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

Thousands of books smolder in a Nazi bonfire, 1933. The burnings were conducted by the German Student Association of Nazi Germany.
Thousands of books smolder in a Nazi bonfire, 1933. The burnings were conducted by the German Student Association of Nazi Germany. Photo: Shutterstock

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.

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.

While Hirschfeld is best known to history for his Institut and the enormity of its loss, he first gained international fame in turn of the century Germany testifying as an expert witness in a libel case involving Kaiser Wilhelm II’s close friend, the politically powerful Prince Philipp von Eulenburg, who was accused of having a sexual relationship with a German general, Kuno von Moltke.

Hirschfeld famously testified he could confirm Moltke was gay, there was nothing wrong with it, and that “homosexuality was part of the plan of nature and creation just like normal love.” 

He represented everything the Nazis would come to loathe.

Ninety years after Hitler began building his National Socialist state by tearing down the work of enlightened scholars like Hirschfeld, LGBTQ Nation spoke with Jonathan Friedman, Director of Free Expression and Education Programs for PEN America, to find out what lessons an authoritarian leader and his devoted followers from the past can teach us about the power of censorship today.

LGBTQ NATION: What does it say about Nazi tactics that they started their intellectual purge at a gay academic institution?

Jonathan Friedman: When we think about the Second World War, we sometimes forget what a multifaceted assault the Nazi regime was propagating. It was really never about only one group of people that was being targeted. It was many. It was people being targeted for religion, for ethnicity, for race, for their professions, for their political beliefs and their organizing for their sexual orientation. And, to some extent, for their gender, even at a time when maybe those weren’t the words that people used.

And so it’s astounding, I think, to reflect on what was lost, but then also, in an interesting way, in which historical chapters are now being highlighted in ways that we may have not been aware of before this one book burning, and the destruction of the Institute. It reminds us of the violence with which it began.

LGBTQ NATION: What parallels do you see in the tactics of that authoritarian regime with groups like Moms for Liberty?

JF: For many people, the drastic spread of this movement to totally erase certain identities from books in schools seems certainly of a similar vein, in the sense that both are tactics of erasure. I think a lot of the time right now, people want to downplay what’s happening. They say, “Well, if you can buy it on Amazon, it’s not a book ban,” or, “If you can get permission from a parent to go into a backroom in a library, then it’s not really banned.”

But the truth is, on the road to total censorship, there are many steps. It can be a ladder, a sliding scale. It does not happen that we go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning, and now we’re in an authoritarian country. It can be a slide, a kind of daily normalization, or routinization, of state censorship. It’s something people come to expect and come to live with. And when I speak to teachers and librarians around the country in places where these issues are intense right now, they do feel like they’re already living under McCarthyism.

LGBTQ NATION: What does the sacking of the Institute in Berlin have in common with the Don’t Say Gay law in Florida?

JF: I would say that both are cut from the same cloth, in the sense that they start from a place of intolerance, and they’re trying to weaponize that intolerance to spread misunderstanding, disinformation, marginalization, and to empower one group of people over others.

And you know, the reality is that in the United States right now, in Florida — anywhere — we’re actually living at a time of a kind of blossoming of freedom of expression, gender expression and sexuality. In fact, there has been so much circulation of ideas and information and identity that more people feel more affirmed in who they are today. And these tactics are undeniably an effort to push those identities back in the closet, to make people more uncomfortable in their bodies once again.

That might not start with book burnings. It might not start with closing of institutes. But where does it start? I think it starts with laws like Don’t Say Gay in Florida.

LGBTQ NATION: It’s like the definition of reactionary.

JF: It’s the very definition of a reactionary.

LGBTQ NATION: What characteristics do you think National Socialism and Christian Nationalism have in common?

JF: The common ideology I see would be a kind of supremacist notion that one group of people ought to be able to control society for everybody else, ought to be in positions of power, and ought to be able to keep anyone — any group of people that didn’t have historic power — at the margins. That’s a degree of commonality.

LGBTQ NATION: What do you think the ultimate aim of groups like Moms for Liberty is? What’s driving them?

JF: I think you can’t deny that there is a degree of political opportunism at work in all of this, where a particular movement is trying to galvanize people to the polls. You know, a lot of this intensified after the election of Governor Youngkin in Virginia in 2021. It has continued to have very clear political elements in both the involvement of some politicians in local school board affairs and in the passage of more and more laws.

So you can’t really distinguish anymore in a lot of states between the book bans that might be pushed by a group of local parents who are associated with Moms for Liberty and the laws that they’re taking advantage of, which are being promoted and passed in state houses in order to make that local activism easier. There’s a fundamental connection.

It’s not clear, I would say, what their ultimate aims are, beyond perhaps an effort to destroy public education.

LGBTQ NATION: How should writers today respond to censorship, and what lessons can they learn from what happened in Nazi Germany?

JF: I think we are seeing more and more solidarity. I think we’re seeing more people come together to speak out. But it’s already clear, in the second year of this, that it’s attacking more and more writers. So if censorship hasn’t come for your books yet, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to.

In a lot of places, censorship works in a chilling manner. And so people get more and more cautious. They want to restrict more and more content. They see concerning content in more and more places. And so there’s this whole effort to move the Overton window around how people think that libraries and schools should operate, from places that champion open inquiry and opportunities to learn about the world, to places where there are questions that one cannot ask, identities that one cannot learn about, histories that cannot be discussed.

That’s what’s so troubling, and so alarming, about the spread of this movement in our country.

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