Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Magnus Hirschfeld established the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee to work for repeal of Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which prohibited sexual acts between men, and to advocate for a wide range of sexual rights.

Summary of Event

Magnus Hirschfeld was born in Prussia, and he studied philology and medicine. Considered the “Einstein of sex,” he was one of the founding scholars in the discipline of human sexuality. With other pioneering sex researchers, Hirschfeld helped establish sexology: the science and study of human sexuality. [kw]Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (May 14, 1897) [kw]Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, Hirschfeld Founds the (May 14, 1897) [kw]Committee, Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian (May 14, 1897) Scientific-Humanitarian Committee[Scientific Humanitarian Committee] Civil rights;Germany German criminal code, and homosexuality Paragraph 175, German criminal code Sexology [c]Organizations and institutions;May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee[0140] [c]Government and politics;May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee[0140] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee[0140] Hirschfeld, Magnus Hiller, Kurt Brand, Adolf Rohm, Ernst

The board of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1901. From left, Georg Plock, Ernst Burchard, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Baron von Teschenberg.

Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre Komitee, or Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (SHC), on May 14, 1897, to advocate for individual sexual rights. He was particularly distressed by the treatment of homosexuals, or what he had called the “third sex,” Third sex;as a term[term] a biological category intermediate to males and females. His view, however, of homosexuality as a third, or intermediate, sex constituting a “female soul trapped in a male body,” or a “male soul trapped in a female body,” is regarded now as prima facie false. Because he believed in the biological basis of homosexuality, Hirschfeld is considered to be an essentialist, that is, he believes sexuality is innate.

Intersexuality (another term at the time for homosexuality) was considered a natural intermediate category of human sexuality and was not, therefore, an errant aberration, biological defect, or the result of moral degeneracy. Hirschfeld’s presupposition that homosexual behavior was just one form of behavior on a continuum of human sexuality was considered radical at the time. Sexology, however, was overshadowed by the revolutionary work simultaneously conducted in the fledgling fields of human psychology and psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud and others.

The cover of a 1922 tract opposing Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code, which outlawed homosexuality. The title translates as the “ignominy” or “scandal” “of the century.”

The chief objective of the SHC had been the repeal of Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code. As modern nation-states developed throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, the relationship between the individual and the state evolved and governments attempted to reconcile standards of behavior with prevailing, often constricting, notions of the moral good. Such efforts to regulate sexual conduct were part of the process of organizing the modern state and of defining and distinguishing between the public and private realms, criminal and legal activities, and moral degeneracy and health.

Although Hirschfeld was a scientist, his political instincts and social activism demonstrated he also was savvy and sophisticated in the realms of politics and society. Apparently, he understood that neither the prevailing atmosphere of sexual tolerance in Germany nor his work there in sexology were guaranteed. The Weimar renaissance could be threatened by contemporary legal statutes, political pressure, and social repression.

Hirschfeld’s approach was two-pronged and is best represented by the two organizations with which his name is most often associated: the SHC and the Institute for Sexual Science Institute for Sexual Science Sexual Science, Institute for (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft). The Institute for Sexual Science, established by Hirschfeld in Berlin in 1919, was a professional, scholarly organization based on the scientific model of inquiry. The earlier SHC had been an advocacy group that sought to advance gay and lesbian rights, promote legal reform, and encourage understanding of the diversity of human sexuality. Its model was based on advocacy, education, and public awareness. In many ways these organizations complemented one another, but both, however, had distinct purposes.

As a professional establishment, the Institute for Sexual Science offered, for example, marriage and sexual counseling, a library and research, and expert legal advice and testimony. The institute’s primary professional practice broached the fields of law, medicine, and scholarship.

The SHC engaged in human rights advocacy, political activism, and social justice within the established political process. Its primary mission centered on legal reform, most notably the campaign to repeal Paragraph 175. The SHC’s movement to strike down Paragraph 175 in the Reichstag focused national attention on the issue of gay rights. The committee was criticized by some homosexual activists, such as Adolf Brand, and by pederasts and German nationalists as bourgeois and effeminate in its goals of assimilating gays and lesbians into existing mainstream institutions and middle-class structures, such as marriage and the modern family.


The impact of Hirschfeld’s work was as controversial as it was revolutionary. Essentially a pioneer in the modern science of human sexuality and a champion of gay rights, Hirschfeld was viewed as a hero by some and a villain by others.

Paragraph 175 was bound up with the history of German nationhood. When Germany unified in 1871, Kaiser William I William I (German kaiser) adopted the conservative Prussian criminal code over the liberal Napoleonic code that many German principalities had subscribed to prior to nationalizing. Indeed, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee’s creed, “justice through science,” belied Enlightenment principles, and some of its members even took up the revolutionary motto of France, but added a twist: “Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite, Homosexualite!”

Legal reform, though, proved more difficult, evasive, and fleeting in spite of the enthusiasm of some SHC members. With the mounting political influence of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), the SHC’s destiny was becoming increasingly unclear.

By 1933, with the rising political fortunes of the NSDAP’s leader, Adolf Hitler, Hitler, Adolf the demise of the SHC was ensured. The forces of extremism and intolerance converged in Berlin on May 6, 1933, when Nazi thugs Nazi Germany;destruction of Institute for Sexual Science in Ernst Rohm’s SA, or Brown Shirts, stormed the Institute for Sexual Science, eventually burning and destroying much of its library holdings and other contents. In the aftermath of the violence and devastation wrought in 1933, many SHC members left Berlin and sought exile from Germany. Hirschfeld emigrated to France, where he died in Nice in 1935.

Hirschfeld’s relationship with the NSDAP was in some ways complicated by the prevalence of homosexuals in the ranks of Nazi leadership. Rohm, who was gay, subscribed to the elitist view of homosexuality that saw “Greek love,” Greece, ancient;and sexuality[sexuality] or pederasty, as the highest form of love, or eros. According to the elite theory of homosexuality proposed by Brand, gay sex, especially sex between men and boys, was celebrated as the purest expression of masculinity and national strength. Strands of the elite theory can be glimpsed in Nazi anti-Semitism and the pseudoscience of racial purity, which exulted in a virile, penile, and impudent militarism. The Aryan warrior was bred to defend through valor and violence the honor of the fatherland. Hirschfeld rejected the elite theory of homosexuality and specifically denounced pederasty.

The legacy of Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee is mixed. During its existence it was a strong proponent of human sexual rights, although it failed to achieve its major objective: the repeal of Paragraph 175. Clearly, however, Hirschfeld’s scholarship inspired future sex researchers, such as Alfred Kinsey, Kinsey, Alfred a sexologist at Indiana University–Bloomington, whose studies of male and female sexual behavior remain revolutionary and controversial.

While scholarship in human sexuality has gradually advanced—although it remains curtailed and limited in significant ways—reform of criminal law concerning homosexuality proceeded even more slowly. Kurt Hiller, for example, after escaping Nazi internment at the Brandenburg and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and eluding capture by communists in Eastern Europe following World War II, received virtually no support in his efforts to continue the work of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in Hamburg, West Germany, in the 1950’s nor in his attempt to reestablish it in 1962. Furthermore, Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code remained in effect until March 10, 1994. Scientific-Humanitarian Committee[Scientific Humanitarian Committee] Civil rights;Germany German criminal code, and homosexuality Paragraph 175, German criminal code Sexology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bauer, J. Edgar. “On the Nameless Love and Infinite Sexualities: John Henry Mackay, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Origins of the Sexual Emancipation Movement.” Journal of Homosexuality 50, no. 1 (2005): 1-26.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Rob, and Jeffrey Friedman, producers and directors. Paragraph 175. Documentary film. New Yorker Films, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grau, Gunter, ed. Hidden Holocaust? Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-45. Translated by Patrick Camiller. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1995.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. 1920. Reprint. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin. http://www2.berlin .de/sexology/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magnus Hirschfeld Society, Centre for Research on the History of Sexual Science. http://www .hirschfeld.in-berlin.de.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolff, Charlotte. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House, 1987.

May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

1869: Westphal Advocates Medical Treatment for Sexual Inversion

1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion

1905: Freud Rejects Third-Sex Theory

1929: Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal

1948: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

1952: APA Classifies Homosexuality as a Mental Disorder

1953: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

1953-1957: Evelyn Hooker Debunks Beliefs That Homosexuality is a “Sickness”

March 7, 1967: CBS Airs CBS Reports: The Homosexuals

October 31, 1969: TIME Magazine Issues “The Homosexual in America”

December 15, 1973: Homosexuality Is Delisted by the APA

April 20, 2001: Chinese Psychiatric Association Removes Homosexuality from List of Mental Disorders

Categories: History Content