There is a moral panic about transgender issues sweeping America. While it is raging most viciously in the Republican Party — see: the odious speeches at CPAC last week; Tennessee banning drag shows and gender-affirming health care for minors; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis requesting information from public colleges about students who have sought hormone treatment and reassignment surgeries — the panic’s tentacles extend much further. There is no better moment, then, to read historian Brandy Schillace’s piece about the Institute for Sexual Research, a groundbreaking facility in interwar Germany that heralded a just, humane future for gay, trans, and non-binary individuals, until fascism arrived. Schillace is at work on a book about the institute, and you can also listen to her talk about it on a recent edition of NPR’s All Things Considered:

That such an institute existed as early as 1919, recognizing the plurality of gender identity and offering support, comes as a surprise to many. It should have been the bedrock on which to build a bolder future. But as the institute celebrated its first decade, the Nazi party was already on the rise. By 1932 it was the largest political party in Germany, growing its numbers through a nationalism that targeted the immigrant, the disabled and the “genetically unfit.” Weakened by economic crisis and without a majority, the Weimar Republic collapsed.

Adolf Hitler was named chancellor on January 30, 1933, and enacted policies to rid Germany of Lebensunwertes Leben, or “lives unworthy of living.” What began as a sterilization program ultimately led to the extermination of millions of Jews, Roma, Soviet and Polish citizens — and homosexuals and transgender people.

When the Nazis came for the institute on May 6, 1933, Hirschfeld was out of the country. Giese fled with what little he could. Troops swarmed the building, carrying off a bronze bust of Hirschfeld and all his precious books, which they piled in the street. Soon a towerlike bonfire engulfed more than 20,000 books, some of them rare copies that had helped provide a historiography for nonconforming people.

The carnage flickered over German newsreels. It was among the first and largest of the Nazi book burnings. Nazi youth, students and soldiers participated in the destruction, while voiceovers of the footage declared that the German state had committed “the intellectual garbage of the past” to the flames. The collection was irreplaceable.