Wednesday, April 19, 2023

The Night 20,000 Books Were Burned

Some of Them Rare Copies That Had Helped Provide A Historiography for Nonconforming People.

By Brandy Schillace

Late one night on the cusp of the 20th century, Magnus Hirschfeld, a young doctor, found a soldier on the doorstep of his practice in Germany. Distraught and agitated, the man had come to confess himself an Urning—a word used to refer to homosexual men. It explained the cover of darkness; to speak of such things was dangerous business. The infamous “Paragraph 175” in the German criminal code made homosexuality illegal; a man so accused could be stripped of his ranks and titles and thrown in jail.

Hirschfeld understood the soldier’s plight—he was himself both homosexual and Jewish—and did his best to comfort his patient. But the soldier had already made up his mind. It was the eve of his wedding, an event he could not face. Shortly after, he shot himself.
Magnus Hirschfeld,
director of the Institute for Sexual Research

[This began Hirschfeld research] He sought to specialize in sexual health, an area of growing interest. Many of his predecessors and colleagues believed that homosexuality was pathological, using new theories from psychology to suggest it was a sign of mental ill health. Hirschfeld, in contrast, argued that a person may be born with characteristics that did not fit into heterosexual or binary categories and supported the idea that a “third sex” (or Geschlecht) existed naturally. Hirschfeld proposed the term “sexual intermediaries” for nonconforming individuals. Included under this umbrella were what he considered “situational” and “constitutional” homosexuals—a recognition that there is often a spectrum of bisexual practice—as well as what he termed “transvestites.” 

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Adolf Hitler was named chancellor on January 30, 1933, and enacted policies to rid Germany of Lebensunwertes Leben, or “lives unworthy of living.” What began as a sterilization program ultimately led to the extermination of millions of Jews, Roma, Soviet and Polish citizens—and homosexuals and transgender people.

One of the first and largest
Nazi book burnings destroyed
 the library at the Institute for Sexual Research. 

When the Nazis came for the institute on May 6, 1933, Hirschfeld was out of the country. Giese fled with what little he could. Troops swarmed the building, carrying off a bronze bust of Hirschfeld and all his precious books, which they piled in the street. Soon a towerlike bonfire engulfed more than 20,000 books, some of them rare copies that had helped provide a historiography for nonconforming people.

What future might have been built from a platform where “sexual intermediaries” were indeed thought of in “more just terms”? Still, these pioneers and their heroic sacrifices help to deepen a sense of pride—and of legacy—for LGBTQ+ communities worldwide. As we confront oppressive legislation today, may we find hope in the history of the institute and a cautionary tale in the Nazis who were bent on erasing it.

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