Ninety years ago this month, the Nazis staged their first book-burning in Berlin. The gathering on May 10, 1933, saw hundreds of supporters of the regime march into a square in front of the 18th-century building housing the city’s first public library and across the street from one of Germany’s leading universities. The crowd threw cartloads of books onto a huge bonfire, the flames lighting the night sky as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels gave a speech attacking Jewish and “un-German” authors.
Many of us learned about this grim event in high-school history classes, where it’s often portrayed as an example of the danger to freedom of expression posed by totalitarian dictators. But a crucial aspect of the story has disappeared in the retelling, even though it was highlighted by the book-burners themselves and was covered in news reports at the time: A major portion of the works consigned to the flames had been seized a few days before on May 6 from Berlin’s celebrated Institute for Sexual Science.
Founded in 1919 by homosexual and transgender emancipation pioneer Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), the institute was home to the first museum, library and archives anywhere in the world to give a prominent place to the history and culture of homosexual, transgender and intersex people. During the Weimar Republic, the establishment drew wide media attention, gaining visibility as a provider of medical and psychosocial services and as a destination for researchers, curious locals and international tourists.
Ties to San Francisco
Hirschfeld’s fame even gave him ties to San Francisco. In 1928, lesbian poet and San Francisco resident Elsa Gidlow (1898–1986) joined Hirschfeld for lunch at the Institute for Sexual Science — a sign of how far the reputation of the organization had spread. Three years later, Hirschfeld himself visited the city as part of an international speaking tour. In the first line of his book Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist (1933), he recalls the “fabulously beautiful harbor of San Francisco.”
Decades later, we can trace connections from the Institute for Sexual Science to the GLBT Historical Society. As a founding member of the society, I recall that the organizers in 1985 were well aware of the destruction of Hirschfeld’s library and archives. Those of us with a passion for the LGBTQ past had learned about the largely forgotten event though the work of groundbreaking historian James Steakley and the book The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1974) by John Lauritsen and David Thorstad.
That knowledge was one of the inspirations for founding the Historical Society: We sought to repair the devastating loss to LGBTQ history caused by the suppression of Hirschfeld’s institute. We shared this task with the broad movement to establish queer and trans archives which had emerged in Australia, Europe and North American in the early 1970s. By forming community collections in numerous places, we were committed to making it impossible for any single regime to again annihilate the records of our past.
Belonging in Time
Those records are precious for helping us encounter the ancestors of people we now call lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender-nonconforming. By learning how they understood themselves and created cultures in the past, we expand our foundations for building a more welcoming future for the full diversity of members of our community. Our archives also help us find links that give us a sense of belonging in time. The story of Elsa Gidlow is just one example: We know about her visit to Hirschfeld because she recounts that afternoon in Berlin in her journals preserved in the Historical Society’s own collections.
In the present era when parts of the United States are employing state power to attack LGBTQ visibility and especially to persecute transgender people, the sacking of Hirschfeld’s institute offers a reminder: Those who sought to exclude us from society then and who seek to do so now recognize the power we find in our own history. That’s why the work of LGBTQ museums and archives is invaluable. That’s why I’ve remained active with the GLBT Historical Society for 38 years now. That’s why I cherish the support so many provide to ensure our organization thrives. Nine decades after that dark month of May 1933, I think Hirschfeld would be proud of us.
Gerard Koskovich is a public historian and antiquarian book dealer who divides his time between San Francisco and Paris. He has presented and published widely in English and French. Among the exhibitions he has curated is “Through Knowledge to Justice: The Sexual World of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld” at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in 2016–2017. For a selection of his writing on LGBTQ history and culture, visit his Academia.edu page.