Herwig Czech. Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna. Molecular Autism https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-018-0208-6 Received: 28 February 2017 Accepted: 20 March 2018 Published: 19 April 2018
Hans Asperger (1906–1980) first designated a group of children with distinct psychological characteristics as ‘autistic psychopaths’ in 1938, several years before Leo Kanner’s famous 1943 paper on autism. In 1944, Asperger published a comprehensive study on the topic (submitted to Vienna University in 1942 as his postdoctoral thesis), which would only find international acknowledgement in the 1980s. From then on, the eponym ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ increasingly gained currency in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the conceptualization of the condition. At the time, the fact that Asperger had spent pivotal years of his career in Nazi Vienna caused some controversy regarding his potential ties to National Socialism and its race hygiene policies. Documentary evidence was scarce, however, and over time a narrative of Asperger as an active opponent of National Socialism took hold. The main goal of this paper is to re-evaluate this narrative, which is based to a large extent on statements made by Asperger himself and on a small segment of his published work.
Drawing on a vast array of contemporary publications and previously unexplored archival documents (including Asperger’s personnel files and the clinical assessments he wrote on his patients), this paper offers a critical examination of Asperger’s life, politics, and career before and during the Nazi period in Austria.
Asperger managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities. He joined several organizations affiliated with the NSDAP (although not the Nazi party itself), publicly legitimized race hygiene policies including forced sterilizations and, on several occasions, actively cooperated with the child ‘euthanasia’ program. The language he employed to diagnose his patients was often remarkably harsh (even in comparison with assessments written by the staff at Vienna’s notorious Spiegelgrund ‘euthanasia’ institution), belying the notion that he tried to protect the children under his care by embellishing their diagnoses.
The narrative of Asperger as a principled opponent of National Socialism and a courageous defender of his patients against Nazi ‘euthanasia’ and other race hygiene measures does not hold up in the face of the historical evidence. What emerges is a much more problematic role played by this pioneer of autism research. Future use of the eponym should reflect the troubling context of its origins in Nazi-era Vienna.
Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who pioneered research into autism and after whom Asperger syndrome is named, "actively cooperated" with a Nazi program under which disabled children were killed, an academic paper published on Thursday says.
The article by medical historian Herwig Czech published April 19 in the journal Molecular Autism says that Asperger referred severely disabled children to Vienna's notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic where almost 800 children died under the Nazi program - many of them by lethal injection or being gassed.
After reviewing archive documents including Asperger's personnel files and patient records, Czech found that although Asperger did not join the Nazi party itself he did join affiliated groups and "publicly legitimized race hygiene policies" including forced sterilization.
"Asperger managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities," the paper said.
It added, however, that nothing suggested Asperger's work on autism was tainted. He first described a group of children with the condition as "autistic psychopaths" in 1938. Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism where those affected are relatively high-functioning, was later named after him.
Vienna's medical faculty was purged and its ranks filled with Nazi ideologues after the country's annexation by Hitler's Germany in 1938.
The paper said that after that annexation, Asperger tried to prove his loyalty to the Nazi regime, giving public lectures in which he declared his allegiance to central elements of Nazi medicine, including "race hygiene." He also signed off on reports with "Heil Hitler."
His involvement in the Nazis' child "euthanasia" program included being on a commission that screened more than 200 patients at a home for mentally disabled children, the report said. Of those, 35 were deemed "uneducable" and sent to be killed at Spiegelgrund, where they died, it added.
"The (child euthanasia) program served the Nazi goal of eugenically engineering a genetically 'pure' society through 'racial hygiene' and the elimination of lives deemed a 'burden' and 'not worthy of life'," the report's publishers said in a statement.
Asperger, who died in 1980, also recommended the transfer of two girls, one aged 2 and the other 5, to Spiegelgrund, it said.