Bigotry and Nationalism Launched Nazi Book Burning

The first attack on books by Nazis started with LGBT and “un-German” books.

The first attack on books by Nazis started with LGBT and “un-German” books. 


When I was taught about World War II and the Nazis in school, I remember being told about the targeting of Jews in universities and in intellectual life, as their ideas were deemed “un-German” solely based on the fact that the person who had them was Jewish. I, like so many other Americans, learned of the Nazi book burnings in an abstract way, with no more thought given to it other than the blanket “this is censorship and censorship is bad.” What was missing from my history lessons was the nature of what was being censored. It would be decades before I got curious enough to delve into the topic on my own.

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To understand what was so important about the book burnings that took place in May 1933, we need to know more about the Weimar Republic and 1920s Berlin. And for that, we need to know Magnus Hirschfeld. Magnus Hirschfeld was a doctor who was interested in human sexuality and psychology. Talk therapy was being popularized at the time, and scientists were understanding more of the human mind in addition to the human body — and we were exploring what it means deep down to be a man or a woman. Hirschfeld was himself gay and found that numerous men in his care who had similar predilections were committing suicide. Recognizing this trend and that many people like him were at risk, he decided to explore what was called “sexology” at that time.

As he studied, he recognized that there are numerous different expressions and understandings of gender and sexuality, including transsexuality, lesbianism, and bisexuality. Many people in these categories congregated in urban areas, where they could pass more anonymously and find more people like themselves instead of in their small towns where everyone knows everyone. To give these people a safe place to be when they came to the city, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or the Institute of Sexual Knowledge, in the heart of Berlin.

The Institute, as it was known, was home base for LGBT people throughout Germany. Numerous people lived there and worked for the organization, including Dora Richter, a trans woman from a small town on the Czech border. Under the care of the doctors of the institute, Richter became the first trans woman to receive a vaginoplasty operation, giving her a newly formed vagina from a skin graft. During the 1920s, Hirschfeld worked out an agreement with the police to stop arrests of “cross-dressers” and issue “transvestite passes” for trans people to allow them to go about their work without interference.

Hirschfeld’s Institute became a world-renowned place of study, and Hirschfeld himself a famous public intellectual. He toured the world giving talks on human sexuality, advocating for the normalization of homosexuality and transsexuality, and for reimagining how our gender interacts with society at large. He was even written of in my local newspaper here in Minnesota as he toured the United States touting the benefits of talk therapy and a healthy sex life for married couples.

But you would be forgiven if you had not heard of him or his Institute. In 1933, within a month of Hitler being appointed Chancellor of Germany, Berlin’s gay clubs were purged, and organized “homophile” groups were outlawed. Numerous members of the queer community, who saw the writing on the wall, fled to other friendlier countries. The Institute quickly became a target of the new regime. And in May 1933, in a move to purge Germany of all elements seen as “un-German,” unproductive to the character of German Volk and to the continued strength of the German state, the book burnings began.

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The Institute was the start. On May 6, 1933, members of the German Student Union — by then a Hitler Youth organization — raided the institute. Some 20,000 books that consisted of all the research we had on the LGBT community in the Western World, were hauled a few blocks over to Opernplatz, where they were burned in a multiple-day bonfire of destruction. The Nazis approached their work with a religious fervor, comparing the need to “cleanse” Germany with Martin Luther’s symbolic burning of the papal bull, even going so far as to declare 12 Theses that declared a need for a pure German language and culture.

Dora Richter is believed to have been killed in the initial raid.

Today we see this same spirit of censorship rising as an ultra-religious right-wing targets LGBT books and content for censorship, as well as books that accurately discuss America’s history of slavery and racism. Some government officials have pledged to burn books. Others threaten library funding for carrying LGBT books. And libraries across the nation have been subject to protests for hosting Drag Queen Story Hours, for being safe spaces for LGBT youth, and for not bowing to the pressure.

Like our libraries today, the Institute was not just a place for books but a place of gathering for a community. It was a home, a hospital, a club, a place of study, and a place of caring. It was a repository of knowledge, yes, but it was also a gathering place for a marginalized community, one in which they could feel heard and cared for and embraced for who they are. The Institute demonstrates that libraries have long been the center of community for many marginalized and forgotten people in society. And those who want to destroy those communities know that, which is why libraries are the canary in the coal mine of authoritarian movements. We lose our libraries and we lose ourselves.


Dianna E. Anderson is the author of the forthcoming book IN TRANSIT: BEING NON-BINARY IN A WORLD OF DICHOTOMIES, which is available for pre-order now. They hold a Master of Studies in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford and now live in Minneapolis, MN, where they, of course, are a card-carrying patron of the Hennepin County Libraries.