Hirschfeld was born in Kolberg (modern Ko?obrzeg) in a Jewish family, the son of a highly regarded physician and 'Medizinalrat' Hermann Hirschfeld. In 1887-1888 he studied philosophy and philology in Breslau, then from 1888-1892 medicine in Strasbourg, Munich, Heidelberg, and Berlin. In 1892 he took his doctoral degree. After his studies, he traveled through the United States for eight months, visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and living from the proceeds of his writing for German journals. Then he started a naturopathic practice in Magdeburg; in 1896 be moved his practice to Berlin-Charlottenburg.
Magnus Hirschfeld's career successfully found a balance between medicine and writing. After several years as a general practitioner in Magdeburg, in 1896 he issued a pamphlet Sappho and Socrates, on homosexual love (under the pseudonym Th. Ramien). In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee with the publisher Max Spohr, the lawyer Eduard Oberg, and the writer Max von Bülow. The group aimed to undertake research to defend the rights of homosexuals and to repeal Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that since 1871 had criminalized homosexuality. They argued that the law encouraged blackmail, and the motto of the Committee, "Justice through science", reflected Hirschfeld's belief that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals.
Within the group, some of the members scorned Hirschfeld's analogy that homosexuals are like disabled people; they argued that society might tolerate or pity them, but never treat them as equals. They also disagreed with Hirschfeld's (and Ulrichs's) view that male homosexuals were by nature effeminate. Benedict Friedlaender and some others left the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and formed another group, the 'Bund für männliche Kultur' or Union for Male Culture, which did not exist for long. It argued that male-male love is a simple aspect of virile manliness rather than a special condition.
The Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, under Hirschfeld's leadership, managed to gather over 5000 signatures from prominent Germans for a petition to overturn Paragraph 175. Signatories included Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Käthe Kollwitz, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, August Bebel, Max Brod, Karl Kautsky, Stefan Zweig, Gerhart Hauptmann, Martin Buber, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Eduard Bernstein.
The bill was brought before the Reichstag in 1898, but was only supported by a minority from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, prompting Hirschfeld to consider what would, in a later era, be described as "outing": forcing some of the prominent and secretly homosexual lawmakers who had remained silent out of the closet. The bill continued to come before parliament, and eventually began to make progress in the 1920s before the takeover of the Nazi Party obliterated any hopes for reform.
In 1921 Hirschfeld organised the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which led to the formation of the World League for Sexual Reform. Congresses were held in Copenhagen (1928), London (1929), Vienna (1930), and Brno (1932).
Hirschfeld was both quoted and caricatured in the press as a vociferous expert on sexual manners, receiving the epithet "the Einstein of Sex". He saw himself as a campaigner and a scientist, investigating and cataloging many varieties of sexuality, not just homosexuality. He developed a system which categorised 64 possible types of sexual intermediary ranging from masculine heterosexual male to feminine homosexual male, including those he described under the word he coined "Transvestit" (transvestite), which covered people who today would include a variety of transgender and transsexual people.
Hirschfeld co-wrote and acted in the 1919 film Anders als die Andern ("Different From the Others"), where Conrad Veidt played one of the first homosexual characters ever written for cinema. The film had a specific gay rights law reform agenda; Veidt's character is blackmailed by a lover, eventually coming out rather than continuing to make the blackmail payments, but his career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.
In 1919, under the more liberal atmosphere of the newly founded Weimar Republic, Hirschfeld purchased a villa not far from the Reichstag building for his new Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin. His Institute housed his immense library on sex and provided educational services and medical consultations. People from around Europe visited the Institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality.
Christopher Isherwood writes about his and W. H. Auden's visit to the Institute in his book Christopher and His Kind. They were visiting Francis Turville-Petre, a friend of Isherwood's who was an active member of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The Institute also housed the Museum of Sex, an educational resource for the public which is reported to have been visited by school classes.
The Institute and Hirschfeld's work are depicted in Rosa von Praunheim's film Der Einstein des Sex (The Einstein of Sex, Germany, 1999 - English subtitled version available).
In 1904, Hirschfeld joined the Bund fur Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Mothers), the feminist organization founded by Helene Stöcker. He campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortion, and against policies that banned female teachers and civil servants from marrying or having children.
When the Nazis took power, they attacked Hirschfeld's Institut on May 6, 1933, and burned many of its books. The press-library pictures and archival newsreel film of the Nazi book-burning seen today are believed to be of Hirschfeld's library and records.
By the time of the book burning, Hirschfeld had long since left Germany for a speaking tour that took him around the world; he never returned to Germany. Hirschfeld came back to Europe in March 1932, stopping briefly in Athens, then spending several weeks in Vienna before moving on to Zurich in August 1932. While in Switzerland, he worked on a book recounting his experiences and observations from his world tour, published in 1933 as Die Weltreise eines Sexualforschers (Brugg, Switzerland: Bözberg-Verlag, 1933), and subsequently in English translation in the United States under the title Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist (New York City: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1935) and in England under the title Women East and West: Impressions of a Sex Expert (London: William Heinemann Medical Books, 1935).
Hirschfeld had initially stayed near Germany, hoping to return to Berlin if the political situation improved. With the Nazi regime's unequivocal rise to power and with work on the book about his world tour completed, he decided to establish himself as an exile in France. On his 65th birthday, May 14, 1933, Hirschfeld arrived in Paris, where he would live in a luxurious apartment building at 24 Avenue Charles Floquet, facing the Champ de Mars. A year-and-half later, in November 1934, he moved south to Nice, on the Mediterranean coast. Throughout his stay in France, he continued researching, writing, campaigning and working to reestablish a French successor to his lost institute in Berlin.
The last of Hirschfeld's books released during his lifetime, L'Ame et l'amour, psychologie sexologique (Paris: Gallimard, 1935), was published in French in late April 1935; it was his only book which never appeared in a German-language edition. In the preface, he described his hopes for his new life in France: "In search of sanctuary, I have found my way to that country, the nobility of whose traditions, and whose ever-present charm, have already been as balm to my soul. I shall be glad and grateful if I can spend some few years of peace and repose in France and Paris, and still more grateful to be enabled to repay the hospitality accorded to me, by making available those abundant stores of knowledge acquired throughout my career."
On his 67th birthday, May 14, 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in his apartment at the Gloria Mansions I building at 63 Promenade des Anglais in Nice. His body was cremated, and the ashes interred in a simple but elegant tomb in the Caucade Cemetery in Nice. The headstone in gray granite is inset with a bronze bas-relief portrait of Hirschfeld in profile by German sculptor and decorative artist Arnold Zadikow (1884—1943) and is engraved with Hirschfeld's Latin motto, "Per Scientiam ad Justitiam" ("through science to justice"). (The Caucade Cemetery is likewise the location of the grave of surgeon and sexual-rejuvenation proponent Serge Voronoff -- whose work Hirschfeld had discussed in his own publications.)
On May 14, 2010, to mark the 75th anniversary of Hirschfeld's death, a French national organization, the Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle (MDH), in partnership with the new LGBT Community Center of Nice ( Centre LGBT Côte d'Azur), organized a formal delegation to the cemetery. Speakers recalled Hirschfeld's life and work and laid a large bouquet of pink flowers on his tomb; the ribbon on the bouquet was inscribed "Au pionnier de nos causes. Le MDH et le Centre LGBT" ("To the pionner of our causes. The MDH and the LGBT Center").
Hirschfeld's works are listed in the bibliography:
Steakley, James D. The Writings of Magnus Hirschfeld: A Bibliography. Toronto: Canadian Gay Archives, 1985.
The following have been translated into English:
Homosexuality of Men and Women (1922); translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash.
Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist (1933), AMS Press, 1974.
Racism, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.
The Sexual History of the World War (1930), New York City, Panurge Press, 1934; significantly abridged translation and adaptation of the original two-volume German edition.
Sex in Human Relationships, London, John Lane The Bodley Head, 1935; translated from the French volume L'Ame et l'amour, psychologie sexologique (Paris: Gallimard, 1935) by John Rodker.
The Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress (1910), Prometheus Books; translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash.
Hirschfeld, Magnus. Von einst bis jetzt: Geschichte einer homosexuellen Bewegung 1897-1922. Schriftenreihe der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft Nr. 1. Berlin: rosa Winkel, 1986. (Reprint of a series of articles by Hirschfeld originally published in Die Freundschaft, 1920—21).
M.H. [Magnus Hirschfeld], "Hirschfeld, Magnus (Autobiographical Sketch)," in Victor Robinson, Encyclopaedia Sexualis, New York City: Dingwall-Rock, 1936, pp. 317—321.
Dose, Ralf. Magnus Hirschfeld: Deutscher, Jude, Weltbürger. Teetz: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2005.
Herzer, Manfred. Magnus Hirschfeld: Leben und Werk eines jüdischen, schwulen und sozialistischen Sexologen. 2nd edition. Hamburg: Männerschwarm, 2001.
Koskovich, Gérard (ed.). Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). Un pionnier du mouvement homosexuel confronté au nazisme. Paris: Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle, 2010.
Kotowski, Elke-Vera & Julius H. Schoeps (eds.) Der Sexualreformer Magnus Hirschfeld. Ein Leben im Spannungsfeld von Wissenschaft, Politik und Gesellschaft. Berlin: Bebra, 2004.
Wolff, Charlotte. Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology. London: Quartet, 1986.
Blasius, Mark & Shane Phelan (eds.) We Are Everywhere: A Historical Source Book of Gay and Lesbian Politics. New York: Routledge, 1997. See chapter: "The Emergence of a Gay and Lesbian Political Culture in Germany."
Dynes, Wayne R. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York: Garland, 1990.
Gordon, Mel. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2000.
Grau, Günter (ed.) Hidden Holocaust? Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-45. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Grossman, Atina. Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Lauritsen, John and Thorstad, David. The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, 1864-1935. 2nd rev. edition. Novato, CA: Times Change Press, 1995.
Steakley, James D. The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany. New York: Arno, 1975.