Reliving Transgender History- by Rafaela Amrita Crevoshay

Berlin of the early 20th century
lives in our hearts

If modern ultra-conservatives and “Christian” extremists consider their anti- Trans rhetoric to be a novel solution to their feverish longing for an America that once was, they ought to consult modern history. 

Their play book has been lifted from the authentic Nazi script, circa 1933.

Early 20th century Berlin became known for its pioneering social enlightenment. It was a global magnet for artistic innovation and intellectual ferment. It also gained a reputation for hedonism, nightlife, and unprecedented sexual freedom. This was the liberated cultural context in which the Institute for Sexual Science (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) blossomed.

A product of progressive scientific research and humanistic imagination, The Institute was created in 1919. Founder Magnus Hirschfeld dedicated the Institute to the study of gender and sexuality as well as activism favoring LGBT (a modern term, not used at that time) legal rights. 

A pioneer in the field, the Institute engaged in research and therapy on gay and transgender topics. Additionally, it provided comprehensive services to the general public including marital counseling, treatment for venereal diseases, contraceptive aid, and gynecological exams as well as public education its extensive lecture program. The Institute featured the world’s most comprehensive library of sexology and related topics. Additionally, there was a museum that was internationally acclaimed for its collection of human sexuality artifacts.

The Institute’s motto, “through science to justice “(per scientiam ad justitiam) was displayed above the entrance and reflected its commitment to social change. The staff was comprised of endocrinologists, psychiatrists, gynecologists, an anthropologist, radiologist, sex educators, and others. Among them were several Jews, including Hirschfeld. 

In his 1923 essay, The Intersexual Constitution (Die Intersexuelle Konstitution), Hirschfeld defined transsexual as the term of choice for gender nonconformists. In the 1960’s it gave way to transgender, in recognition that the phenomenon does not specifically relate to sex, rather it is in the domain of gender.

The Institute exemplified the cultural and cerebral renaissance of early 20th century Berlin. Hirschfeld was renowned as a documentarian of social status. He achieved additional fame as an advocate for social justice. Incessant lobbying of local police won an official pass for registered transvestites (Tranvestitenschein), ending harassment of cross dressers by the authorities.

The mixed mosaic of post WWI German history featured contrasting social elements, starkly influenced by grim economic realities. The war’s settlement terms were grossly unfavorable to Germany. Industry languished. Unemployment soared. By the early 1920s inflation had trivialized consumer’s purchasing power. A disaffected underclass had emerged. It was a sitting duck for fascist manipulation.

Nazi strategy, expressed as propaganda, was simplistic, but relentlessly focused:

Simplicity is an inherent feature of fascism Render the narrative lean, cleanse it of nuance and historical color, and unburden it from the confounding contradictions of modern science. Elevate the leader to a sacred status of infallibility. Eliminate the ambiguity of democracy and cleanse the mirage of diversity. Award followers with mythic status, invested with superiority of heritage, race, history, and destiny and require their unconditional loyalty. 

This was appealing and irresistible to the large and growing underclass (die Unterschicht).

The early Nazis cut their bloodthirsty teeth on Hirschfeld and the Institute. He suffered multiple attacks by Nazis in the early 1920s, including an assault that left him badly injured (Munich, October 1920). A comment in the Deutschnationale Jugendzeitung (Nationalist Youth News) lamented his survival. He was the target of a shooting in Vienna and, by 1929, frequent attacks curtailed his public appearances. 

Hirschfeld was arguably a target of maximum attraction to Nazis. An intellectual. A promoter of innovative interpretations of sexual behaviors. A homosexual. A Jew. If Hirschfeld represented the core corrupting current of the Nazi Weltanschauung (world view), the Institute represented the peak of his perversion. 

On 10 May 1933, Nazis in Berlin burned works by leftists and other authors which they considered “un-German”, including thousands of books that were looted from the library of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.
US Holocaust Museum, Public Domain (Wikipedia)

 Nazi notoriety was established early by burning books on a scale that went far beyond physical destruction – theirs was an effort to erase memory of accounts of evolved human potential. January 30, 1933 was a watershed moment for Germany. As the Weimar Republic rotted away, the Nazi party jockeyed to fill the void, successfully. By May 1933. Emboldened by newly acquired legitimacy, the German Student Union (Deutsche Studentenschaft) initiated a multi-day assault on the Institute’s campus. 

The voluminous library was emptied as unique books of every topic were incinerated on the streets. Herr Goebbels entertained the marauding crowd with a speech of incitement as the rampage continued. Buildings were incinerated, lives were lost. Hirschfeld was absent at that time, on business in Switzerland, but the event sealed his exile. He fled to France and failed to reestablish the Institute. He died in 1934.

Notable that, based on name and address records recovered by the vandals, tens of thousands were arrested and dispatched to slave labor and death camps. The trajectory of fate was now fixed for Untermenschen (subhumans) under Nazi rule, whether they be the mentally or physically challenged, Roma (Gypsies), Poles, Slavs, or Jews. From a Nazi point of view, the dress rehearsal for mass extermination was flawless. With the successful Nazi “aktion“ against the gay units of the Nazi SA (June 1934) the purge of LGBT presence in Nazi Germany was complete. The fascists went on to orchestrate unprecedented horrors in furtherance of their fantasies of socio-racial superiority.

When an entire community perishes, we would normally expect its passing to be noticed. But within a few months, mass incarceration and exile erased their memory. No advocates remained to comment in the press. No one contested their arrest. No one protested the disappearance of civil liberties.

The Nazis had invented a formula that would serve them well for over a decade.  Five years later, on November 9, 1938, they rolled out Community Destruction version 2.0 – Kristallnacht. It involved the incineration of 900 synagogues, deportation of 30,000 Jews to concentration camps, liquidation of 7,000 Jewish owned businesses. Sexual “deviants” were no longer the target – they’d already been eradicated. To the satisfaction of Nazis throughout Germany and Austria, Kristallnacht, built on the successful action against the Institute five years earlier, would predict the fate of Jews and other minorities throughout Europe.

Evil, as it happened, spent itself into oblivion. Post-war Germany, beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by allied armies, barely manifested a remnant of the previously robust Trans community. West Germany, like other “progressive” European nations, settled into the status quo of legal repression of LGBT behaviors but gradually experienced a revolution of sexual enlightenment. It enacted a Trans rights law in 1980, followed by periodic reforms. In 1973 a new Institut fuer Sexual Wissenschaft was founded at the University of Frankfurt, followed in 1996 by an installation at Humboldt University of Berlin. In 2021 two Trans people were elected to the Bundestag.

After General Eisenhower visited a concentration camp near Buchenwald, he called his chief of staff, George Marshall to report that everything published in the press about the camps was an “understatement”. I was born in 1949. Had I been born in Europe twenty years earlier, as a Trans-Jew, I could have been Ike’s posthumous host.

My father, Maurice Crevoshay, served his country in the post-war Supreme Allied Command. He returned home in 1948, secure in the knowledge that Nazism had been defeated irrevocably and, as he would have put it, “once and for all”. And Dad’s safe homecoming reassured all of us that the Nazi nightmare had indeed been terminated.

Or so we thought at the time.

CLICK for Part 2

R.A. Crevoshay

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