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First they came for the LGBTQ+ books: How the Nazis started burning books 90 years ago this month

LGBTQ Nation spoke with PEN America about the parallels between what happened then and what's happening now.

By Greg Owen - Thursday, May 25, 2023

Months after the war to end all wars came to a close in 1918, a German researcher named Magnus Hirschfeld opened his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexology) in Berlin, the world’s first academic institution devoted to the study of sexuality.

He bought the building from the defeated government of the Free State of Prussia in the leafy Tiergarten district. It would house a research library and a large archive with tens of thousands of volumes; a marriage and sex counseling office; a museum of sexual artifacts; medical exam rooms; and a lecture hall.


Penguin Random House sues school district for effectively banning LGBTQ+ books. The district is accused of pulling books from shelves that were flagged by a Moms for Liberty activist.

Hirschfeld, who was openly gay and Jewish, would occupy a building next door that he later acquired. The institute became a gathering place for colleagues, patients, and friends who were both. Christopher Isherwood, Margaret Sanger, André Gide and Nehru were honored guests. The Soviets were repeat visitors.

Fourteen years later — and 90 years ago this month — it was sacked by Nazi youth, a milestone in the construction of the Nazi state, and a harbinger of an even more devastating conflict to come.

On May 6, 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power, the Nazi-dominated German Student League marched to the Institute and sacked it while a brass band played. Hirschfeld was in Switzerland at the time and later watched newsreel footage in Paris of his beloved Institut destroyed.

What volumes the Nazi youth — and later that afternoon, the SA, the Nazi paramilitary wing — didn’t destroy were hauled out of the building four nights later and thrown atop the enormous bonfire of books at Opernplatz, the most iconic of the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s. A bronze bust of Hirschfeld from his Institut was set atop the pyre.

The tens of thousands of books, papers, research documents, films and photographs represented decades of work by Hirschfeld and his colleagues, reaching back to Hirschfeld’s visit to the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, where he first encountered a gay subculture similar to what he’d experienced in Berlin. So began a career dedicated to the study of, and advocacy for, sexual minorities of all kinds.


JB COMMENTS: I am glad I am older as the world I see evolving around me is not a very pleasant one. With LGBT rights being eroded all around the world, with all the troubles coming out of America and with fake news everywhere and bigotry ruling the day, the world is going down the toilet and Trump is largely to blame. I would not want to be a teenager in the present climate of damning anyone and everyone who doe snot match your criteria of bigotry and racisms.


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