Video Essay: Nazi Book Burnings

If I had more time in a day, a week, a month, I would be better about updating this blog concurrently with the video essays I’ve been working on. Sadly, between them and my teaching job (you know, the one that (mostly) pays the bills?), it’s a pretty tough hat trick to pull off. I guess I’m okay with it, though. This blog will still be here when I need it, and what has already been written will remain as a record of my late pre-transition/early transition rationalization of myself and all I was going through at the time. Not that I don’t intend to still write separate posts, but, ya know, it’s whatever I’m feeling at any given time. It always has been.

So, same as with the last one, I’m just going to post the link to me latest video here, along with the script. I honestly love how creatively rewarding this experience is proving to be.

____

When Caitlyn Jenner came out publicly as a transwoman in 2015, first in June with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, then in July at the ESPY Awards, two things happened. First, transwomen suddenly had an extremely…disappointing spokesperson thrust upon them, and second, an unprecedented number of people in the US and (and likely abroad) suddenly became aware that we even exist at all. Since then, at least according to many conservatives, it seemed like “everyone” was suddenly transgendering up a storm. Men wanted to be women. Women wanted to be men. And you mean to tell me that we need 52 different bathrooms now? It’s madness, I tell you, madness!

And don’t even get me started on the poor boys and girls. Will no one think of the children?! This gender hysteria has really gotten out of hand. What’s next? Are people going to start marrying their toasters?

Oh wait, I’ve mixed up my queerphobic strawmen. That happens sometimes.

Anyway, for a population which had lived to that point completely ignorant of the existence of transgender people, this seemed to many like a new issue. Tolerating the gays was one thing, but now we have to pretend that…this…this is okay?! Where were people getting these delusional ideas? It must be the media. That damned liberal media! I don’t care what people want to do in the privacy of their own bedroom, but to subject the public to it?! Now we have trans people on the news, trans people on TV, trans people in movies! Why can’t we just return to back before all this lunacy, when people were good and decent and knew when to be ashamed!

The thing is, trans people are not a new phenomenon, not by a long shot. We have existed, in one form or another, across centuries and cultures and places. It’s just that, in addition to often voluntarily living on the periphery for fear of our own safety, deliberate actions have been taken to erase not only our existence, but any evidence that we were ever here at all. And, as always, it’s the Nazis’ fault.

 

Nazis! Like “transgender,” “Nazi” is a word that seems to be everywhere nowadays. This person is a Nazi. That person is a Nazi. Everyone is a Nazi. No one is a Nazi! According to Godwin’s law, the longer an online “discussion” progresses, the greater the likelihood of a comparison to Nazis or Hitler. To some, having the word “Nazi” in an argument works to almost immediately invalidate that argument, because the comparison has become so commonplace that it is in danger of losing its meaning altogether. This is especially annoying during those times when someone says something genuinely fascy, because what do you call something that is Nazi-like if not Nazi-like?

But I’m not talking about modern Nazis in this video. At least, not directly (read into that what you will). I’m talking about the real, historical deutschland uber alles types. You know, the ones who murdered millions before being roundly crushed by the Allies. Those Nazis.

You see, Germany after World War 1 (during which time it was known as The Weimar Republic) was a very different place than it was once the Nazis took over in ’33. Unlike the constitutional monarchy which preceded it, and the fascist dictatorship which followed, the Weimar Republic was a liberal democracy. The Weimar itself is a deeply fascinating subject, and one which is largely outside the scope of this video, but in (grossly minimal) sum, it was a period of massive economic instability and inflation, as well as extreme political polarization (where communists, socialists, fascists, anarchists, liberals, monarchists, imperialists, et al.) each had a voice and a base. It was also a period marked by explosive artistic creativity and scientific discovery. Oh, and it was also crazy gay. Like, seriously, there’s gay, and then there’s Berlin in the 20s gay.

The Weimar was a progressive republic plagued by reactionaries who wanted nothing less than a return to the German Empire which had, oh yeah, been roundly crushed by the Allies in 1918. Funny parallels, there, between the two World Wars. This meant that Weimar Germany was marked by contradictions, with unprecedented pushes for greater democratic freedom and individual liberties (including for LGBT people), while far right groups (which would eventually coalesce into the Nazis) were simultaneously gaining more and more ground. Shit was crazy, yo.

But to keep the focus on some of the better stuff the era had to offer (for now, we’ll circle back to the Nazi stuff), yeah, Germany at this time was pretty much at the forefront of LGBT issues. Echoing the political state of the country itself, there were many competing leaders of this movement, although only one has the distinction of being dubbed “the Einstein of Sex” by contemporary American newspapers. A man you were never told about in history class (which, as we’ll see, was the point), but who was nonetheless a pioneer of transgender issues: Magnus Hirschfield.

 

Magnus Hirschfiel, born in 1868, was a German sexologist whose study came to its greatest prominence in the early 20th century. In 1919 (one year after Germany’s surrender and the end of the First World War), he founded the (okay, I never studied German, but I’m going to do my very best here) Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or The Institute of Sexual Research, which was not only likely the foremost institution on LGBT research at the time, but which also housed a massive (publicly-accessible) library of books dedicated to gay and transgender issues. Yeah, he was kind of a big deal.

Hirschfeld stated that he was driven to study homosexuality from a scientific standpoint after an incident with a gay military officer who committed suicide the night before his (non-gay) wedding. Before shooting himself, the officer wrote a suicide letter detailing what had driven him to take his own life—he also addressed Hirschfeld directly, challenging him to bring a greater understanding of the lives and nature of gay people to the anti-LGBT folk of Germany. Hirschfeld obliged.

Oh, and I should take just a second to mention that most of the research in this video on Hirschfeld and his institute comes from the book Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement by Ralf Dose. It goes into a lot more detail than I have time to go into here, so if you’re interested, it’s a pretty good read.

Hirschfeld’s primary goal was the repeal of Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code. Yeah, “penal.” Get over it. Passed in 1871 (the same year as the founding of the German Empire), Paragraph 175 criminalized homosexual acts between males. This was a time in German history when it was debated whether gay men were fit for military service, and when (and I’m quoting here) men caught in women’s clothes were often treated as spies and executed for treason. Interestingly, while there were attempts at making lesbian sex illegal, apparently no one could agree on how lady sex worked, and so such a law was never passed. (laughs) Alright, so I guess, just, some things just never change.

Bear with me one more time here—I actually did study Latin in high school, but never how to pronounce it.“Per scientiam ad justiatiam,” or “through science to justice” was the maxim through which Hirschfeld attempted to prove the cruelty of Paragraph 175. Essentially, Hirschfeld wanted to prove the “naturalness” and “immutability” of homosexuality in gay individuals. In attempting to do this, Hirschfeld became a highly controversial figure, even within his own camp. The debate essentially ran like this: should an attack on Paragraph 175 be a wholly scientific issue, or a wholly social/political one?

Hirschfeld’s approach was to try and thread the needle and blend the two for a more cohesive picture of the situation. With the gift of hindsight, some of the ways he attempted to do this were quite good, and some were quite bad. In the context of his time, though, Hirschfeld was a revolutionary, and much more on the right side of things than most any of his contemporaries.

Essentially, Hirschfeld blended biology with anthropology. While he sought for genetic and endocrinological bases for sexuality, he also wrote ethnographies about the gay and trans people he met both at the institute and abroad. It’s worth noting that science was not Hirschfeld’s first choice—that would be world languages. His decision to pursue a scientific career was a practical one. This is reflected in his mixed approach to hard and soft sciences. By his own words:

“I left my first love on my own accord, but I was not unfaithful, for when I later changed to the study of the natural sciences and medicine, it was more for external reasons. Inwardly, all my life long I’ve felt more closely and essentially connected with journalists, men of letters, writers, poets, and artists than I have to doctors, professors, and very privy superior Medical Councilors. While I regard the latter as my colleagues and mentors, I perceive the former as my comrades in the freedom fight for the Beautiful, the Good, and the True.”

When doing research for this video, I actually purchased an old English copy of one of Hirschfeld’s ethnographies. Written in 1910, it’s titled “Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress,” and I can’t imagine a more perfect example of “progress mired by the culture of the time” than this work, or at least the title of it. So, first off, “transvestite” is a word that has definitely fallen out of favor, and is even a borderline slur these days, so please don’t take this as a pass to use it. However, 1910 was a different world, and it was Hirschfeld who actually coined this term, and he coined it specifically to distinguish trans people from gay people. You see, up to this point, trans people were just seen as “extra crazy, extra gay” people, but certainly not their own thing. But what Hirschfeld found in his study was that many trans folk are not actually people who desperately want to be with the gender they were assigned at birth, but that transbians like yours truly, as well as gay trans men, also exist.

It’s actually a fascinating read, and if you can track down a copy (it’s been out of print for a while), I highly recommend it (with the caveat that it is old, and all that goes with that). There are so many echoes of my own experiences, 110 years later, in there, as well as experiences of other trans folk I know whose experiences differ from mine.

 

We’re getting close to the Nazi stuff. But first, we need to talk a little more about Hirschfeld’s institute.

The Institute of Sexual Research had three primary functions: academic research on sexology, treatment of patients (for things like STDs, erectile dysfunction, and transition-related medical procedures), and counseling and education (including the aforementioned publicly-accessible library and resources). In fact, the institute was so well-known that it became one of Berlin’s major tourist attractions.

Hirschfeld, and later the institute, was a pioneer in early transgender care. One of his most notable early contributions was his work with Karl M. Baer, a trans man who underwent an early form of gender confirmation surgery; shortly thereafter in 1907, Hirschfeld helped Baer anonymously published “Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years,” a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of his experiences. Later, the institute (under Hirschfeld’s supervision) would perform Lili Elbe’s surgeries, whom you may know as the trans woman depicted in The Danish Girl. In addition to surgeries, the Institute for Sex Research was a pioneer in early hormone replacement, Hirschfeld himself holding a joint patent for Testifortan, one of the very earliest available testosterone supplements. The institute also worked with the police to issue “transvestite cards,” which sound horrifically dystopian, and they sort of are, but they allowed individuals to legally wear clothing opposite their assigned gender in a time when, as I said earlier, it was otherwise illegal and punishable to do so. Again, progressive ideas within a much more backward time.

The institute was also responsible for the first film to represent two openly gay males in sympathetic roles, something we still struggle with today. “Different from the Others” was released in 1919, and for you German movie nerds, it stars Conrad Veidt, who would go on to a starring role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a year later. Unfortunately, German censorship ultimately limited the film to only be shown within the institute, and once the Nazis came to power, they destroyed every copy of it. Well, every copy but one, which was discovered in Ukraine in the 1970s. Now, anyone who’s interested can easily find it and watch it online.

Hirschfeld’s banner theory, which would be the theory under which the institute would operate, was the “Doctrine of Sexual Intermediacy.” The TLDR is this: gender and sexuality exist on an infinitely variable spectrum. The longform states that “all human characteristics (physical and psychological) occur on a spectrum from masculine to feminine”; these characteristics take four forms, including:

  • Sex Organs
  • Other physical characteristics
  • Sex drive/orientation
  • Other psychological characteristics

Furthermore, all people have a mix of masculine and feminine traits and features, and no individual is “wholly” masculine or “wholly” feminine. This was the basis for his argument against Paragraph 175: if no one sits on the poles of the gender/sexuality spectrum, then targeting a few for their nature is innately cruel. In terms of sexual and gender theory, Hirschfeld was many decades ahead of his time.

Again, in the interest of fairness, the guy and the institute weren’t perfect. Hirschfeld, like many Germans at the time, ascribed to degeneration theory, which basically stated that some people simply possess inferior genes, and if allowed to reproduce, they will spread those genes to the general populace in a way which causes society itself to slide evolutionarily backwards.

Actually, that’s still a hell of a thing for a gay Jew in early 20th century Germany to believe. Oh wait, did I not mention that earlier? Huh. Well, yup, Hirschfeld ascribed to the very theory used by the Nazis to support their mass extermination of Jews and homosexuals. So I guess it’s time to talk about that.

 

In 1933, some asshole named Adolf whatever became chancellor of Germany, and a year later, he became the Führer. This marked the end of the Weimar Republic, and the beginning of the Third Reich. The first concentration camps came up during Hitler’s first year in power, and it was there that the Nazis sent their political prisoners to be used as slave labor or exterminated. These most famously included some six million Jews, but there were several other groups as well, and more relevant to this video are the 5-15 thousand gay men and transwomen who were also interned (of the 100,000 or so who were arrested over the years for those “crimes”). These prisoners could be distinguished by the pink triangles sewn to their uniforms. It’s worth noting that Paragraph 175 was strengthened under Hitler, and it was this law which was cited in order to “punish” these individuals.

More relevant to this discussion than Hitler himself was his Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda: Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels was the man responsible for pushing state ideology and repressing ideas which ran “contrary” to the state. At no point was this more physically manifest than in early May 1933, when he organized a “cleansing by fire” of all literature which did not fall within official Nazi ideology. The list of condemned authors and titles was some 4000 deep, which resulted in tens of thousands of burned books. Care to know the event that started all of it? Betcha can’t guess where I’m going with this.

On May 6th, 1933, The German Student Union raided Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research and publicly hauled out its entire collection of 20,000 or so books and journals. Four days later, on May 10th, every one of them, Hirschfeld’s life work and every shred of research conducted by the institute, was reduced to ash. Almost all of the most famous videos and images of the Nazi book burnings are of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, including all of the ones I have used for this video. Of course, some of the more famous works survived, but tons were lost to history forever.

Hirschfeld, who was on a world lecture tour at the time, escaped Nazi persecution, but was never allowed to return to his homeland. He died of travel-related health complications in France in 1935; his romantic and business partner, Karl Giese, committed suicide in Czechoslovakia (where he had fled to) in 1938. Their deaths, as well as the destruction of the library and its archives, meant that Goebbels was devastatingly effective at repressing all that the institute and its founder represented.

One of the recurrent themes in many of the trans folk interviewed in Hirschfeld’s ethnography was how monumental it was for one to learn that there were others like them out there. This is cited multiple times by multiple trans folk in Transvestites. There is a unifying power in knowing that you aren’t alone, in knowing that you aren’t the “freak” that certain parts of society might label you as. The destruction of all LGBT-positive literature and research was the death of that unified voice, which therefore stripped away all protection for gay and trans people under the shadow of the Reich. An erasure of history is literally an erasure of personhood. So…drawn any parallels yet?

 

On January 20th, 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, the White House scrubbed all mention of LGBTQ people from the websites of the White House, Department of State, and Department of Labor. On March 28th, 2017, the Census Bureau withdrew a proposal to collect demographic information on LGBTQ people. On July 26th, 2017, the Justice Department filed a brief arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not provide protection of gender identity or sexual orientation; that same day, Trump tweeted “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” On October 6th, 2017, the Justice Department stated that government agencies and private businesses alike were allowed to discriminate, so long as they had religious grounds to do so. On January 18th, 2018, the HHS’ Office of Civil Rights opened a Conscience and Freedom Division” to support healthcare providers’ apparent right to discriminate against patients on religious or moral grounds. On April 11th, 2018, the DOJ made a proposal to no longer collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity from teens on the National Crime Victimization Survey. On October 21st, 2018, the New York Times released a report on a memo from the HHS to change the definition of “sex” under Title IX to immutably mean one’s assigned gender at birth. On October 25th, 2018, US representatives at the UN worked to remove references to transgender people in UN human rights documents. On April 12th, 2019, Trump’s ban on transgender military enlistment took effect. On April 19th, 2019, HHS proposed a rule to abandon data collection on LGBTQ youth in the foster system. On July 8th, 2019, the DOS established a “Commission on Unalienable Rights” aimed at narrowing our country’s human rights advocacy to fit with the “natural law” and “natural rights” views of social conservatives, stating it would seek to “be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.” On August 16th, 2019, the DOJ filed a brief in the Supreme Court arguing that federal law “does not prohibit discrimination against transgender persons based on their transgender status.” On November 1st, 2019, the DOE published final regulations permitting religious schools to ignore nondiscrimination standards set by accrediting agencies; that same day, the HHS announced it would not enforce, and, in fact planned to repeal, regulations prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion in all HHS grant programs.

Oh, and that’s a very truncated list. This video is already way too long. If you’d like to learn more, check out the full list on transequality.org, link in the description.

In the Information Age, book burnings, even those on the scale executed by Nazi Germany, are no longer as effective at repressing information and erasing history as they were a century ago. The intent behind the burnings, however—stripping protections from vulnerable communities and eradicating any sort of definition for them—has not changed. When Hirschfeld died in exile, when his library was burned and his institute destroyed, when gay people were rounded up by the tens of thousands, LGBTQ people lost access to each other, and became fearful to expose their own identities for fear of execution. The trans folk Hirschfeld interviews in his ethnographies drew so much courage and strength from learning that there were others like them. Hell, that’s exactly what it took for me to finally accept myself, and I’m sure many other LGBTQ people feel similarly. Under the Third Reich, LGBTQ people were suddenly alone and afraid, and therefore vulnerable to their own destruction.

It’s insane that Hirschfeld’s ideas are still so progressive today, seeing as he died 85 years ago. It’s even more insane that, as of September 7th, 2018, there are still 69 of 193 UN member states that criminalize homosexuality in the same way that Paragraph 175 did; in a few, it’s even punishable by death. Trans individuals tend to have even fewer protections, but because there are so few countries that even legally recognize trans people, it’s very difficult to find much concrete information about them.

I don’t really have a clean way to end this essay. I thought I did when I began writing it, like some sort of “call to action” or something, but I am just one obscure trans woman with a tiny voice. But that’s just the thing: I am not alone, and neither are you. For as long as we’ve been around, there have been attempts to silence and erase us. I wanted this to be funnier and more light-hearted than it turned out to be, but that doesn’t really seem possible now. So I guess I’ll just leave with this: if you’re LGBTQ of any stripe, share your stories wherever you can and whenever you feel safe to do so; and if you’re cisgender and heterosexual, thank you so much for taking the time to watch this video and listen to my words. I hope you continue to expend the effort to learn from the queer people around you. Everyone deserves life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Actually, no, I do have one final word, another anecdote from the story of Magnus Hirscfeld. While on tour in China, the good doctor acquired a second lover, Li Shiu Tong of Shanghai. After Hirschfeld’s death, he studied for a time in Germany (as his status as Hirscfeld’s lover and travel companion were not well-known there at the time), but in 1941 he moved to the US to continue his studies. He would later move to Canada, where he was apparently a bit of a hermit; he died there in 1993. There had been rumors, however, that Hirscfeld had bequeathed all his surviving books, as well as his travel journals and other remaining possessions. After the old man’s death, a student who earned money cleaning the dumpster near Li Shiu Tong’s building found a suitcase full of old German texts and journals, which he kept (despite not being able to read). Some years later, an online call was made for any information regarding Li Shiu Tong and his alleged collection. Eventually, the two parties came in contact with one another, and through that, the Hirschfeld Society got in contact with Li Shiu Tong’s surviving family. Turns out, the rumors were true, and Li Shiu Tong had kept his old lover’s collection for sixty years, right up to his own death. It was through his love for Hirschfeld that the Einstein of Sex’s work survived. And it is through our own connections with one another that we, too, are protected from such erasure.

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