Controversial New Research Changes the Narrative on Hans Asperger

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Asperger’s expressions, could hardly be understood as anything other than a recommendation for ‘euthanasia,’ writes the author
Asperger’s expressions, could hardly be understood as anything other than a recommendation for ‘euthanasia,’ writes the author

New research into the life of Hans Asperger, the pioneer of the eponymous syndrome, details his considerable collaboration with the Nazi party's (NSDAP) "race hygiene" apparatus, including active cooperation with the party's child "euthanasia" program. The research was published in the journal Molecular Autism.

Since the 1980s, when his research on the condition gained international recognition, a story of Asperger as an active opponent to "National Socialism" and the Nazi party was perpetuated and took hold. To examine the validity of this view, Herwig Czech, PhD, a historian of medicine at the University of Vienna, conducted a qualitative analysis of Asperger's life that included his personnel files, political assessments by Nazi authorities, medical case records from various institutions (including the child "euthanasia" clinic Am Spiegelgrund) and Asperger's Heilpädagogik ward.

Before the Anschluss (Austria's annexation to Germany) in 1938, Asperger was member of the Austrian Bund Neuland, a Catholic youth organization identifying as Pan-German; it was in sharp opposition to everything perceived to be Marxist-leftist and liberal, which then included parliamentary democracy. The Bund has been cited (Kontinuitäten, 2009) as one of Nazism's most prominent bridgeheads in the years leading to Anschluss

“Asperger's political socialization in Neuland likely blinded him to National Socialism's destructive character due to an affinity with core ideological elements,” writes Czech. 

He also benefited professionally from the virulent anti-Jewish stance of Austrian universities. In 1935, he took charge of the Heilpädagogik ward at the Vienna University Children's Clinic, ahead of considerably more qualified Jewish colleagues.

Medical records of 48 children examined by Asperger show that he specifically called for 12 of the children to be transferred to the Am Spiegelgrund facility, the "euthanasia" institution founded in 1940. It became known as a collection point for children who did not conform to the regime's criteria of "hereditary worthiness" and "racial purity".

In another 4 cases, he recommended an "institution under curative pedagogic leadership." Czech writes that this also points to Spiegelgrund.

The analysis found "no evidence" that Nazi authorities considered Asperger as an opponent of their race hygiene agenda or that he ever faced reprisals such as attempts of arrest by the Gestapo, which he claimed in a 1974 interview had happened on 2 occasions for refusing to hand patients over to officials. The only documented source of the claim comes from Asperger himself.

Two specific cases are highlighted by Czech, that of Herta and Elisabeth Schreiber (no relation). Asperger wrote in his diagnosis of Herta that, “Permanent placement at Spiegelgrund seems absolutely necessary.” Two months after being admitted to Spiegelgrund, and a day before her 3rd birthday, Herta died of pneumonia. At Spiegelgrund pneumonia was routinely induced by the administration of barbiturates over a long period of time. It cannot be asserted whether "permanent placement" was a conscious euphemism for murder, however, "It is clear that he did not expect Herta to return," writes Czech.

Elisabeth Schreiber also died of pneumonia, shortly before her sixth birthday. Asperger's evaluation of her concluded, “In the family, the child is without a doubt a hardly bearable burden […] due to her aggressions she endangers the small siblings. Therefore it is understandable that the mother pushes for institutionalization. Spiegelgrund would be the best possibility.”

What is significant when judging Asperger is to consider that extermination was never explicitly referred to in written documents, at least not outside the smallest circles of the initiated. Mentioning the killing of patients in documents was a severe breach of code. Asperger's expressions used in reference to Speigelgrund, "could hardly be understood as anything other than a recommendation for ‘euthanasia' — provided he knew what was going on there," writes Czech.

Asperger joined a number of organizations affiliated with the Nazi Party, including the National Socialist Welfare Organization and the German Labor Front. He also applied for membership in the National Socialist German Physicians' League but never joined the Nazi party itself, unlike his colleagues at the pediatric clinic.

In light of his research, Czech states that "The fate of 'Asperger's syndrome' will probably be determined by considerations other than the problematic historical circumstances of its first description — these should not, in any case, lead to its purge from the medical lexicon."

Joseph Buxbaum of Mount Sinai Medical School, who is co-editor-in-chief of the journal said, “We are persuaded by Herwig Czech's article that Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions, but was complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society's most vulnerable people.”

“The case of Hans Asperger provides a troubling example of the horror that can be unleashed when medical professionals allow themselves to become complicit with a brutal ideology,” said Steve Silberman, author of the book Neurotribes, and one of the reviewers of the study.

For more information visit Biomedcentral.com.

Czech, H. Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and "race hygiene" in Nazi-era Vienna. Molecular Autism. Online: 4/19/2018. doi: 10.1186/s13229-018-0208-6.

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