The first Institute for Sexual Science (1919-1933)
In 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), sexologist and sexual-reformer, saw a long-cherished dream come true: on July 6, he opened the “Institute for Sexual Science” in Berlin-Tiergarten – the first of its kind in the world. Politically, the Institute’s emergence is to be viewed within the context of the progressive reform movements during the Weimar period; scientificially, the bio-medical explanations of human sexuality at the time formed the framework. The Institute’s foundation was the first attempt at establishing sexual science.
The Institute soon became a sought-after address for local and foreign scientists, academics and politicians. For Berlin residents, it became known as an institution providing counselling and treatment for “physical and psychological sexual disorders” as well as, in particular, for “sexual transitions”, Hirschfeld’s term for homosexuals, transvestites and hermaphrodites. Many a writer paid the Institute a visit – Christopher Isherwood and Alfred Döblin, for example, incorporated their impressions into their literary works.
More than 40 people worked at the Institute in many different fields: research, sexual counselling, treatment of venereal diseases and public sex education. The Institute housed the main offices of both the Scientific Humanitarian Committee – the first homosexual organisation – and the World League for Sexual Reform.
From the outset, the Institute was defamed and denounced as “Jewish”, “Social-Democratic” and “offensive for public morals”. It was plundered and shut down by the Nazis in 1933. In exile, Magnus Hirschfeld witnessed in a Parisian cinema the burning of his works on Berlin’s Opera Square by Fascist students. Following an unsuccessful attempt to set up an institute for sexual science in Paris, Hirschfeld died in Nice, France, on May 14, 1935, his birthday. The Institute’s buildings in Berlin were destroyed by bombing in 1943. Since then, the site has been overgrown with gras.
Yet, the Nazis failed to have Hirschfeld’s name and legacy erased from history. Particularly in the United States, his scientific methods had an enduring effect on sexual science. Some of his former collaborators at the Institute, such as Walter Großmann and Arthur Weil, continued their work in the USA. Hirschfeld himself had visited the States in 1892 and in 1931 and impacted on local scientists. Harry Benjamin, a friend and colleague of Hirschfeld’s, further developed his studies on transsexuality in the States. It was not until the 60s that this topic returned to Germany. Scientists like Alfred Kinsey employed the technique of questionnaires, developed by Hirschfeld between 1899 and 1925, during his research into the sexual behaviour of women and men in the US. The US version of the exhibition will, however, argue that sexual biologists today refer to a Hirschfeld tradition in an uncritical manner.
The exhibition, produced by the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft e.V., affords an insight into the Institute’s work with to date unpublished documents, photographs and exhibits. It comprises 65 panels (100 cm by 70 cm each) and is divided into five sections.
The “House” section illustrates the building’s architectural history, its location in Berlin-Tiergarten, its rooms and how they were used.
The “Persons” section introduces the Institute’s staff in their working setting as well as visitors, guests and tenants.
Theory und Practice
The “Theory and Practice” section – the most comprehensive part of the exhibition – deals with the coworker’s major fields and theoretical approaches. At the centre: Hirschfeld’s theory of “sexual transitions” and its effects on forensic medicine, sex education and counselling.
The “Sexual Reform” section places the Institute within the context of the life reform movements at the beginning of the century. And it documents the politicization by Hirschfeld of his theory to work towards having legislation on homosexuality and abortion scrapped.
Destruction and Exile
The final section – “Destruction and Exile” – covers the hostility toward the Institute from 1919 onwards and the political events of 1933, including the Institute’s vandalization and the burning of Hirschfeld’s books. Focus is also on Hirschfeld’s life in exile in Paris and Nice.
In addition, the exhibition boasts a reconstruction of the famous picture wall, illustrating Hirschfeld’s sex and gender theories. It was first exhibited in Leipzig (1922) on occasion of the German Natural Scientists’ and Physicians’ centenary and then in Vienna (1930) at the World League for Sexual Reform’s congress. The picture wall (2,1 m by 4,5 m) always had a prominent place in the Institute and was used to explain sexual theories to visitors.