Hans Asperger Was a Nazi, New Medical Paper Alleges
The autism pioneer had troubling connections to the racist and genocidal Nazi movement. Should his name be purged from his namesake disorder?
Herwig Czech, a medical historian at the Medical University in Vienna, made the bold claims after spending eight years studying Asperger’s history.
“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,” Czech says in the paper.
“What emerges is a much more problematic role played by this pioneer of autism research.”
Asperger, an Austrian doctor who studied children’s mental health and identified early markers of autism spectrum disorders, is often pointed to as the father of our modern understanding of the disorder. His postdoctoral thesis describing the symptoms and nature of autism were published in 1942, after an initial set of papers published in 1938 that described observations of “autistic psychopaths.”
But the papers’ painstaking descriptions of the children have long incited controversy of Asperger’s potential involvement with the Nazi regime. Asperger spent the tail end of World War II as a medical officer based in Nazi-controlled Yugoslavia, where he continued to conduct studies on children’s mental health.
In fact, much of what we know about Asperger’s life and medical work come from Asperger himself. Czech—the grandson of a Nazi who has devoted his life to documenting Hitler’s medical policies—looked at hundreds of primary notes, Nazi political assessments, 1,012 case files from between 1938 and 1944, and rare insights from children at a clinic at Am Spiegelgrund, a Nazi ward for “unfit” children where Asperger sent many kids. Many of these files were looked at for the first time.
His work emerged in the 1980s as mental health received more attention; the syndrome got Asperger’s name on it after Lorna Wing, a researcher in London, coined the term after going through Asperger’s papers.
In an editorial published in defense of Czech’s controversial piece, the authors say that Wing’s decision to name the syndrome after Asperger was not made with the knowledge that we now have of Asperger’s Nazi leanings. “At the time, she and we as scientists and clinicians, as well as the broader autism community, were unaware of Hans Asperger’s close alliance with, and support of, the Nazi program of compulsory sterilization and euthanasia,” they said.
The truth—prior to Czech’s damning paper on Wednesday—was murky.
Asperger acknowledged he was part of the Nazi military, and was in fact responsible for recommending “unfit” children to Am Spiegelgrund, an Austrian children’s ward where 789 victims perished under the Nazi’s Children’s Euthanasia Program. Asperger, however, stated that he in fact was wanted by the Nazis for his work in protecting his patients from Spiegelgrund.
Czech, however, claims that Asperger’s claims weren’t true, based on meticulous notes that Asperger kept of his observations. “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,” he writes.
Czech also writes that claims of protection and benevolence were exaggerated, finding no evidence of what Asperger referred to as his “pedagogic optimism” that some of his patients could be treated or even cured. In fact, Czech found evidence of the very opposite, with Asperger writing about the urgent need to “carry out restrictive measures” for patients who he deemed unable to be helped “out of a sense of great responsibility” for the future of Germany.
This isn’t the first time that Asperger’s personal and medical history have been alleged to be racist and troubling. Rumblings of Asperger’s Nazi affiliation began to emerge several years ago and have become stronger as research has become more abundant. Czech himself presented some preliminary findings from his research in 2010; in In a Different Key, a history of autism published in 2016, authors John Donvan and Caren Zucker suggested that at the very least, Asperger was an “opportunist” who capitalized on his position and power and was an enthusiastic fan of Adolf Hitler based on letters and records.
Czech doesn’t suggest “purging” the name of Asperger from the syndrome, and writes that there is no evidence that Asperger’s research in autism were affected by his Nazi leanings. “Rather, this should be an opportunity to look at the past and learn lessons from it,” he wrote.