It has been said that Johann "Hans" Asperger, the pioneering Austrian physician who first described the profile of distinct psychological characteristics that later became known as Asperger syndrome in a workship in 1938, resisted the Nazi’s brutal “euthanasia” program by refusing to hand his patients over to officials. But as Kate Connolly reports for the Guardian, an expansive study published in the journal Molecular Autism has found that Asperger played an active—if complex—role in the regime, even sending his patients to near-certain death at a notorious euthanasia clinic.
The new study joins previous research into Asperger's connection with the Nazis, including work led by Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Study Center and John Donvan and Caren Zucker, authors of In a Different Key. This latest effort is the product of eight years of research by historian Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna, who pored through Asperger’s personnel files, assessments by Nazi authorities and medical case records, among other documentary evidence.
Nazi Germany’s “euthanasia program,” which began approximately two years before the genocide of European Jews, targeted people with psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities who were said to be a genetic and financial drain on the German state, and therefore “unworthy of life,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It has been estimated that 200,000 adults and children were murdered in the name of this policy.
The goal of Czech’s research was to re-evaluate a narrative that emerged in the years after WWII, which trumpeted Asperger as an opponent of the euthanasia program. The strongest claim supporting this view, the paper states, alleges that the Gestapo twice tried to arrest Asperger because he did not report patients with certain “deficiencies.” But, Czech notes, the “only known source for this claim is Asperger himself, who mentioned the incident in 1962 at his inauguration as the Vienna chair of pediatrics” and during a 1974 interview.
In fact, Czech found evidence that Asperger referred children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, a euthanasia facility where 772 children are said to have been killed. One of these patients was a toddler named Herta Schreiber, who began to exhibit signs of disturbed mental and physical development after contracting encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain commonly caused by a viral infection.
“At home the child must be an unbearable burden to the mother, who has to care for five healthy children,” Asperger wrote in his diagnostic report, according to the study. “Permanent placement at Spiegelgrund seems absolutely necessary.”
Schreiber was sent to Spiegelgrund, where she died three months later of pneumonia, the most common cause of death at the clinic, which routinely induced the illness in its patients by administering barbiturates over a long period of time.
Did Asperger know what was going on at this clandestine killing facility? “While the euthanasia killings at Spiegelgrund (as elsewhere) were officially a secret, and parents were routinely deceived about the true nature of the institution and the fate awaiting their children, rumors nevertheless abounded, and Asperger was in an exceptional position to know the truth,” Czech writes.
The historian also puts forth damning evidence to suggest that Asperger expressed measured support for Nazi plans to forcibly sterilize people considered “abnormal.”
“In the new Germany, we physicians have assumed an abundance of new responsibilities in addition to our old ones,” the physician wrote in a 1939 publication, according to Czech. “I do not need to elaborate on the enormous dedicated work being performed in terms of positive, supporting measures. But we all know that we also have to carry out restrictive measures … We must ensure that the diseased who would transmit their diseases to remote generations, to the detriment of the individual and of the Volk, are stopped from transmitting their diseased hereditary material.”
While Czech writes there is "scant direct evidence" whether Asperger shared the Nazis’ anti-Semitic views, the historian argues that Asperger willingly benefited from the anti-Semitic atmosphere permeating Austria. He joined the Vienna University Children’s Clinic in 1931, under the leadership of Franz Hamburger, one of the country's most prominent Nazis. Much of the Jewish staff was dismissed, and Asperger took charge at the ward, though at the time he had not obtained his specialist doctor qualification in pediatrics.
Czech also points to what he deems Asperger’s “lack of empathy” for the plight of Jewish patients under Nazi rule, along with his tendency to express racial stereotypes. In one report, the physician characterized 9-year-old Marie Klein’s manner being “in contrast to her quite Jewish character." In the 1940 report of an 11-year-old boy, he wrote that the child’s “only problem is that [he] is a Mischling of the first degree”—using a term to refer to people with one Jewish parent. At the time, Czech maintains, including this information in a medical file would have been “extremely dangerous” for the boy.
The new study is accompanied by an editorial by the journal’s editors-in-chief and two reviewers. “We are aware that the article and its publication will be controversial,” Simon Baron-Cohen, co-editor-in-chief of Molecular Autism and a leading autism researcher at the University of Cambridge. “We believe that it deserves to be published in order to expose the truth about how a medical doctor who, for a long time, was seen as only having made valuable contributions to the field of pediatrics and child psychiatry, was guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in their abhorrent eugenics and euthanasia policies. This historical evidence must now be made available."