Hans Asperger Selected Children with Asperger’s Syndrome for Euthanasia

Hans Asperger

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), like most syndromes or diseases, is named for the person believed to have first identified it as a distinct condition. But these days, the association is making people a little uneasy. That’s because it’s just been revealed that Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who discovered Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944, cooperated with the Nazis in its eugenics program. Hans Asperger, in other words, was sending children with AS to die, believing these children inferior beings to be stamped out, eradicated, murdered.

Does this render Hans Asperger’s work on AS irrelevant? Of course not. What it does do is take away our awe and wonderment, our respect of the man Hans Asperger was. No longer is he the haloed entity who helped us finally understand Asperger’s Syndrome, the one who gave the syndrome a name. The one who figured things out so we could get on with the act of educating and parenting children with AS; so that we could get on with mainstreaming those with AS into society.

Now Hans Asperger is as good as a murderer of the very children whose syndrome he identified.

Hitler's letter granting permission to engage in euthanasia of “incurably sick patients.”
Hitler’s letter granting permission for the euthanasia of “incurably sick patients.”

Asperger noted what he called “autistic psychopathy” in four little boys, and wrote about it for the first time in 1944. It wasn’t, however, called “Asperger’s Syndrome” until it was referred to as such in 1981, in a paper published by British researcher Lorna Wing. While Wing was the first to call AS after the man believed to have first noted it as a distinct syndrome, Asperger himself was a prolific writer who published more than 300 research papers and books. The majority of Hans Asperger’s publications are on the subject of autism in children.

It has been said that Asperger may well have had AS, which may be why he so ably noted it in others as a specific set of behaviors, separate from other types of autism. Asperger had difficulty making friends. He was an introvert who spoke of himself in the third person and often quoted his own words. Suspicions that Asperger, a high achiever by any standards, had Asperger’s, makes it even more difficult to understand why he favored sending children with AS to their deaths.

The story that only now sends shockwaves through the general public and in particular, parents of children with AS, is that Asperger “not only collaborated with the Nazis but actively contributed to the Nazi eugenics program by referring profoundly disabled children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic . . . in Vienna. This was a clinic that he knew participated in the Third Reich’s child euthanasia program, where children were killed as part of 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.’ [1]

Propaganda poster extolling Hitler's eugenics program
Propaganda for Nazi Germany’s T-4 Euthanasia Program: “This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money, too.” from the Office of Racial Policy’s Neues Volk.

These revelations came to light through meticulous research by Herwig Czech, a medical historian at the Medical University of Vienna. Can we find a way to be understanding about this information, to look kindly upon these new disclosures? Was Asperger, for instance, cooperating with the Nazis to save his own skin?

Not according to the editors who published Czech’s paper. “We are persuaded by Herwig Czech’s important article that Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions but was also complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society’s most vulnerable people.”

Ouch. To say the least.

Czech isn’t the only researcher to have looked at Asperger’s role in the Nazi Hans Asperger with small childeugenics program. A recent book by Edith Sheffer, Asperger’s Children: The origins of autism in Nazi Vienna, makes the compelling case that Asperger was referring children both directly and indirectly to Am Spiegelgrund, where they would be murdered by starvation or lethal injections.

The cause of death was always recorded as “pneumonia.”

Molecular Autism, the medical journal that published Czech’s work, should be commended for its forthright insistence on telling us the truth about the man who changed everything for those with the subset of autism we know as Asperger’s Syndrome. It is important that we have an honest accounting of medical history in regard to AS; a true accounting of medicine gone wrong. It is also historically necessary to document the twisted path taken by psychiatry and medicine as they were practiced during the Holocaust: that men sworn to the good of mankind by way of the Hippocratic Oath, murdered children on the autism spectrum and any others they deemed undesirable or somehow defective.

One more important fact comes out of this work: that Asperger’s syndrome was discovered before Hans Asperger ever wrote about it. The term “autistic psychopathy” may have originated with Hans Asperger. But Georg Frankl and Anni Weiss had already published on the topic.  Because the two researchers were Jews, however, they were expelled from Austria, leaving for the U.S. (where they soon married). It is Frankl and Weiss who deserve the credit for discovering Asperger’s Syndrome, rather than the man who abetted the murder of those who manifest its symptoms.

Asperger has his apologists. People who say he wasn’t as bad as some of his colleagues. Is one Nazi worse than another? Did he have to administer the lethal injection in order to be called a murderer of children unable to fend for themselves?

And what are the implications of this story for the study of medical ethics? For the self-esteem of those with AS, struggling to be part of society?

Reinventing Hans Asperger, Nazi

In truth, Hans Asperger is no different than any other Nazi reinvented in the imagination, the most famous example being Wernher Von Braun. Von Braun, a Nazi, went on to father the American space program. Hans Asperger, a Nazi, fostered our understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome, even as he failed to understand that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have value and deserve to live and breathe. From now on, Hans Asperger will no longer be thought of as the father of all children with Asperger’s Syndrome. Our awe for the man will be gone, replaced by horror.

The legacy of Hans Asperger, it seems, is not one of honor or respect, but a legacy of evil it is impossible to fathom.

A legacy that is forever changed.

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[1] Simon Baron-Cohen, Ami Klin, Steve Silberman, and Joseph D. Buxbaum, Did Hans Asperger actively assist the Nazi euthanasia program?, (Molecular Autism, 2018), https://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13229-018-0209-5

 

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Author: Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.

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