Burning Sexual Subjects: Books, Homophobia and the Nazi Destruction of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin

  • Heike Bauer
Part of the New Directions in Book History book series (NDBH)


The Nazi book burnings are one of the defining moments both in the modern history of the book and twentieth-century history more broadly. Historians of Nazism have paid considerable attention to their role in the escalation of Nazi terror and its Anglo-American reception.1 Other critiques of violence and hatred have similarly turned to the events of 1933 to ask what it is, to borrow the words of Rebecca Knuth, ‘about texts and libraries that puts them in the line of fire during social conflict?’2 Knuth answers her own question by pointing to the crucial role of books in collective identity formation and its sustenance. ‘As the voice and memory of the targeted group’, she argues, ‘books and libraries are central to culture and identity [and] vital in sustaining a group’s uniqueness’.3 For Knuth and many other critics, books are the material correlative of an established cultural identity, and book burnings constitute the attempt to eradicate it. This line of investigation, which has productively examined the symbolism of burning books — including the fact that it has a limited function as an act of censorship — tends to focus on the losses incurred in the act of destruction. In contrast, I want to turn attention to the remains: the documents and objects which survived the Nazi attack on books in the raid on Magnus Hirschfeld’s (1868–1935) Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin.


Nazi Regime Street Cleaner Gender Reassignment Surgery Intersex Patient Pink Triangle 
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  1. 1.
    Influential studies in English of the book burnings include Leonidas E. Hill, ‘The Nazi Attack on “Un-German” Literature, 1933–1945, in Jonathan Rose (ed.), The Holocaust and the Book (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), pp. 9–46Google Scholar
  2. J. M. Ritchie, ‘The Nazi Book-Burning’, The Modern Language Review 83(3) (1988): 627–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  5. 2.
    Rebecca Knuth, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction (Westport: Praeger, 2006), p. 2.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    Rebecca Knuth, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century (Westport: Praeger, 2003), p. 9.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Matthew Fishburn, Burning Books (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 41–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 5.
    Erwin J. Haeberle, ‘Swastika, Pink Triangle and Yellow Star: The Destruction of Sexology and the Persecution of Homosexuals in Nazi Germany’, The Journal of Sex Research 17(3) (1981): 270–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  10. 6.
    Richard J. Evans, for example, who in his influential The Coming of the Third Rdch gives quite a full account of the raid on Hirschfeld’s Institute, dismisses its significance when he claims that it ‘was only one part, if the most spectacular, of a far more wide-ranging assault on what the Nazis portrayed as the Jewish movement to subvert the German family’. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Rdch: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 376.Google Scholar
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    Magnus Hirschfeld, Die Transvestiten: Eine Untersuchung über den erotischen Verkleidungstrieb (Berlin: A. Pulvermacher, 1910).Google Scholar
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    The tensions at the Institute between homosexual reformers and the feminist movement are addressed by Atina Grossmann, ‘Magnus Hirschfeld, Sexualreform und die Neue Frau: Das Institut für Sexualwissenschaften und das Weimarer Berlin’, in Elke-Vera Kotowski and Julius Schoeps (eds), Magnus Hirschfeld: Ein Leben im Spannungsfeld von Wissenschaft, Politik und Gesellschaft (Berlin: be.bra, 2004), pp. 201–6.Google Scholar
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    John Fout, ‘Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany: The Male Gender Crisis, Moral Purity, and Homophobia’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 2(3) (1992): 388–421.Google Scholar
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    See Volkmar Sigusch, ‘The Sexologist Albert Moll: Between Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfeld’, Medical History 56(2) (2012): 184–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Magnus Hirschfeld, Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes, Nachdruck der Erstauflage von 1914 mit einer kommentierten Einleitung von E. J. Haeberle (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1984).Google Scholar
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    Susan Stryker discusses Hirschfeld’s role in Transgender History (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008), pp. 38–41.Google Scholar
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    For a recent discussion of medical practice see S. Creighton, J. Alderson, S. Brown and C. L. Minto, ‘Medical Photography; Ethics, Consent, and the Intersex Patient’, BJU International 89(1) (2002): 67–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The 9th edition of the work was reissued in the 1990s as Magnus Hirschfeld, Berlins Drittes Geschlecht, ed. Manfred Herzer (Berlin: Rosa Winkel, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Good accounts of the destruction of the Institute include Knuth, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries, pp. 101–20; Steakley The Homosexual Emancipation Movement, pp. 103–5. See also Charlotte Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld: Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology (London: Quartet, 1986), pp. 376–9.Google Scholar
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    World Committee for the Victims of Fascism, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938), pp. 158–61.Google Scholar
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    Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), p. 46.Google Scholar
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    Morris Leopold Ernst and David Loth, Sexual Behaviour and the Kinsey Report (London: Falcon Press, 1949), p. 170.Google Scholar
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    Jewishness and sexology have been analysed by David Baile, ‘The Discipline of Sexualwissenschaft Emerges in Germany, Creating Divergent Notions of European Jewry’, in Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes (eds), Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture 1096–1996 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 273–9Google Scholar
  26. 39.
    Michael H. Kater, Doctors Under Hitler (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 179.Google Scholar
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    Slavoj Žižek, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2009), p. 57.Google Scholar
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    Dagmar Herzog, Sex After Fascism: Memory and Mortality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 23.Google Scholar
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    Magnus Hirschfeld, ‘Autobiographical Sketch’, in Victor Robinson (ed.), Encyclopedia Sexualis: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia-Dictionary of Sexual Sciences (New York: Dingwall-Rock, 1936), pp. 317–21.Google Scholar
  30. 55.
    Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 68.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Heike Bauer 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heike Bauer
    • 1
  1. 1.Birkbeck, University of LondonUK

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