Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935)

Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, a physician and medical advisor in Prussia, founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in 1897 – the world's first gay rights organization. Its main aim was to decriminalize homosexuality through the repeal of the notorious Paragraph 175 of the German penal code. Hirschfeld managed to secure the support of many public figures for this issue. With petitions to the Reichstag and scientifically based information and awareness-raising campaigns, he aimed to encourage a better understanding of homosexuality and a change of attitudes within society. His motto was "Justice through science" (Per scientiam ad justitiam).

In 1918, Hirschfeld founded the world's first Institute for Sexual Research, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, which also addressed issues of relevance to transvestites and transsexuals. Hirschfeld was a tireless champion of humane and liberal legislation on sexuality, enlightened attitudes and tolerance, not only in Germany. In 1921, Hirschfeld's Institute organized the First International Congress for Sexual Reform on the Basis of Sexual Science, and in 1928 Hirschfeld helped to found the World League for Sexual Reform (WLSR), based at the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin.

Today, a hundred years later, Hirschfeld's scientific theories about homosexuality and his medical-biological perspective may often seem outdated and sometimes remote from current thinking. Nonetheless, Hirschfeld's integrity as a humanitarian and civil rights advocate is beyond doubt.

As a fervent champion of homosexual rights, Hirschfeld was the target of massive hostility. For the extreme right and the burgeoning Nazi movement, this progressive Jewish sexual reformer was anathema. As early as 1920, after giving a lecture in Munich, Hirschfeld was attacked by right-wing extremists; he was seriously injured and newspapers even ran reports of his death.

Despite some successes achieved during the Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld's aim "to decriminalize homosexuality" was not achieved even under Germany's first democracy. After the National Socialists came to power, Paragraph 175 was tightened up to allow massive persecution of homosexuals. Tens of thousands of gay men were imprisoned, and thousands were deported to concentration camps, where most of them were murdered. The homosexual rights movement was smashed, its publications banned, and meeting places for gays and lesbians were closed down. On 6 May 1933, Nazi stormtroopers attacked and ransacked Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research and destroyed its archives.

Hirschfeld witnessed the destruction of his life's work from exile in France. He died in Nice in 1935, on his 67th birthday.