What Books Did They Burn?: The Transphobic Talking Point Invoking Nazi Germany

The question references an attack on one of the first institutes studying gender and sexuality in the earliest days of Hitler’s rise to power.

Canadian Anti-Hate Network

German students and Nazi Sturmabteilung members plunder the library of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, Director of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research) in Berlin. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In February 2024, Cadence Owens, then still working with the Daily Wire, used her online show to point out that the books burned by Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts were books about socialism and, in particular, included texts from the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research)

Owens went on to call the fascist youth and Sturmabteilung (Storm Division) — initially a paramilitary force for the fledgling National Socialists — members involved “student activists,” decrying that Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the institute’s founder, was a gay man who studied gender, coined the term transvestite and obtained some early legal recognition for transgender people. 

Make a donation

Though the company had defended her for years, Owens parted ways with the conservative publication Daily Wire on March 22 after a series of other antisemitic statements. 

Other Daily Wire commenters used their platforms on the online network to condemn her statements, including Andrew Klavan, who discussed Owens leaving the company at length, and specifically called her statements about book burnings a “dog whistle.” A dog whistle is a term for a phrase that seems innocuous, but also communicates or signals a hidden meaning to a specific audience. 

While Owens has tried to frame some of her recent comments as criticism of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, as she condemns the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians and the Hamas-led attack of October 7, she has a years-long history of making overtly antisemitic statements.  

The most recent of these include that “powerful Jews are going to be blamed if TikTok is banned,” her accusations that “D.C. Jew[s]” are a “rot” in the community, and a “quite sinister” ring of Jews operating in Hollywood.


What Books Did They Burn?


Source: Telegram

While many may not be aware of the fact that some of the books burned by Hitler’s foot soldiers had anything to do with gender or sexualities studies, Owens’ focus on the books’ subject is not particularly unique. An old talking point found frequently in neo-Nazi online spaces to disparage transgender people and exonerate the barbaric act of book burning, “What books did they burn?” is a common phrase offered up alongside content that justifies the act. 

The exact quote “what books did the Nazis burn” is common in neo-Nazi spaces. A quick search of the platform Telegram brings up images and support for the practice, specifically of Hirschfeld’s clinics. Not restricted to Telegram or smaller platforms with little moderation, accounts on Twitter, some with tens of thousands of followers, post the phrase to attack transgender people as “degenerate” and excuse some of the earliest oppressive actions of Hitler’s government. 

Source: Telegram

Many of these accounts or channels are specifically targeted towards neo-Nazis, including one dubbed “Team Aushuwitz.” 

Across the far-right there has been a resurgence in the concept of burning books that relate to gender and different sexualities. Canadian white nationalist Tyler Russell, now claiming to be living in Chicago, Illinois, posted a video of Republican candidate for Missouri Secretary of State Valentina Gomez using a flamethrower to incinerate texts about 2SLGBTQ+ themes. Russell added, “we love a good book burning.”

Source: Telegram

Hirschfeld, a pioneer in the field of sexual health and research, is not a figure without controversies, including many theories that promoted racist ideas of more “primitive races” — specifically Black people. He also notably penned a book while living in exile from Nazi-controlled Germany denouncing racism. 

As a gay man and Jew, Hirschfield founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in 1919. A target in Nazi newspapers like Der Sturmer, both his work and ancestry became topics of derision, and even threats. After Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in January 1933 it only took a few short months before the library of his school was targeted for destruction. On May 6, a group of fascist students and members of the Sturmabteilung looted the library’s collection.

On May 10, the books were stacked in Berlin’s Opera Square, along with a bust of Hirschfeld, and burned. Filmed as a piece of propaganda, Hirschfeld learned of the incident from a newsreel he watched in a Paris cinema.

Part of a mass burning of texts deemed subversive and “un-German,” there were a reported 34 book burnings orchestrated in university towns across the country on or around May 10. Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels spoke during the Opera Square rally of 40,000 people, declaring the “era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”

In total, an estimated 25,000 books were destroyed during the rallies. Besides Hirschfeld’s work and collection, works about communism, pacifism, expressing support for the Weimar Republic, as well as works by Jewish authors like Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and many others were all targeted for burning or banning under the incoming regime. 

The phrase in question has a long history online, including on 4chan. A search of the archive site 4plebs shows posts dating back to at least 2015 asking "What books did they burn?" in relation to supporting the Nazis. 

Largely unmoderated social media platforms and communication applications are also full of references to Hirschfeld, who has been the subject of fascist propaganda since the 1920s, and praise for the destruction of his work. 

Latest news

Make a donation