This Day in Jewish History

1868: The 'Einstein of Sex' Is Born (And Dies)

Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld was an early visionary of the sexuality spectrum, which he failed to ‘sell’ to Nazi Germany, however.

May 14 is the date of both the birth and the death – at a divide of 67 years – of German-Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. He was born on this day in 1868 and died in 1935.

Hirschfeld was both a pioneering researcher and a theorist on human sexuality, as well as a vocal campaigner for homosexual and transgender rights during the Weimar era in Germany. Though the Nazis did their best to destroy his legacy in the decades preceding the Third Reich, Hirschfeld was the object of significant respect and attention, both at home and internationally.

Magnus Hirschfeld was born on May 14, 1868, in Kolberg, Prussia (today Kolobrzeg, Poland,) a town on the Baltic coast. His father, Hermann Hirschfeld, was a physician highly esteemed for his public-health efforts in Kolberg, which honored him by erecting a monument in his memory in 1885, the year after he died. His mother was the former Frederika Mann.

Magnus began his academic training at the University of Breslau, studying modern languages, but in 1888, he joined his two older brothers as a medical student at the University of Strasbourg. He then moved around from one university to another before finishing his degree in Berlin in 1892.

Hirschfeld spent the next two years traveling widely abroad and writing about his experiences for German publications. In France, he met the Zionist leader Max Nordau, and although was concerned about growing anti-Semitism in Europe, he did not embrace Zionism. (He did visit Palestine in 1932, however.)

Returning to Germany in 1894, Hirschfeld spent the next two years working as an obstetrician in Magdeburg, before settling in Berlin, where he opened a practice as a naturopath. He also became involved in socialist politics and in the city’s liberal cultural life.

‘Sappho and Socrates’

In 1896, under a pseudonym, Hirschfeld published his first short book, “Sappho and Socrates, or How to Explain the Love of Men and Women for Persons of Their Own Sex.”

In 1897, together with several like-minded colleagues, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which had as its goal the repeal of an 1871 law, “Paragraph 175,” that made homosexual activity criminal. Signatories to a petition to that effect included Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and Martin Buber.

The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, though in 1929, a bill actually made it through committee in the Reichstag, before the legislature adjourned. Hirschfeld, who was himself gay, reportedly considering “outing” closeted legislators who refused to support the campaign.

Beginning in 1899, he began publishing a “Yearbook of Intermediate Sexual Types,” in which he reported on his empirical research. It came out regularly until 1923. He also published a book, “Homosexuality in Men and Women” in 1914, in which he summarized his findings from surveys of some 10,000 subjects about their sexuality – 34 years before Alfred Kinsey brought out his “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in the United States.

Convinced that one’s sexuality was innate, Hirschfeld argued that it was unjust to blame or punish people for their nature. And while he proposed early on that homosexuals comprised a “third sex,” he eventually developed a far more nuanced spectrum that posited the existence of 64 different varieties of sexual identity.

In 1919, Hirschfeld opened the doors of his Institute for Sexual Science, in a former palace provided him by the German government in Berlin’s Tiergarten district. Not only was it the center of his practical and research work, it also housed his vast library and a “museum of sex.”

In 1920, he was assaulted and badly injured by Nazi paramilitary Brown Shirts in Berlin. He had already left Germany by the time the Nazis took power in 1933 and his Institute was attacked and gutted on May 6 of that year. After a lengthy world tour – he was hailed by the Hearst newspapers in the U.S. as the “Einstein of sex” – Hirschfeld settled in Switzerland in 1932.

He moved to France in 1933 and finally settled in Nice, where he hoped to reconstitute his institute. It was in Nice that he had a heart attack and died, on May 14, 1934, his 67th birthday.