On this day May 6: Nazi book burnings


Nazi book burnings may 6

On May 6, 1933, members of the German Student Union violently attacked Magnus Hirschfeld’s Berlin Institute of Sex Research. And thus began the Nazi book burnings.

The students hurled about 20,000 of Magnus Hirschfeld’s books into the street and then burned the priceless collection. Among the books, unique works on intersexuality, homosexuality, and transgender topics.

Even more precious than the books — a human life. Doris Richter, the first known person to undergo complete male-to-female gender reassignment surgery, was recovering at the institute. She was never seen again, presumed killed either during the altercation or in custody later.

In the following days, more book burnings took place of books considered ‘un-German’, including many by Jewish authors.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels declared: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”

Weimar Republic

LGBTIQ+ culture and knowledge flourished in Berlin for a few brief years before the Nazi book burnings. During the years of the Weimar Republic, the city boasted gay, drag and lesbian bars. International tennis star Baron von Cramm married his Jewish boyfriend in a gay bar in the early thirties. Such was the tolerance, some tourist guides listed queer landmarks. Even in far off Australia, newspapers commented on the thriving Berlin queer scene, though not in flattering terms.

Kiosks sold queer magazines and theatres showed queer films. Queer entertainers like lesbian singer Claire Waldoff became great stars.

The musical Cabaret based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin gives an idea of the liberation queer people felt as they experienced living their authentic lives without fear of persecution. But that emancipation proved fleeting.

Othering

For as long as human beings lived together in communities, authoritarian figures weaponised tribalism to forge common enemies and win support for their tyranny. Where no tribes existed, they invented their own by demonising human difference. By othering minorities, dictatorial regimes enlisted the support of the majority populations who only saw too late the loss of their own freedom.

Adolf Hitler did exactly that — with Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Communists, Homosexuals, Transgender people and others. The first concentration camps came into existence around the same time as the Nazi book burnings. Before long, members of the ‘un-German’ groups were targeted for mass extermination.

The thriving queer communities of the Weimar Republic are reminiscent of queer communities in many countries today. Although homosexuality remained illegal, the authorities of the day tolerated human difference and allowed the subculture to thrive. That created a sense of security. But the Nazi book burnings signalled the end of all that.

Book burnings

At the beginning of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin decried sanctions against his country as equivalent to the Nazi book burnings.

“Book were burned right on the squares,” he said.

But he ignored that the burnings began with attacks on communities he himself persecutes and silences.

Indeed, Putin mentioned ‘fans of so-called gender freedoms’ supposedly cancelling author JK Rowling. You’d remember her — the proud transphobe who remains one of the most famous humans on the planet and continues to make squillions from books, movie rights and merchandise. Apparently, we should feel pity for her sad plight.

Right-wing nutjobs

Right-wing nutjobs in the west, including in Australia, rushed to agree with Putin.

But book burnings were ever the province of reactionary and authoritarian bigots.

Constantine the Great, known as the first Christian Roman Emperor, ordered all the writings of an author who disagreed with the Christian Trinity burned. Protestants ordered the burning of Catholic texts in Tudor England. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice burned 15 tons of books and nearly 4,000,000 pictures in the late 1800s with official sanction.

Today, the religious and political right fights an unrelenting war against the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ books in libraries across the western world. Russia attacks civil liberties with a ‘Gay Propaganda Law’. Florida recently legislated the ‘Don’t Say Gay bill’.

Book burnings are as old as the hills.

And queer communities must remain forever vigilant. Because as in the past, book burnings can presage the winding back of reform. The book burners believe themselves entitled to inflict their own beliefs on everyone else. They always have, and always will.

On this day May 7, Tchaikovsky

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Turner
    9 May 2022
    Reply

    The lesson for our community is that we should never allow ourselves to feel confident in our freedoms. There are those, including our Prime Minister, who would seek to wind back the clock to the time when we were treated as pariahs.

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