This month we mark a dark time in queer history: it’s been 85 years since the Nazis destroyed the Institute of Sex Research in Berlin, destroying priceless scholarship into sexual orientation and identity and laying the groundwork for persecution that would continue (in Europe and America) for decades to come.
The beginnings of the Institute of Sex Research
Founded in 1919 by Magnus Hirschfeld and Arthur Kronfeld, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was an early pioneer in early 20th century efforts to obtain equality for LGBTQ people. Hirschfeld quickly amassed a large library of research and surveys that detailed the sexual practices of thousands of people. Patients also flocked to the institute’s medical services, which included everything from physical treatments to marriage counseling.
Hirschfeld strove to ensure that the institute’s services were available to all, providing low and no-cost treatments for people with financial constraints. They were also at the forefront of advances that, nearly a century later, America still lags behind other countries: treating sexually transmitted diseases, providing economic freedom for women, expanding access to birth control and educating people on sex and pleasure.
For a time, the work of Hirschfeld and his colleagues was unrivalled, and the institute was globally recognized as the leader in sexual research. That set an important tone between the two world wars, since the researchers were unequivocally outspoken when it came to what we would today call queer liberation — although they certainly wouldn’t have used that term at the time.
Leadership of the Institute made significant contributions throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. They helped to end police entrapment of people we would today call transgender — “transsexualism” was the favored term at the time. The Institute also offered medical services for people wishing to transition, something virtually unheard of at that time.
The Nazis ruin everything as they always do
But it was not to last for long. In the early 1930s, the rise of the Nazis spelled doom for scholarship and liberation. Nazis attacked queer establishments, rounding up anyone deemed to be insufficiently heterosexual. An administrator of the Institute, Kurt Hiller, was abducted and trapped in a concentration camp, eventually fleeing to Prague and London.
The end came in May of 1933. The German Student Union — a collective of Nazi youth — attacked the building on May 6th, scattering researchers and patients. The Nazis stole records that allowed them to later round up and execute suspected homosexuals, and then on May 10th they conducted a public book-burning.
The bonfire destroyed about 20,000 books and 5,000 images, a priceless trove of knowledge gone within minutes. At the same time, Nazis issued an edict against other books that offended their sensibilities, destroying the work of Jewish, pacifist, and progressive writers that included Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Today, the site of the fire is commemorated with a glass pane set in a cobblestone square, showing empty bookshelves. A nearby plaque notes that the burning of books is a prelude to the burning of people.
Hirschfeld escaped the violence, but died two years later in Paris before he was able to re-establish the Institute. The price of the May violence was incalculable: not only were volumes of research lost, but the actions of the Nazis further entrenched a homophobia that would be widespread for decades to come. Even after the Allied victory, Germany’s new government continued to persecute and oppress queer citizens.