Ebbe Hertzberg

Ebbe Hertzberg. Photographer: Gustav Borgen. © The National Archive of Norway (Fotografisamlingen RA/EA-4060/A/L0002/0726). Reproduction: Odd Amundsen.
Ebbe Hertzberg. Photographer: Gustav Borgen. © The National Archive of Norway (Fotografisamlingen RA/EA-4060/A/L0002/0726). Reproduction: Odd Amundsen.
Ebbe Carsten Horneman Hertzberg was born April 11th, 1847, in Holmestrand. He made a career as a diplomat and academic, and in 1877 he was appointed professor of statistics and national economics at Royal Frederik's University in Kristiania (modern day Oslo). His career ended abruptly in 1886 when he was forced to resign from his professorship due to rumors about sexual relations with young working class men. In a desperate, and futile, attempt to defend himself he put forward a psychiatric statement claiming that he had a congenital condition called "contrary sexuality". This term was used at the time as a synonym for another word – homosexuality – and the Hertzberg-affair not only introduced new terminology to Norway, but also a new understanding of love and sexuality between people of the same sex. Hertzberg can therefore, to some extent, be called the first Norwegian "homosexual" in modern terms.

A promising young man

Ebbe Hertzberg grew up in a wealthy pharmacist family in the small town of Holmestrand, in the Vestfold region of Norway. His father, Johan Christian Linde Hertzberg (1816-1884) later moved on to the brewery industry. Ebbe Hertzberg thus had a good start in life as part of the privileged upper class of 19th century Norway. He went to school and proved to be a talented young man. The family eventually moved to Sande in Vestfold, then later to Trondheim and Kristiania. Hertzberg finished examen artium in 1865 (upper secondary school) and registered at the university in the Norwegian capital, where he studied law. He was interested in the history of law early on, a subject he studied further in Uppsala (1870) and Munich (1872-73). In the mid-1870s he worked as an attaché at the Swedish-Norwegian embassy in Paris, before being appointed professor of statistics and national economy at the The Royal Frederik's University in Kristiania in 1877.

Hertzberg was a representative of what historians call embetsmannsstaten (roughly the civil servant state) and a proponent of a political system where professional knowledge was emphasized. He opposed left-wing demands that the government should be formed by the parliament and that laymen should have court seats. In both cases he was on the losing side; parliamentarism was introduced in 1884 and a new jury law in 1887. As a member of the conservative party, Høyre, he was a cabinet minister in the last civil servant government, the so-called Aprilministeriet [April ministry], before the liberal party, Venstre, came into power.

Extortion, scandal and psychiatry

Ebbe Hertzberg, ca. 1880. Photographer: Claus Peter Knudsen. Photography: oslobilder.no / Oslo Museum
Ebbe Hertzberg, ca. 1880. Photographer: Claus Peter Knudsen. Photography: oslobilder.no / Oslo Museum

In the mid 1880s, when Hertzberg was a professor at the university in Kristiania, rumors spread that he had engaged in sexual relations with young men. The flood of rumors reached its peak in the summer of 1885 when he was subject to extortion from a man who threatened to expose their relationship. Hertzberg insisted he had never met the man in question, but the general accusation was harder to deny; his relations to young men had been too obvious.

Hertzberg had years earlier, according to his own statements, asked a friend, the Swedish physician and senior lecturer at Karolinska institutet, Karl Malmsten, for advice "with respect to the mentioned peculiarity in [him]". Malmsten responded that psychiatrists were very familiar with this "trait" and "were busy studying it more carefully". Hertzberg visited Stockholm in the summer of 1886 and received a statement from Malmsten. Malmsten wrote that he, for more than ten years, had known "that prof. E. Hertzberg is burdened by a perverse sexuality, completely independent of will", which had its root in a hereditary neurological condition.

Hertzberg also contacted the psychiatrist Fredrik Björnström who declared that Hertzberg had suffered since childhood from "the reversed direction of sexuality, named Perversio or Parästhesia sexualis", but that "his otherwise strong and well-kept constitution proves that he to a highly significant extent must have succeeded in fighting this drive" (NBO: Bs. 298, EH to WCB, 21.01.1887).

Doktor Westphal's diagnosis

To reinforce their diagnoses, Malmsten and Björnström advised Hertzberg to see "Germany's foremost psychiatrist and neurologist, Prof. Westphal in Berlin, who is exactly the one, who first subjected, what he calls, 'die conträre sexualempfindung' [the contrary sexual feeling] to scientific scrutiny, and who herein has been followed by many." (ibid.).

Hertzberg travelled to Berlin, where he on July 12th was examined and questioned carefully by Westphal. Westphal's examination established that Hertzberg suffered from a psychological anomaly whose primary symptom was "a congenital pathological attraction to one's own sex that can be demonstrated all the way back to boyhood and a corresponding indifference or repulsion towards the other sex". This condition was, according to Westphal called "conträre Sexualempfindung" or "Psychopathia sexualis" in Germany, and had been the subject of several scientific studies during recent years. It was Westphal who had constructed the term contrary sexual feeling and had described it in an article in 1869 (Westphal [1869] 1870). He used this term to describe a misdirection or inversion of the sex drive that could manifest itself as a preference to dress as "the opposite" sex, or as sexual attraction to persons of the same sex (thus including both what later was called "transvesticism" and "homosexuality").

Westphal meant that the cause in Hertzberg's case was heredetary. Therefore he could not be blamed for his condition; it was not a moral defect.

Carl Westphal (1833-1890), professor of psychiatry in Berlin and expert on "contrary sexuality".
Carl Westphal (1833-1890), professor of psychiatry in Berlin and expert on "contrary sexuality".

Honorable discharge

Ebbe Hertzberg travelled back to Kristiana and presented the diagnoses from Westphal, Malmsten and Björnström to the university leaders, but with adverse effect. The response from his colleagues demonstrated that the presented psychiatric-sexological knowledge was not easy to use, at least not in defence. The diagnosis was instead used as a stronger argument for Hertzberg to refrain from teaching the male youth. In a letter to his friend Waldemar Chr. Brøgger, Hertzberg gave the following comment:

As if one not as a consequence with this suspicious thinking primarily has to remove all male teachers of the female youth, whose seduction it must be feared lies even closer at hand (NBO: Bs. 298, EH to WCB, 23.01.1887, p. 5).

Hertzberg's strategy had failed and the affair ended with an honorable discharge from his professorship in 1886.

Withdrawal and return

After the scandal Hertzberg withdrew to his place of birth, Holmestrand. In addition, he intermittently spent time in Munich, Berlin and Stockholm. He worked on a comprehensive dictionary and registry (glossarium) to Norges Gamle Love (a collection of Norwegian laws from before 1536) which he finished in 1895. As the years went by and the scandal was less fresh, he gradually returned to public life. In 1896 he became praeses of Videnskabsselskapet (the Scientific Society) in Kristiania, he worked on developing Norwegian customs and tariff politics, and in 1903 he became director of the bank Den norske Hypotekbank. In 1906 he was appointed Riksarkivar (national archivist), a position he held to his death in 1912. He worked on a volume on Norwegian history (but never finished it), and published many articles on Norwegian medieval history.

Psychiatry and sexology

In psychiatry, contrary sexuality or homosexuality was seen as one of many sexual perversions that were congenital and the result of "bad hereditary material". After Westphal this understanding was developed further by the Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. His influential book "Psychopathia sexualis" (1886) was a large catalog over the different perversions, such as "sadism", "masochism", "fetishism" and homosexuality. Krafft-Ebing's book can be seen as one of the founding texts in the psychiatric sub-discipline of "sexual pathology" or "sexology".

Krafft-Ebing and sexology has been perceived as a new suppressive force, as if they "took over" the church monopoly on condemning different sexuality. However, this view has been challenged in later years; it has been shown that Krafft-Ebing was in dialogue with his "perverted" informants, and then especially homosexual men (Oosterhuis 2000). Many of those could recognize themselves in the psychiatrist's descriptions, and especially in his descriptions of individuals. They also influenced Krafft-Ebing who eventually adjusted his opinion to say that homosexuality wasn't necessarily pathological or degenerative. One of Krafft-Ebing's sources of inspiration was the lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who in the 1860s started publishing writings about a group of people that had a female soul in a male body, a group which he considered himself a member of.

Hertzberg's consultation with Westphal can be understood as part of this tradition: To visit a psychiatrist to get a "diagnosis" was a way for Hertzberg to attempt to mobilize a new understanding that abandoned the idea of sin. The medical and psychiatric theories were by many first and foremost perceived as a liberation from morals and theology; the classification as a disease was then secondary to this achievement.

After the visit to Westphal in 1886 Hertzberg mentioned homosexuality as "my innate queerness [skjævhed]" (NBO: Bs. 298, EH til WCB 21.01.1887). This can be interpreted as him accepting the idea that the phenomenon was a pathological defect. At the same time, the non-clinical term "skjævhed" (roughly queerness, literally lopsidedness, obliquity or crookedness) might signal that he saw it as a harmless anomaly.

Title page of the first Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, published by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1899.
Title page of the first Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, published by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1899.

Scandinavian contrary sexual contacts

Hertzberg's consultation with Westphal in 1886 was hardly his first, and in any case not his last contact with sexological knowledge. It is not known exactly when he began to orient himself in this literature. It is however known that he developed friendships and shared knowledge with other "contrary sexuals" in Norway, Scandinavia and Europe.

Hertzberg seems to have been part of a circle of friends in Kristiania in the 1880s that included Pontus Wikner and Bastian Dahl. Wikner was a Swedish philosopher and professor in Kristiania 1884-1888. He authored a secret writing called "Psykologiske selvbekjennelser" (Psychological self-confessions) about his same-sex desires (first published posthumously in 1971). Dahl was discharged from the university in 1886 for the same reasons as Hertzberg himself (Smith 1925,. NBO, Brevs. 304, cf. Wolfert 2012: 109). We do not know if Wikner, Dahl, and Hertzberg exchanged ideas and thoughts about homosexuality.

Hertzberg did so with another contact, the Danish lawyer Poul Andræ (1843-1928). Recently the correspondence between Andræ and Hertzberg, which was long thought to be lost, was found at the National library in Oslo (NBO: Bs. 222a). The letters from Hertzberg to Andræ give an interesting insight into how they oriented themselves in the contemporary literature on homosexuality, and formed their own opinions on the matter.

In 1892 Andræ, under the pseudonym Tandem, wrote the article "Den Kontrære Sexualfornemmelse" (The contrary sexual feeling) in the medical journal Bibliotek for Læger. The purpose was to adjust what he perceived as misconceptions in an earlier article by the psychiatrist Knud Pontoppidan (Pedersen 2013: 25-28). Like Hertzberg, Andræ had visited Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in 1891, to get a doctor's statement that he was born with contrary sexuality (ibid: 18-22). When the contact between Andræ and Hertzberg began is unknown, but the second letter we know of describes Hertzberg's reaction to Andræ's article:

You have broken the ice here in Scandinavia, and thereby shown, that the waters are passable also for others. And not only that: You have also through your argumentation removed several of the worst icebergs in the way, and thereby made it impossible, for prejudice to freeze to an equally impenetrable wall as before. (NBO: Bs. 222a, EH til PA 05.06.1892.)

The correspondence, which stretches over from 1892 to 1906, shows that the two Scandinavians were orienting themselves in international literature. Statements from Hertzberg indicate, for instance, that he had thorough knowledge of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs' authorship.

A closer analysis of this correspondence has yet to be completed, but the letters show that Hertzberg and Andræ had differing points of view on some issues, for instance the age of consent (which Hertzberg seems to think should be 13-14 years). The letters also show that Hertzberg was considering plans for a Norwegian/Danish translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia sexualis.

A German movement

At the end of the 19th century, people self-identifying as homosexuals began making their voice heard through books and journals, especially in Germany. The young physician Magnus Hirschfeld took interest in the matter, inspired by the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895 and strongly influenced by Ulrichs. In 1897 he created the organisation Wissenschaftlich-humanitäre komitee (WhK), which worked for decriminalization of sexual acts between men. In 1899 the organization started publishing a comprehensive yearbook, Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, containing articles, written in an academic vein, on homosexuality and law, history, biology, and medicine.

Hirschfeld wanted to understand homo- or contrary sexuality as a biological phenomenon. His theory was that the people he defined as sexual intermediates, sexuelle Zwischenstufen, were somewhere between male and female. This third sex, the homo- or contrary sexuals had to a varying degree, characteristics of the "the opposite" sex, something that could manifest itself as a preference in terms of clothing, in a gender identity in conflict with their biological sex and/or sexual attraction to the same sex. For Hirschfeld, the theory of sexual intermediates formed the basis for the political struggle against criminalization of same-sex sexuality: Society could not and should not punish characteristics that were part of the natural biological variation.

Hirschfeld continued the theoretical work started by Ulrichs and Krafft-Ebing. The correspondence between Hertzberg and Andræ shows that they were well-versed in both the sexological literature, as well as developments in campaigns, organisations and journals in Germany. Hertzberg, for example, acquired issues of the journal Der Eigene, a magazine for "male culture" edited by Adolf Brand, who, next to Hirschfeld, was perhaps the most prominent proponent of homosexual rights in Germany in the years from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Hirschfeld's yearbook did not only present medical and biological knowledge. It also had articles from a number of other fields, such as law, history and aesthetics. Hertzberg contributed to the yearbook with an article about homosexuality in Scandinavia during the middle ages, and thereby used his knowledge of history (of law) and old norse sources (see Wolfert 1999a and 1999b)

Cover of an issue of the journal Der Eigene, published by Adolf Brand in Berlin-Neurahnsdorf in July 1899.
Cover of an issue of the journal Der Eigene, published by Adolf Brand in Berlin-Neurahnsdorf in July 1899.

Continental contrary sexual contacts

Hertzberg probably established direct contacts in the environments where homosexual men gather in Germany already before the turn of the century.

In 1901 the Strasbourg lawyer Eugen Wilhelm (1866-1951) travelled through Scandinavia and visited Ebbe Hertzberg. Wilhelm was in contact with Hirschfeld and his movement, and was one of the most enthusiastic contributors to Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen. Wilhelm attended WhK's 6th summer conference and thereafter travelled north to Scandinavia on vacation. He visited Hertzberg in Kristiania (Dubout & Wolfert 2013). How and when the contact between Hertzberg and Wilhelm was established is unknown. It was Wilhelm who passed on Hertzberg's article about contrary sexuality in the middle ages in Scandinavia to Hirschfeld ([Hertzberg] 1902).

Hertzberg appears to have had more contacts in Germany. The correspondence with Andræ shows that Hertzberg at least knew one other person in Hirschfeld's network, entomologist Ferdinand Karsch-Haack (1853-1936) - a keen contributor to Hirschfeld's Jahrbuch on biological and historical topics. Hertzberg described Karsch-Haack as "a rather peculiar character", but added that "towards me he has been very amiable and communicative" (NBO: Bs. 222a: EH to PA 29.12.1900). Hertzberg must also have made an impression on Karsch-Haack, because in 1922 he wrote a retrospective in one of the German homosexual journals that Hertzberg was "a beautiful, sympathetic and Uranian [homosexual] Don Juan" (Karsch-Haack 1922).


The sources that remain after Hertzberg give an interesting insight, both from a Norwegian and an international perspective, into how knowledge about homosexuality at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was absorbed by an upper class man. Hertzberg gives us a concrete example of how new theories about how same-sex attraction could be understood, spread, and how the sexological knowledge was actively received, used, shaped and discussed by the people it describes.


Translated from Norwegian by Simon Mitternacht

Archive sources

Norwegian National Library

Bs. 222a: Letter from Ebbe Hertzberg (EH) to Poul Andræ (PA). Digitalized by the National Library on Skeivt arkiv's initiative.

Bs. 298: Letter from Ebbe Hertzberg (EH) to Waldemar Chr. Brøgger (WCB).

Bs. 304.


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Oosterhuis, Harry. 2000. Stepchildren of nature. Krafft-Ebing, psychiatry, and the making of sexual identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Wolfert, Raimund. 2012. „Ach, wenn ich doch nur einen Freund hätte, ihn zu lieben!“ Pontus Wikner und seine Psychologischen Selbstbekentnisse, In: Pontus Wikner, Psychologische Selbstbekenntnisse, Hamburg: Männerschwarm.

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