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History & Politics

In the early twentieth century, Magnus Hirschfeld played an important role in the development of the concept of homosexuality in Germany and far beyond. In his “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft” in Berlin, he and his close colleagues received hundreds of people who wanted information and advice about their sexual life and preferences.

by Judith Schuyf - 03 January 2020

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Hirschfeld in Exile


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length: 7 minuten


Postcard from the 1930s of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, the city were Hirschfeld moved to shortly before his death
Based on the idea that sexuality and orientation stemmed directly from physical condition, he investigated their bodies and published about them, for example in the “Jahrbüch für Sexuelle Zwischenstufen.” Lectures and information evenings were also regularly given at the Institute.
 
However, Hirschfeld was also Jewish. His work triggered a lot of resistance from the right-wing bourgeoisie and the upcoming Nazis, and his Jewish origins did not help in that respect. In 1930, he left for a long trip to the United States. Upon his return to Europe in 1932, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that he decided to prolong his world tour and not return to Germany for the time being. He would never see Germany again.
 
On May 6, 1933, the “Institut für Sexualwissenschaft” was looted by Nazi students and a few days later, the famous library was burned to the stake. Hirschfeld was in Paris at that time and saw the book burning, about which he had already been informed in writing, on the cinema news “unter tiefster seelischer Erschütterung” (shaken to the core).
 
 The Australian, gay, Jewish sexologist Norman Haire (left), seated next to Magnus Hirschfeld during a meeting of the World League for Sexual Reform

In modern Europe without borders, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it was to travel in this period of time and, above all, to be outside one’s own borders for a long time. Passports were issued for a period of five years, which is no different than in the present. Hirschfeld’s passport expired in May 1933 when he got to Switzerland. Fearing that the passport would no longer be extended and he would end up trapped in a potentially dangerous Switzerland, he crossed the “green border” to France, a country he knew well. In the course of 1934, he was able to go on many trips: to Nice, Venice, Milan, Verona, Lausanne, and Geneva.

From the spring of 1935 onwards, however, the German government limited the options for extending passports and visas. He did not dare to leave France for fear that he could not return. He was stuck. One of his two life partners, Institute employee Karl Giese, who had not travelled to the USA with him for unknown reasons, had a similar problem: he was arrested in 1934 for sex with a man in a sauna and was subsequently deported from France. He subsequently lived in Vienna and Brno.

Little is known about Hirschfeld’s last years in exile. We can read more about this period of his life in the recently published “Magnus Hirschfelds Exil-Gästebuch.” Hirschfeld was in the habit of asking people he met to write something personal in a “guest book.” I compared it with the guest book that you find in some holiday residences, in which the guests write their name, date and something nice. Only the people in question were not literally Hirschfeld’s guests, but people he met. He also pasted many photos of the people who came to visit, some pictures from his Berlin period, and sometimes newspaper clippings and announcements of lectures in the book.
 
Through detours, the book ended up in the “Deutsche Literaturarchiv Marbach,” where it was eventually discovered by Marita Keilson-Lauritz, who for a long time was involved in the transcription and tracing of names. It has now been published under the auspices of the “Magnus Hirschfeld Gesellschaft” in facsimile with notes.

Contribution by Fritz Heymann with the chorus of the Lila Lied from 1922, on the photo Hirschfeld is in the river Allier with another friend
The notes must have been a hell of a job. In total there are almost ninety photos in the book, more than 260 names and messages, in not always readable manuscripts and in various languages, including Chinese (Hirschfeld’s other life partner Li Shiu Tong was of Chinese descent). In the end, 158 people could be traced. The short biographies at the back of the book show how large Hirschfeld’s network was, and how, despite the loss of his institution and library, he still tried to continue some of his work.
 
Tao Li and Karl Giese in front of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin The sixty-five-year-old spent what would prove to be the last two years of his life trying to save some of his life’s work. Financially he didn’t have to worry: apart from the income from lectures and books, he had bought shares in the Dutch department store De Bijenkorf in 1928 as a precaution, which yielded a lot. He was not allowed to work as a doctor because he was not authorized to do so in France. He did try to revive his Berlin institute in an “Institut des Sciences Sexologiques” in his home in Paris.

In 1921, Hirschfeld was instrumental in the establishment of the World League for Sexual Reform, which aimed to bring about legal changes in the often very outdated and obstructing regulations. Sex education, birth control, decriminalization of sexual acts between consenting adults were included in the ten-point plan of the League. Information about intersexuals and homosexuals were to combat discrimination. They were to be treated medically in the future and no longer as criminals or sinners.

From the late 1920s, the World League for Sexual Reform met annually or bi-annually in different cities in Europe. Hirschfeld organized the 1932 congress in Brno from his exile, but after the establishment of his “Institut des Sciences Sexologiques” he got into a fight with the French branch of the World League. Disagreements about the program were the reason for this. Perhaps another factor was that one of Hirschfeld’s former Berlin colleagues, Albert Moll, who is not unknown to gay historians, accused him of not fleeing at all for political reasons, but because he was afraid of being prosecuted for sex crimes.

Norman Haire of the World League for Sexual Reform (left), Hirschfeld and Karl Giese (right)
Many German exiles, including scientists, lived in Paris. In 1934, they founded the “Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek” (German Freedom Library), also called the library of burned books, as the library was opened on the first anniversary of the book burning. It mainly contained materials from the “Internationale Antifaschistische Archiv” that once arose from material collected for the so-called “Brown Book” that appeared after the fire in the Reichstag in 1933. Heinrich Mann was the president of this library.

In addition to the opening of the library, Hirschfeld was also involved in the “Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft und Kunst im Ausland,” a sort of Academy of Sciences in Exile. This of course did not go unnoticed in Nazi Germany. Because of these anti-Nazi expressions, the Nazi regime tried to deprive a number of members of the “Notgemeinschaft” of their German nationality.

The names in the guest book show that Hirschfeld still maintained contact with people from the sexual reform movement, although the leaders of the Weltliga are missing, apart from Norman Haire. One of the first names is Emma Goldman, a well-known anarchist and publicist who had met Hirschfeld during her stay in Berlin. In addition to many scientists, we also see people from the gay movement, such as the publisher Fritz Heymann.

He writes in the book that he was thrown out of the association of German publishers because of the publication of the well-known “Lila Lied” he had dedicated to Hirschfeld. Whether that is true is doubtful, but the lyrics of the song (by Kurt Schwabach to music by Mischa Spolianski) do apply to the situation: “Wir sind nun einmal anders, als die Andern” (We are simply different from the others), also in Paris.

There are also Dutch people in it: The Dutch doctor Max Reiss was an acquaintance of gay pioneer Jacob Anton Schorer. As a doctor he visited Hirschfeld to complete a training in sexology. The Jewish Reiss survived the war in hiding. Unfortunately, this did not apply to thirteen others from the “Gästebuch,” such as Charlotte Polak-Rosenberg. She was a board member of the Dutch branch of the Weltliga. She was also a leading feminist. From 1921 to 1941, she was president of the Dutch Society for Mutual Protection of Women, the “Vereniging voor Onderlinge Vrouwenbescherming.” She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

Magnus Hirschfeld (right) and his lover Li Shiu Tong, known as Tao Li, in exile in Nice, France, circa 1935At the beginning of 1935 Hirschfeld and Li moved to Nice. There, he suddenly died of a brain haemorrhage, on his sixty-seventh birthday on May 14, 1935.

For most people from the guest book, times would get complicated with the arrival of the German Wehrmacht in France in 1940. Many people were able to flee to the United States in time. After the measures against the Jews were reinforced in both occupied and Vichy France in 1941, others tried to escape illegally to Switzerland or went into hiding in France itself.


“Magnus Hirschfelds Exil-Gästebuch.” Edited by Hans Bergemann, Ralf Dose and Marita Keilson-Lauriz. Hentrich & Hentrich, 2019.



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