The Institute of Sexology: A Place of Learning

A group of Nazis throw documents and books into a fire in the street.

A group of Nazis throw documents and books into a fire in the street.

Content warning for concentration camps, Holocaust, Nazis

"Per Scientiam ad Justitiam" ("through science to justice")

– Magnus Hirschfeld

As we dive back into World War II, we'll be looking at an equally compelling site of queer progress: Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (The Institute of Sexology). Founded in Berlin by Magnus Hirschfeld and Arthur Kronfeld in 1919, the Institute was revolutionary. It laid the groundwork for a legacy of acceptance and understanding of the human body and sexuality, only to be ripped apart by those that saw its work as too progressive or crude.

Given the framing of German history, it may be surprising that it housed a place like the Institute. Before Adolf Hitler's rise to power, German was the heart of queer activism and research in Europe. Some of the most prolific queer researchers and doctors made their homes in Berlin, and their presence made the city a hotbed for advocacy and open discussion. Naturally, much of the discussion can be attributed to the existence of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

Though housed in a rather small building, the Institute saw as many as 20,000 people from across Europe; it served as the primary archive for queer activism and research. Its library served as a pseudo-university for the intellectually curious. Though certain narratives were often favoured, as they are now, the Institute gave way to a wide range of people and stories.

The Institute served as more than a theoretical research hub; it was also a clinic. It was the site of the first modern gender confirmation surgery and attended to many transgender patients and staff alike. One of the founders, Magnus Hirschfeld, was also a known advocate for accessible abortions and contraception. He worked to spread information about sexually transmitted infections throughout the queer community.

With a clientele of primarily queer people, the Institute was familiar with poverty and addressed it when working with visitors. The Institute was a non-profit and known for being an altruistic venture. The staff rented out rooms on a sliding scale, frequently offering free housing. They offered their services for free to clients in need, thus making their discoveries in sexual health accessible to as many people as possible.

This time of knowledge and acceptance would not last. While the Institute was working to change the culture of Berlin, the Nazi regime worked against it. Despite support from individuals like Albert Einstein, the Institute found itself in peril when Hitler rose to power. In 1933, young fascists burned over twenty thousand of their texts. The Institute was shut down, its information lost, and many of its staff taken to concentration camps to die alongside the rest of Hitler's "undesirables."

Institut für Sexualwissenschaft is the queer Library of Alexandria: built for progress, only to be destroyed by those who rejected it. The entire queer community lost something the day those books were burned. We lost a place where we controlled the narrative. We lost a place of research and education. We lost a place of safety and progress because of hypocrisy, fear, and tyranny.

Nevertheless, the destruction of the Institute is informative. What Hitler recognized—and feared—was that education leads to empowerment. By erasing the opportunity to learn, he and bigots like him attempt to take our power. Despite the efforts of all those like him, the legacy of the Institute and its efforts remain.

We, as a community, will face many individuals and institutions who seek to wipe our history from their textbooks. We have stories to tell, our knowledge to share. History belongs to us, and no one can silence us completely. We must work to educate and to empower people not only because it is our right, but because it is our responsibility to make sure our stories are told.

There was a significant loss that day and it will be felt forever. What they couldn't destroy was its legacy; their work is something we hope to continue with this project. By taking away our access to information, they take our power. That has always been bigots most successful strategy. We can take that power back; our history, our stories, our knowledge to share. We can't allow anyone to take that away.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

(1933, May 6-10). Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin: "Un-German" and "Unnatural" Literature is Sorted Out for the Book-Burning Ceremony [photograph]. Berlin, Germany: German History Docs.

Dr Magnus Hirschfeld. (n.d.) Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.hirschfeld-eddy-stiftung.de/en/foundation/about-us/names/magnus-hirschfeld/

Kennedy, H. C. (2003). Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (1919-1933) (review). Journal of the History of Sexuality 12(1), 122-126. University of Texas Press. Retrieved July 28, 2019, from Project MUSE database.

Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V. (n.d.) The first Institute for Sexual Science. Retrieved from http://magnus-hirschfeld.de/ausstellungen/institute/

Weinthal, B. (2006, May 10). Germany Looks to Its History. Gay City News, volume 5 (issue 18). Retrieved from http://gaycitynews.nyc/gcn_518/germanylookstoits.html