"Per Scientiam ad Justitiam" ("through science to justice")
– Magnus Hirschfeld
For our second plunge into WWII, we'll be looking at an equally compelling site of queer progress: Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. This roughly translates to 'The Institute of Sexology.' Founded by Magnus Hirschfeld and Arthur Kronfeld in Berlin in 1919, the Institute was revolutionary. It laid the groundwork for a legacy of acceptance and intellectual understanding of the human body, only to be ripped apart by the powers that saw its work as “too progressive” or “too crude.”
The existence of the Institute in Berlin, Germany, may be surprising, given the way most of Germany’s history has been framed. Before the rise of Hitler, however, Germany was the heart of queer activism in Europe. Some of the most prolific queer researchers and doctors made their homes in Berlin, and because of their presence, the city became a hotbed for advocacy and open discussion. Naturally, much of that open discussion can be attributed to the existence of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.
This small building brought in 20,000 people from all across Europe, and from that , was able to change the world. The Institute was the archive for queer activism and research at the time. It had its library, and it served as a pseudo-university for the intellectually curious. Although there was often a tilt toward certain queer narratives then, just as there is now, the Institute was able to address a wide range of people and stories.
The Institute was more than a library though; it also was a clinic. One of the founders, Magnus Hirschfeld, was a known advocate for accessible abortions and contraception, and they spread information about sexually transmitted diseases throughout the queer community. The Institute was also the site of the first modern sex change surgery and had many transgender patients and staff members alike.
With most of their visitors and clients being queer people, poverty was something the Institute was familiar with, and something they addressed when working with their visitors. The Institute was a non-profit and was known for being an altruistic venture. The staff would rent out rooms within its walls, but changed the price to living there depending on the resources people had and even occasionally let people stay for free. They wouldn’t make their poorer clients pay for their services, either, thus making their discoveries in sexual health accessible to as many people as possible.
This open acceptance would not last. While the Institute worked to change the culture of Berlin and succeeded for a short while, Hitler and his followers were working against it. Despite support from many important individuals, including Albert Einstein, the Institute found itself in peril when Hitler rose to power. In 1933, young fascists took twenty thousand texts from the Institute and burned them in the streets. The Institute was shut down; its information was lost, and many of the staff were taken to concentration camps, where they would 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 of the twentieth century lost something the day those books were burned, as did the community of today. We lost a place where we were in control of the narrative. We lost a place where information about queer people was being researched, told, and taught by queer people, all because of the hypocrisy, fear, and tyranny of one man and his legion of followers.
However, the destruction of the Institute is informative. What Hitler recognized in the Institute’s existence was that the education of people leads to their empowerment. By destroying that opportunity for education, he and bigots like him attempt to destroy our power. However, despite all his efforts, and the efforts of people like him, the legacy of the Institute and its efforts remain.
We, as a community, must face many individuals who want to wipe our history from their textbooks, as well as those who already have. But history belongs to us. We have our histories to tell, our knowledge to create and share, and no one - no matter how powerful they seem - can silence us completely. We must work to educate and to empower the people before we did, not only because it is our right, but because it is our responsibility to make sure that these stories are told.
All that they created was destroyed by a man who knew educating people was empowering them. What they didn’t destroy was its legacy; the legacy of the Institute is something we hope to continue with this project. It has always been bigots most successful strategy. By taking away our access to information, they take our power, but we can take it back. It is ours: our history, our stories to tell, our knowledge to have. We can't allow anyone to take that away.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V. The first Institute for Sexual Science.
Retrieved Apr 12 2016 from http://magnus-hirschfeld.de/ausstellungen/institute/
Kennedy, H. Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft. Retrieved Apr 12 2016 from
Hirschfeld-Eddy-Stiftung. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Retrieved Apr 12 2016 from
Weinthal, B. (2006, May 4.-10.) Germany Looks to Its History. Gay City News,
Vol. 5, Nr. 18. Retrieved Apr 12 2016 from http://gaycitynews.nyc/gcn_518/germanylookstoits.html
German History Docs. Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin: "Un-German" and
"Unnatural" Literature is Sorted Out for the Book-Burning Ceremony.
Retrieved Apr 12, 2016 from http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_image.cfm?image_id=2069
Revolvy. Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft. Retrieved Apr 12 2016 from