Book Review: Berlin’s Third sex , Magnus Hirschfeld

I’m beginning to  sense  a pattern in these  writings, me  starting off pieces by saying, until recently I’d never heard of… Shockingly , there is much I don’t know , and much to be discovered and enjoyed, what  a never ending giver life is .

Again, as always in these reviews, a particular identified book or film may be the starting point for the focus of the piece, but my research takes me, perhaps on a tangent, of contextualisation of the book. To me, there is nothing more tedious than a review that merely summarises a book.

The book was lent to me, I really need to return it, by a friend of mine prior to a visit to see my son in Berlin. I mentioned to my friend that my son had organised for us to go on the Christopher Isherwood walking tour of Schoneberg , and she produced the book If you’re interested in the queer history of Berlin, or a glimpse into the precursors to the rise of Nazism, I would heartily recommend the walking tour. Sconeberg is a great part of Berlin to spend time in and still has an extraordinarily strong queer identity.

Hirschfeld is acknowledged as one of the world’s first gay activists, the book being first published in Berlin in 1904. As the title suggests his activism went beyond promoting the rights of queer women and men but acknowledged and celebrated the existence of non -binary definitions of sex, a third sex. Hirschfeld did not like the term homosexual, and throughout the book refers to Uranians – as developed by Ulrich. The term Uranian was first coined by the sociologist Karl Ulrich. Uranian is derived from Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, who was created from of the god’s Uranus testicles. Dionian , derived from Aphrodite Dionea represents heterosexuality .The term was popularised by Victorians, who believed that it was a form of comradely love that would bring true democracy and break down class and gender barriers. Oscar Wilde, date unknown, wrote to Robert Ross “To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble- more noble than other forms “.

The book is essentially a short historical account of Hirschfeld’s observations of queer life in turn of the 2oth century Berlin. He acts very much as a non-judgemental voyeur of the spectacles he sees. Rarely does he comment on how he feels about anything or his wider work in trying to promote the rights of gay people. He does allude to the pressures that homosexuals must have felt at the time, both social and legal and talk about having saved around 20 homosexuals from suicide through his support for them.  Male Same sex sexual activity between men was first criminalised by the German Empire in 1871 under paragraph 175, lesbians were not criminalised

Hirschfeld was inspired in his path to advocate for the acceptance of gay people by his therapeutic work and being aware of the high suicide rate amongst gay men in Berlin .In 1896 a young gay German army officer killed himself , leaving a note whose last lines read  “ The thought that you(Hirschfeld) could contribute to a future when the German fatherland will think of us in more just terms ,sweetens the hour of my death “

Hirschfeld was able to set up his institute and promote his work in the more liberal Berlin atmosphere of the post WW1 Weimar Republic. A Berlin where the lives of both gay men

Women flourished, by the mid-1920s there were at least 50 Lesbian bars in Berlin as well as several transvestite venues, the most famous being the Eldorado, where Marlene Dietrich performed.

A postcard of Hirschfeld’s institute of sex research, in the Tiergarten area of Berlin founded in 1919, a pioneering private research institute and counselling office. The book is particularly important as a social  historical record of the time in that so much else was destroyed either by the Nazis , or by people in fear of the Nazis finding these records and tracking down the homosexuals identified .

Christopher Isherwood who having abandoned his medical studies in England arrived in Berlin in 1929 kept prolific diaries of his experiences in Berlin. It was these diaries, kept until he fled, in 1933 that formed the basis oh books goodbye to Berlin, alter turned into the film Cabaret. Many of the diaries themselves he destroyed in Berlin for fear of them ending up in hands of Nazis

Hirschfeld was interested in the lived experience of not just gay people, but transgender people too. In his research he refers to, perhaps the first named trans gender women in Central Europe, the Brazilian Countess Dina Alma De Paradeda. It was only on her death through suicide, that her doctor revealed her body was male.

Photo of queer life turn of 19th Century Berlin

It is this  aspect of his work in promoting the stories of transgender people  and their rights that I find the most poignant  and relevant to a contemporary British narrative that transgenderism is somehow  a new phenomenon and even worse the growing prevalence of demonisation of trans women and the portrayal of them as predators and threats to women.

In 1922 Dora Richter became the fist transgender woman to undergo gender reassignment in Hirschfield’s institute

 Hirschfeld was targeted by for being both gay and Jewish and in 1920 he was beaten up by Volkisch activists. The Volkisch movement was really a pre curser to Nazism, active from the 19th century it arose as a subculture opposed to socio – cultural changes of modernity. They would have had double reason to hate Hirschfeld, for being openly gay and Jewish as the movement was linked to growing Nationalism and anti -Semitism

By 1933 The National Socialist German’s Workers party bans homosexual groups. On the morning of May 6th a group of students who belonged to the National Socialist Student League stormed the Institute , shouting “ Brenne Hirschfeld” Burn Hirschfeld , Hirschfeld  himself was long gone , on an International book tour that he never returned from .

Its difficult to know for sure how many gay men, trans men, prostitutes were sent to concentration gamps and murdered by the Nazis, as the Nazis destroyed the records. There is also the obvious issue of intersectionality, Hirschfeld was doubly hated by the Nazis for being Gay and Jewish. Conservative estimates put the figure at 70,000

Reading Berlin’s Third sex is a bittersweet read. Whilst exhilarating to read the stories of so many of Berlin’s queer and thriving identity under the Weimar Republic, in the back of one mind there can only be sense of what happened to them? Knowing the horror and suffering of what was to come. Reading the book and doing the background reading has also reaffirmed for me , as both a socialist and a feminist how important it is for me to stand with my queer and trans brothers and sisters who sadly seem to be more under threat by the growing demonisation of trans women in England .

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