Magnus Hirschfeld

Else on Magnus

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With our forthcoming publication The Nights of Tino of Baghdad, we though it would be interesting to share a short piece by the author of that work, Else Lasker-Schüler, in which she discusses her friend Magnus Hirschfeld, author of Berlin’s Third Sex.

This is one of numerous pen portraits of her friends and associates – including Karl Kraus, Oskar Kokoschka, Gottfried Benn, Tilla Durieux and Alfred Kerr – that Lasker-Schüler produced throughout her career, prose miniatures that capture the essence of her subjects’ personae. This article was first published toward the end of the First World War, and takes the form of an open letter to university students in Zurich where Hirschfeld was shortly to give a lecture. Describing his 50th birthday party which had taken place a few weeks earlier, it presents a warmer, more playful side to the tireless activist and pioneer of sex studies than most other accounts, including his own autobiography.


Doctor Magnus Hirschfeld

On Thursday, 11 July you will hear Magnus Hirschfeld speak in Zurich at the Schwurgerichtssaal; it is an evening to which you can look forward. I should like to tell you something about our doctor in Berlin. He is not just our doctor, he is also our host; his consultations end in beaux jours, the ailing forget their neuroses and for the healthy patient an afternoon in his delightful waiting rooms provides pleasing stimulation for the nerves. There in the middle of the Tiergarten amid stout chestnut trees and whispering acacias lives Medical Councillor Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Not that he likes us calling him that. ‘Children, just call me “Doctor”.’ Nevertheless, he confessed to me that his appointment to the Medical Council on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, greatly disputed and contested among the medical profession though it was due to his exceptional position, had pleased him. Beaming like a child, he showed me all his presents. We call him our doctor. And unto our doctor my playmates and I delivered an exquisite serenade on the eve of his birthday revels. Touched, the revellers came out onto his balcony to hear our songs accompanied by accordion and drum. The concluding chorus: ‘I should like to carve it in every crust...’. He is amused by our exuberance, because – being earnest – Dr Hirschfeld understands jest, he is not some serious professor with an oak-leaf beard. Now, I must confess to you dear students that, to my shame, I am not familiar with any of the many famous books that the doctor has written (essentially I only read my own), but can nevertheless judge them from his incomparably interesting lectures, these thrilling medical, historical novels, standard works that never turn stale. Doctor Hirschfeld is the advocate of sincere love of any kind, opponent of all forms of hatred. A gentle forensic physician who seeks to understand everything. All compassion, he sacrifices his strength, his time, his good heart to the departing soldier. At the railway stations one often sees our doctor cultivating entire tobacco plantations, distributing numerous boxes of cigars and cigarettes as he farewells them in their field grey. He is a man whose goodwill is truly blind to class. He rushes to those who summon him. I once ambushed him myself, and managed to get him away from his great practice to accompany me to a wounded friend in Pomerania. Gentlemen, I am pleased to sing the praises and wonders of our Doctor Hirschfeld. When he is away from Berlin it is as though our father confessor were missing. We all long for his words of comfort, for his cosy, warm green chambers which are as soothing as the man himself.


‘Doktor Magnus Hirschfeld’ by Else Lasker-Schüler was first published in German in the Züricher Post und Handelszeitung, 10 July 1918. First book publication in Essays, published by Paul Cassirer, 1920.

This translation © 2019 James J. Conway

Back in black

We've had some highly gratifying feedback since the first two Rixdorf titles were released to the world in November 2017, but one thing that people never fail to mention is the artwork by designer Cara Schwartz. So with our next two titles imminent we thought we'd give you an insight into how these designs came about, what we're aiming for, what we're drawing from.

Publisher/translator James J. Conway and designer Cara Schwartz at the Rixdorf Editions launch, Berlin, November 2017 (photo: Hilmar Schmundt)

Publisher/translator James J. Conway and designer Cara Schwartz at the Rixdorf Editions launch, Berlin, November 2017 (photo: Hilmar Schmundt)

Let's start with our logo. The basic shape is a hexagon or – perhaps – a cube awaiting illumination to reveal its depth. The 'R', in the old German Fraktur script, is taken from the original first edition of one of our first titles, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (Das Logierhaus zur schwankenden Weltkugel, 1917), specifically the surname of the author, Franziska zu Reventlow, rendered here as F. Gräfin (Countess) zu Reventlow. Introducing Reventlow to an English-speaking readership is one of our proudest achievements, and we're just as pleased to have her as a guiding presence in our identity.

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For the book covers, the idea was for the imagery to reflect the times in which the original books emerged (approx. 1890-1918) while avoiding pastiche. Series identity was key; it had to be readily apparent when looking at any two Rixdorf titles that they belonged together. And we wanted to have black backgrounds, partly because they look awesome, partly to reflect the idea of things appearing out of the dim past, much like the books they adorned were emerging from ill-deserved obscurity. The era in question was also the first golden age of postcards, and it is largely to this form that we turned for our graphic elements, having gathered hundred of examples from Berlin fleamarkets.

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Our English edition of Reventlow's book is a good example of how we incorporate postcard art. One of the most arresting sequences in the collection comes from the title story, in which a reform-minded German eccentric leads a crocodile about on a leash. To represent this we found an old postcard from an establishment called the 'Restaurant zum Neuen Krokodil', which was a stone's throw from Frankfurt's main station, and bagged its scaly mascot for ourselves (incidentally, Google Street View reveals that the building is still standing although the ground floor is now occupied by a branch of the drugstore chain DM). Curiously, the name also echoes the guesthouse of the original German title. For the arm reaching in enigmatically from the side we used a New Year's greeting postcard; Cara diligently removed the snowflakes from the original. And she also suggested that – just this once – we break our self-imposed right-hand margin for the cover text; the word 'teetering' is teetering over the edge. The 'stamp' seen on each cover, another allusion to postcards, record the time and place that the original was written and/or published, in this case 1917 in the Swiss town of Ascona where Reventlow lived for the last eight years of her life.

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Berlin's Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld was a far more challenging work to represent graphically. It covers so much ground – gay men, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals, prostitution, the demi-monde, high society, nightlife, domestic harmony, law enforcement, blackmail, moral codes. How to get all that in one image? The short answer is you can't, so we decided to lightly recontextualise an example of the era's incredibly extensive and diverse courting imagery. For one half of our happy couple we simply substituted the head of a soldier in the emblematic 'Pickelhaube' helmet. This might seem glib, but in fact Hirschfeld's text reveals that incidents of gay men taking up with obliging soldiers were far from unknown in the era (although full disclosure: they were generally not in drag).

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For our forthcoming translation of August Endell's The Beauty of the Metropolis, we tried something a little different. Picking up on the text's reference to 'the street as living entity' we turned this around to make a living entity composed of streets. The connection between the human body and the urban environment is hardly unprecedented ('heart/lungs of the city', 'arterial road'). The body in this instance is an anatomical diagram from a handbook of medical remedies entitled Pfarrer Heumann's Heilmittel, while the streets, parks and waterways are taken from a 1900 map of Berlin, the city referenced throughout Endell's book. Visible in this section are the Tiergarten, the River Spree and the Landwehr Canal, all of which find mention in the text.

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Finally, for Anna Croissant-Rust's Death we returned to our postcard collection. As with the other examples here, the original artist is sadly uncredited. We changed the orientation of the postcard image, but decided it was strong enough not to need any additional elements. As well as the obvious association of death and flowers, and the trope of death as a romantic partner, the image also recalls the motif of joined hands sometimes seen in old mourning jewellery. But which is Death? Is the deceased being pulled up or down? You decide...

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Metropolis Documents

Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1904 report Berlin’s Third Sex – probably the first sympathetic account of gay and lesbian city life ever published – is a remarkable enough book in its own right. But in fact it was just one part of a much larger project. The Großstadt-Dokumente, or Metropolis Documents, of which Hirschfeld’s book was the third instalment, were issued by the Hermann Seemann publishing house between 1904 and 1908. In all there would be 51 volumes, together representing one of the most far-reaching studies of urban existence ever undertaken, a vast portrait of the city at the outset of the 20th century. And around three quarters of the titles were about one city in particular: Berlin.

The original German edition (1904) of  Berlin's Third Sex

The original German edition (1904) of Berlin's Third Sex

The books appeared at an astonishing rate (up to 16 in a single year) and were printed on cheap stock to be sold at the price of one mark – significantly less than the average paperback of the time. Later they were issued in hard cover thematic anthologies of five volumes apiece. They were the brainchild of Berlin-born writer Hans Ostwald (1873-1940), and reflected his enormous interest in the society around him, particularly those of its members who stood outside the mainstream – including bohemians, prostitutes, cult followers, socialists, petty criminals, vagabonds, unwed mothers and juvenile delinquents. Each book addressed a different phenomenon of urban life. Five of the titles were by Ostwald himself, while the 39 other writers he chose were typically young, male journalists of his acquaintance, few of whom found lasting renown. The sole female author, Ella Mensch, used her platform to attack what she regarded as overly radical elements in the women’s emancipation movement.

Hans Ostwald

Hans Ostwald

It all began with Ostwald's own Dark Corners of Berlin (1904), which took the reader to dive bars, homeless shelters and other haunts of the down and out ordinarily invisible to the bourgeois reader. Subsequent volumes blended reportage, polemics and sensationalism, and while they certainly pushed at the limit of what Wilhelmine Germany would allow, only one volume was actually banned from sale – Germany’s first major study of lesbianism, written by Wilhelm Hammer. But even the less contentious titles revealed parts of the city readers might never otherwise encounter, including court rooms, sweatshops and the offices of public servants. The last of the Metropolis Documents was Edmund Edel's Neu-Berlin (1908), a stroll amid the bright lights and consumerist revelry of the Ku’damm and other gathering places of the moneyed bourgeoisie in the rapidly expanding city.

Rixdorf Editions' collection of  Metropolis Documents  anthologies

Rixdorf Editions' collection of Metropolis Documents anthologies

Even within Germany this remarkable series excites little recognition beyond academic circles, in contrast to the broad, educated readership Ostwald originally had in mind (any German-speakers who wish to find out more are directed to Ralf Thies’s exhaustively researched 2006 book, Ethnograph des dunklen Berlin). Berlin’s Third Sex is the first of the titles to appear in English and considering how much these books tell us about Berlin at the outset of the century it would define like no other, it is remarkable that over 100 years later the Metropolis Documents are all but unknown to Anglophone readers.

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