Hirschfeld, Magnus

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early activities and influences
champion of homosexual emancipation
backlash, weimar revival, nazi era exile

HIRSCHFELD, MAGNUS (1868–1935), German physician, psychiatrist, and sex reformer.

The most prominent spokesman of the homosexual emancipation movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the world's first homosexual rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee), in 1897. Attacked for his socialist leanings, his Jewish ancestry, and his homosexual orientation, he left Germany in 1930 and died in French exile.

early activities and influences

Born to the family of a noted Jewish physician in the Pomeranian city of Kolberg on Germany's Baltic coast on 14 May 1868, Hirschfeld affiliated with the Social Democratic Party and began writing newspaper articles as a teenager. He followed the example of his father and his two older brothers by taking up medicine. Hirschfeld enrolled at the universities of Strasbourg, Munich, and Heidelberg before completing his M.D. degree at Berlin in 1892. His studies brought him into contact with a number of distinguished German medical professors of the late nineteenth century, including his fellow Pomeranian Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), whose career yoked scientific research and involvement in progressive politics in a way that inspired Hirschfeld.

As a university student, Hirschfeld embraced a secularistic worldview informed by Darwinism and consequently ceased describing his religious confession as Jewish. In Germany, it was above all the Jena zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) who popularized Charles Darwin's notion of sexual selection as the key that unlocked the riddles of nature. Hirschfeld affiliated with the Monist League, which Haeckel founded to advance popular scientific knowledge and to provide an alternative to conventional church services by organizing Sunday morning gatherings for reverential reflection on nature. In its spiritual dimension, monism repudiated the Judeo-Christian dualism of body and soul, postulating instead a unity down to the level of the individual cell. Monism influenced Hirschfeld's later sexological work, in which he questioned and ultimately repudiated the commonsense understanding of sexual dimorphism, the notion that men and women are polar opposites. The monistic outlook also led Hirschfeld to assert an underlying harmony of physical and psychological traits in homosexuals.

Hirschfeld began the practice of medicine in Magdeburg, where he initially specialized in naturopathy, a holistic form of therapy that aims to fortify the immune system through balanced nutrition, open-air exercise, plenty of water, and avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. Many traditional physicians take a dim view of naturopathy, and practicing it schooled Hirschfeld in defying received wisdom. Monism and naturopathy both contributed to Hirschfeld's ultimate convictions that any affliction linked with homosexuality is not inherent to the orientation per se but instead a stress response to social opprobrium, and that the best therapy is to grasp fully the fundamental naturalness of one's psychological and physical being. From the 1890s onward, Hirschfeld made joint cause with naturists (i.e., nudists), antivaccinationists, and teetotalers who participated in a broad spectrum of voluntaristic activism termed the "life reform movement" in turn-of-the-century German social history. Hirschfeld's early involvement in this movement provided him with practical experience in public speaking and mobilizing support for hygienic and political reform that he would later apply to the cause of homosexual emancipation.

champion of homosexual emancipation

A final impetus that pushed Hirschfeld in the direction of homosexual emancipation was the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), which elicited widespread discussion beyond England. To Hirschfeld, the time seemed ripe for public enlightenment on homosexuality, and in 1896 he gave up his naturopathic practice in Magdeburg and moved to Charlottenburg, a suburb of Berlin, where he increasingly specialized in sexology and psychiatry. His first sexological treatise, titled Sappho and Socrates; or, How Is the Love of Men and Women for Persons of Their Own Sex to Be Explained? (1896), was released under a pseudonym, but Hirschfeld simultaneously instructed the publisher to reveal his identity to anyone who inquired. The ensuing contacts led in 1897 to the founding of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. With the word scientific, Hirschfeld invoked a touchstone of modernity that rendered moot the traditional religious category of sinfulness. But the word also pointed to medical and biological research suggesting that homosexuality ought not to be seen as a sickness. With the corollary humanitarian, Hirschfeld aimed to suggest a program to ameliorate all the everyday forms of intolerance under which homosexuals suffered needlessly—from social discrimination, in all its multifarious forms, to the psychic cost of internalized oppression, such as heightened susceptibility to alcoholism and suicidal depression.

The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee set as its primary goal the reform of the statute of the German penal code that criminalized sodomy, and to this end it submitted a petition to the Reichstag. Written by Hirschfeld and widely circulated between 1897 and 1930, the petition was eventually endorsed by thousands of prominent Germans. From the outset, August Bebel (1840–1913) and other members of the Social Democratic Party gave strong, if not entirely unanimous, support to Hirschfeld's petition. Aware that his campaign amounted to a posthumous revival of the reform efforts of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895), Hirschfeld prepared a second edition of Ulrichs's Investigations into the Riddle of Man-Manly Love and published it in 1898. Unlike Ulrichs, who came out publicly as a homosexual in 1867, Hirschfeld himself never made an issue of his personal sexual identity, no doubt out of concern that it would diminish his authority as an objective, scientific expert. Hirschfeld recognized that eliminating popular prejudice was even more important than law reform, and to this end he gave numerous public addresses and wrote the booklet What Should People Know about the Third Sex? (1901), of which fifty thousand copies were in print by 1911 and which was also published in English, Dutch, and Danish translations.

Hirschfeld adopted from Ulrichs the term third sex for homosexuals, but in doing so he sacrificed scientific accuracy to political expediency. Hirschfeld followed Darwin in his recognition that no two individuals in a biopopulation, not even identical twins, are actually identical. Variation and diversity among uniquely different individuals are a given of the natural world, whereas such notions as purely male and purely female are essentialist abstractions that do not occur in nature; a "third sex" is likewise a fiction. Physiological bisexuality is evident in every man's nipples, for example, or in the rudimentary spermatic cord of every woman. While essentialist thinking is indispensable in mathematics and the sciences of inanimate matter, such as physics, it is out of place in biology. How novel this concept was became evident when Hirschfeld—like Darwin himself—sometimes slipped back into typological thinking.

Hirschfeld was first and foremost a naturalist, and his favorite method was to make a series of observations and to develop conjectures from this evidence. In 1898 he published the first version of an extensive sexological questionnaire that underwent repeated revisions and expansions up to its seventh and final printing in 1930. Anticipating the later survey work of the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956), Hirschfeld personally interviewed thousands of homosexuals, and he gathered detailed data on the sex lives of thirty thousand individuals. He also explored firsthand the gay bars and other venues of the homosexual subculture in Berlin and other European, American, and North African metropolises prior to publishing a thousand-page monograph titled The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914; English translation, 2000). He coined the term transvestitism with his monograph The Transvestites (1910; English translation, 1991).

From Hirschfeld's perspective, homosexuals, transvestites, and hermaphrodites were all part of a broad array of "sexual intermediates" whose very existence demonstrated the fallacy of simplistic, binary, male–female thinking. In 1899 the first volume of the Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Types (Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen) appeared under Hirschfeld's editorship. Uninterrupted even by World War I, this monumental journal appeared until 1923, and in encyclopedic fashion it surveyed the fields of medicine, law, psychology, anthropology, sociology, religion, history, art, and literature in addition to reporting on current events and the work of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and providing sweeping bibliographies of relevant publications.

backlash, weimar revival, nazi era exile

Hirschfeld enjoyed growing support and public recognition until his 1907 appearance in court as a sexological expert in the Eulenburg affair, which turned on allegations of homosexuality within the entourage of Kaiser William II leveled by the journalist Maximilian Harden (1861–1927). Harden's vindication in court, attributable in part to Hirschfeld's testimony, elicited an anti-Semitic and antihomosexual backlash from pro-monarchist conservatives, and the homosexual emancipation movement was forced into quiescence until the kaiser's abdication in 1918.

Hirschfeld revived his campaign on behalf of homosexual rights during the years of the Weimar Republic, and in 1919 he fulfilled a vision he had cherished since the turn of the century by founding the Institute for Sexology (Institut für Sexual-wissenschaft), which was a Berlin center for research and education, sexual counseling and therapy, and advocacy on behalf of sexual privacy and reproductive rights. In 1919 he helped script and appeared in the feature film Different from the Others, which extended to the cinema his campaign for the reform of German law. Hirschfeld's purview now extended well beyond homosexuality to include, among other things, the legalization of abortion, and this campaign brought him into a productive alliance with the newly founded German Communist Party as well as the Social Democratic Party.

In 1928 Hirschfeld cofounded the World League for Sexual Reform, which lauded the sexual politics of the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union as exemplary. Success appeared within reach when, late in 1929, a Reichstag committee supported reform of the entire penal code, but a new election brought a staggering rise in support for the Nazis. Brutally assaulted by fascists as early as 1920, excoriated in the Nazi press, and challenged by rivals within the homosexual emancipation movement for his medicalizing approach to sexuality, his political leanings, and his Jewishness, Hirschfeld departed in late 1930 for a lecture tour to the United States and Asia, residing upon his return to Europe in Switzerland and France rather than Germany. The Institute for Sexology was closed by the Nazis in February 1933 and the bulk of its library publicly burned on 10 May 1933. Hirschfeld died in exile in Nice, France, on 14 May 1935, his sixty-seventh birthday.

Tirelessly active as an author, researcher, and organizer, Hirschfeld achieved international recognition as Germany's leading authority on sexuality. Within Germany he was both admired and abjured for his advocacy of homosexual rights. Shaped by the Wilhelmine era's unquestioning faith in scientific enlightenment, his reform work advanced during the democracy of the Weimar Republic only to be destroyed by the Nazi regime.

See alsoHaeckel, Ernst Heinrich; Homosexuality and Lesbianism; Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich; Wilde, Oscar.


Bullough, Vern L. Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. New York, 1994.

Herzer, Manfred. Leben und Werk eines jüdischen, schwulen un sozialistischen Sexologen. 2nd ed. Hamburg, Germany, 2001.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. Translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Amherst, N.Y., 2000.

LeVay, Simon. Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Steakley, James D. "Iconography of a Scandal: Political Cartoons and the Eulenburg Affair in Wilhelmine Germany." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, edited by Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr., 233–263. New York, 1989.

——. "Per scientiam ad justitiam: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Sexual Politics of Innate Homosexuality." In Science and Homosexualities, edited by Vernon A. Rosario, 133–154. New York, 1997.

Wolff, Charlotte. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. London, 1986.

James D. Steakley