which he opened on 6 July 1919 in a villa not far from the Reichstag.
Providing education and medical consultations, the institute was built on Hirschfeld’s extensive archives and a library on sexuality.
It housed the Museum of Sex, which provided the public with education on sexuality and was, reportedly, frequently visited by school groups.
Famous gay author Christopher Isherwood, who was also a member of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, lived in the villa for a short time, just like literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.
Most notably, Hirschfeld’s institute was the place where some of the first gender reassignment surgeries, including those of trans pioneer Lili Elbe, were performed.
The Institute was attacked by the Nazis on 6 May 1933. They burnt archives as well as many of the doctor’s books.
At the time, Hirschfeld was on a reading tour around the world, with stops in Athens, Vienna and Zurich, where he settled in 1932 to work on a book.
In the hope to return to Berlin, should the political situation improve, Hirschfeld stayed close to Germany.
But when the Nazi regime fully rose to power, he moved to France, where the doctor tried to establish a French successor to his institute while continuing to research and publish books.
Hirschfeld died of a heart attack on 14 May 1935, his 67th birthday.
Today, his work lives on in the form of the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation, which aims to educate the German public on LGBT issues and improve life for the community.