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New research reveals that the physician behind Asperger’s syndrome was an active participant in Nazi eugenics

Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Edith Sheffer
Norton
2018
317 pp.
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On 1 July 1941, a young Austrian physician named Hans Asperger signed a document transferring a toddler named Herta Schreiber to Spiegelgrund, an asylum for mentally ill children on the outskirts of Vienna. Two-year-old Herta had suffered diphtheria and meningitis, leaving her severely disabled. She “must present an unbearable burden to her mother,” Asperger, then the director of the Curative Education Clinic at the University Children’s Hospital in Vienna, wrote on the transfer document. Herta’s placement at the asylum, called Spiegelgrund, was “absolutely necessary,” he directed.

A haunting photograph of the crying toddler, her head shaven, taken soon after her arrival at Spiegelgrund, is all that survives of Herta. The facility’s murderous medical director, Erwin Jekelius, a former colleague of Asperger’s at the university clinic, soon sought Reich authorization to kill the girl as part of the Nazi drive to rid the gene pool of undesirables. She died two months after her admission to Spiegelgrund, where the Nazis would kill nearly 800 children between 1940 and 1945.

Unlike the millions who were gassed, the killings of the Spiegelgrund children were prolonged and intimate, Edith Sheffer explains in her searing new book, Asperger’s Children. “Doctors personally examined the children they condemned. Nurses personally fed and changed [their] sheets…. Death came slowly, painfully, as children would be starved or given overdoses of barbiturates until they grew ill and died, usually of pneumonia.”

The man who sent Herta to her death is the same Asperger who is famous today for the eponymous syndrome, which was coined in 1981 by British psychiatrist Lorna Wing and by the mid-1990s had made its way into common usage. Wing resurrected Asperger’s description of a broad condition he called “autistic psychopathy” in his obscure 1944 postdoctoral thesis. It expanded the classical conception of autism to describe a broader class of behaviors. The “high functioning” end of this spectrum became known as Asperger’s syndrome.

With the growing prominence of the syndrome came increased scrutiny of the man behind it. But until recently, historians writing in English have either skirted Asperger’s closeness to the Nazi regime or depicted him as a compassionate physician who used his medical position to rescue disabled children otherwise bound for destruction. The 2016 book In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, began to dismantle this portrait of Asperger. Now Sheffer, a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, finishes the job.

Her meticulously researched yet readable account shines a dispassionate light on Asperger as a man actively complicit with Nazi eugenicists carrying out Hitler’s child “euthanasia” program. An important, complementary article by Herwig Czech at the Medical University of Vienna was recently published in the open-access journal Molecular Autism (1).

ANDREAS DANZER

Seven hundred and seventy-two lighted pillars memorialize the children killed at Spiegelgrund.

A devout Catholic, Asperger never joined the Nazi party. But he joined several far-right, anti-Semitic groups in the mid-1930s. In 1934, at 28, he was promoted over the head of a senior Jewish colleague to direct the Curative Education Clinic, a child psychiatry clinic at the Vienna children’s hospital. His patron there was the hospital director, Franz Hamburger, a Nazi ideologue who oversaw heinous medical experiments on children and advocated letting those with “poor constitutions” die. Asperger adulated Hamburger and credited his mentor’s influence on his thinking as late as 1977.

In 1937, Asperger wrote that it is “impossible” to establish rigid criteria for diagnosing autism. But in 1938, soon after Germany annexed Austria, he did precisely this, defining “autistic psychopaths” as a “well-characterized group.” By 1944, he was describing the most impaired children as dehumanized, “intelligent automata.” The autistic child was “like an alien;” “not an active member of the greater organism;” and at risk of growing up to “roam the streets … grotesque and dilapidated.” Being thus diagnosed put children in grave peril. The Third Reich was a “diagnosis regime,” Sheffer notes, with death as a treatment option.

Although Asperger offered intensive, individualized care to children he thought could be socially integrated, Sheffer writes that he also sent, or helped send, dozens of children to Spiegelgrund in full knowledge of the murders transpiring there. As well as dispatching children from his own clinic, Asperger publicly urged Viennese colleagues to transfer “difficult cases” to the asylum. And in 1942, he served on a seven-member city commission that evaluated 210 children from another psychiatric institution and dismissed 35 as hopeless cases, incapable of development or education. The commission sent them to Spiegelgrund, ordering “Jekelius action.” All were killed.

Asperger’s Children paints a dark portrait of Asperger’s creeping complicity, as his patient care and his scholarship became inextricably woven into the fabric of the Nazi child extermination campaign. Asperger tried in later life to distance himself from that enterprise, painting himself as a Nazi resister who endangered himself by protecting children. This book should lay that saintly image to rest.

References

  1. H. Czech, Mol. Autism 9, 29 (2018)

About the author

The reviewer is on staff at Science magazine and is the author of The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease (Viking, New York, 2017).