Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg (modern Kołobrzeg) in a Jewish family, the son of a highly regarded physician and 'Medizinalrat', Hermann Hirschfeld. In 1887-1888 he studied philosophy and philology in Breslau, then from 1888-1892 medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg and Berlin. In 1892 he took his doctoral degree. After his studies, he travelled through the U.S.A. for eight months, visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and living from the proceeds of his writing for German journals. Then he started a naturopathic practice in Magdeburg; in 1896 be moved his practice to Berlin-Charlottenburg.
Magnus Hirschfeld's career successfully found a balance between medicine and writing. After several years as a general practitioner in Magdeburg, in 1896 he issued a pamphlet Sappho and Socrates, on homosexual love (under the pseudonym Th. Ramien). In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee with the publisher Max Spohr, the lawyer Eduard Oberg, and the writer Max von Bülow. The group aimed to undertake research to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that since 1871 had criminalized homosexuality. They argued that the law encouraged blackmail, and the motto of the Committee, "Justice through science", reflected Hirschfeld's belief that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals. He was a tireless campaigner and became a well-known public figure.
Within the group, some of the members scorned Hirschfeld's analogy that homosexuals are like cripples. They argued that society might tolerate or pity cripples, but never treat them as equals. They also disagreed with Hirschfeld's (and Ulrichs's) view that male homosexuals were by nature womanish. Benedict Friedlaender and some others left the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and formed another group, the 'Bund für männliche Kultur' or Union for Male Culture, which however did not exist long. It argued that male-male love is a simple aspect of virile manliness rather than a special condition.
The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, under Hirschfeld's leadership, managed to gather over 5000 signatures from prominent Germans for a petition to overturn Paragraph 175. Signatories included Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Käthe Kollwitz, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, August Bebel, Max Brod, Karl Kautsky, Stefan Zweig, Gerhart Hauptmann, Martin Buber, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Eduard Bernstein.
The bill was brought before the Reichstag in 1898, but was only supported by a minority from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, prompting a frustrated Hirschfeld to consider what would, in a later era, be described as "outing" — that is, forcing some of the prominent and secretly homosexual lawmakers who had remained silent out of the closet. The bill continued to come before parliament, and eventually began to make progress in the 1920s before the takeover of the Nazi party obliterated any hopes for reform.
In 1921 Hirschfeld organised the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform. Congresses were held in Copenhagen (1928), London (1929), Vienna (1930), and Brno (1932).
Hirschfeld was both quoted and caricatured in the press as a vociferous expert on sexual manners, receiving the epithet "the Einstein of Sex". He saw himself as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloging many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality. He coined the word "transvestism," for example.
Hirschfeld co-wrote and acted in the 1919 film Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"), where actor Conrad Veidt played probably the first homosexual character ever written for cinema. The film had a specific gay-rights law reform agenda — Veidt's character is blackmailed by a lover, eventually coming out rather than continuing to make the blackmail payments, but his career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.
In 1919, under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld was given a former royal palace for his new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin. His Institute housed his immense library on sex and provided educational services and medical consultations. People from around Europe visited the Institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality.
Christopher Isherwood writes about his and Auden's visit to the Institute in his book Christopher and His Kind. They were visiting Francis Turville-Petre, a friend of Isherwood's who was an active member of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The Institute also housed the Museum of Sex, an educational resource for the public which is reported to have been visited by school classes.
Others criticized his view that homosexuality was, at root, hormonal, arguing that this opened the door for others who were seeking a cure for homosexuality.
When the Nazis took power they attacked the Institut and burned down many of its books on May 6, 1933. The press-library pictures and archival newsreel film of Nazi book-burnings seen today are usually pictures of Hirschfeld's library ablaze. At the time of the book burning, Hirschfeld was away from Germany on a world speaking tour. Hirschfeld never returned to Germany. He died of a heart attack on his 67th birthday in 1935 in Nice, where he is buried.
The following have been translated into English:
Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (1919-1933)--The Institute for Sexual Science--Instituto de Sexologia.(multiilingual Web site dedicated to Magnus Hirschfeld, German gay rights activist (1868-1935))
Jan 01, 2003; Ausstellung--Exhibition--Exposicion Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, Berlin, 2002 The advent of the Internet has opened up new...