Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and the Berlin Institute for Sexual Science, 1919–1933

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

German students and Nazi SA plunder the library of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, Director of the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin. May 6, 1933. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. 

Per scientiam ad justitiam” (Justice through science)
– Motto engraved over the entrance to the Institute for Sexual Sciences

Paragraph 175 (§175) of the German Penal Code, adopted in 1871, criminalized male homosexual activity, making it punishable by imprisonment and loss of civil rights. In addition, the enormous social stigma attached to being considered homosexual caused estrangement from family, friends, and loss of work. The fear of having one’s sexual orientation revealed made these men easy prey for blackmailers.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), a Berlin psychiatrist, had some patients who chose suicide over being blackmailed.1 Hirschfeld organized a committee to petition for the abolition of §175. He collected over 6,000 signatures, including some from well-known individuals such as Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Albert Einstein, and Martin Buber.2-5 The proposal was debated in the Reichstag in 1898, and was rejected. Hirschfeld then made it his mission to study human sexuality and to educate physicians and laypeople about it. He established the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) in 1919, the first sexual research center in the world.6

The institute was located in a Berlin mansion with 115 rooms. There was a lecture hall, a museum, examination rooms, operating rooms, counseling rooms, and a laboratory. Institute staff included psychiatrists and psychologists, general physicians, gynecologists, endocrinologists, neuroendocrinologists, dermatologists (in Europe at the time, the treatment of sexually transmitted infections was the purview of dermatologists), surgeons, anthropologists, sex educators, and lawyers. In its first year, about 3,500 people made 18,000 visits to the institute. Those who could not pay for their consultations or treatments were treated for free.7 The institute offered psychological support to homosexual men and women, birth control, preventive techniques for sexually transmitted infections,8 and sex reassignment surgery.9 The institute also produced a film in 1919: Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern). It was a drama showing the tragic consequences of a blackmail, because of which a talented musician kills himself, unable to meet increasing demands for money.10,11 Coincidentally, the Nazi Party began in 1919.12

Hirschfeld coined the terms “transvestite” and “transsexual,”13 and was “probably the most distinguished authority” in the field of human sexuality.14 He taught that homosexuality was an innate, inborn orientation. He tried to teach homosexual men how to “navigate a homophobic society.”15 Not surprisingly, he was not admired by all of German society. He was assaulted on several occasions, once nearly fatally, in 1920. He was also shot at.16

Hirschfeld visited many countries to spread his message and to earn money for the institute. In America, journalists called him “the Einstein of sex.”17 In India, he spoke out for Indian independence. In Palestine, he stated that he supported the idea of a Jewish homeland, and would have stayed if the Jews of Palestine spoke German instead of Hebrew. He wrote twenty books during his career; all but three (autobiographies) were scientific or philosophic works.18

The Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933. A Jewish, homosexual psychiatrist with ties to left-wing political parties and who supported feminism, birth control, and abortion19,20 could not be tolerated. Hirschfeld was in a Paris movie theater in 1933, watching a newsreel, when he saw the fate of his Institute for Sexual Science. Pro-Nazi students and S.A. troopers ransacked the building, scattering files and documents, and taking away books and journals. According to one estimate, about 25,000 books from the institute were burned in one of Nazi Germany’s first book burnings.21 Hirschfeld never returned to Germany, and he died in France in 1935. The Nazis used the institute’s medical records to find and arrest 100,000 homosexual men and women. Of that group, “many tens of thousands” were sent to concentration camps.22

In 1973, the Institute for Sexual Sciences was begun at the University of Frankfurt am Main, and in 1996 at the Humboldt University of Berlin.23 Homosexuality was decriminalized in Germany in 1994.24


  1. “Magnus Hirschfeld.” Wikipedia.
  2. The Einstein of Sex. Film, 1919. Produced by Rosa von Praunheim.An interesting, semi-fictional biography showing Hirschfeld’s efforts to bring the study and discussion of human sexuality into the open.
  3. Pauline Petit. “L’histoire de l’Institut de sexologie détruite par les nazis.” France Culture, June 12, 2023. https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/l-histoire-de-l-institut-de-sexologie-detruit-par-les-nazis-6649775.
  4. “Magnus Hirschfeld,” Wikipedia.
  5. Liz Tracey. “90 years on: The destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science.” JSTOR Daily, May 31, 2023.
  6. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.” Wikipedia.
  7. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.” Wikipedia.
  8. Agathe Bernier-Monod. Les Stratégies de Communication de l’Institut de Magnus Hirschfeld (1919-1933). Thesis. École Normale Superieure des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines, Paris, 2010. https://dumas.ccsd.cnrs.fr/dumas-03144453/document.
  9. Petit, “L’histoire.”
  10. “Magnus Hirschfeld,” Wikipedia.
  11. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.” Wikipedia.
  12. Tracey, “90 years on.”
  13. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” Wikipedia.
  14. Richard Lewinsohn. A History of Sexual Customs. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.
  15. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” Wikipedia.
  16. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” Wikipedia.
  17. Bernier-Monod, “Stratégies.”
  18. “Magnus Hirschfeld,” Wikipedia.
  19. Tracey, “90 years on.”
  20. Petit, “L’histoire.”
  21. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” Wikipedia.
  22. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” Wikipedia.
  23. “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft,” Wikipedia.
  24. Tracey, “90 years on.”

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Summer 2023



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