Hans Asperger, whose work on autism led to the eponym ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, made concessions to Nazi ideology and collaborated with its race hygiene apparatus, a new study says.
The study, published in Molecular Autism and based on comprehensive archival research, draws on patient case files written by Asperger and his colleagues from 1928 to 1944— a crucial set of documents mistakenly assumed to have been destroyed in World War II. From the critical years of 1938 to 1944, 1012 case files survive that pertain to children admitted as inpatients to the clinic where Asperger worked.
The findings contradict earlier biographical accounts, including those of Lorna Wing, Uta Frith, Brita Shirmer and Helmut Groger. The new study describes the narrative of these as ‘predominantly apologetic’ and says they drew on too few original sources. As such, they have ‘tended to downplay or overlook any such involvement, or even to postulate that Asperger took a position of active resistance’.
The author traces Asperger’s career from the time when he joined the Heilpädagogische Station (Therapeutic Pedagogy Ward) at the Vienna University Children’s Clinic in 1931. He was appointed head of the ward in 1935 under the clinic’s chief Franz Hamburger, a fervent Nazi. The author argues that Asperger was able to establish himself ‘as a credible fellow traveler in the eyes of the party [the NSDAP, the official name of the Nazi Party], without directly embracing National Socialism’.
Through a detailed analysis of Asperger’s publications during the Nazi era the author also argues Asperger promoted ‘responsible cooperation’ with Nazi race hygiene policies. In a 1939 publication, for example, Asperger wrote of ‘the great obligation to promote the health of the Volk’ above that of individuals:
Just as the physician often has to make painful incisions during the treatment of individuals, we also have to perform incisions on the national body [Volkskörper], out of a sense of great responsibility: 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.
This is understood to refer to the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring of July 1933, under which 220,000 individuals had already been forcibly sterilised in Germany by the beginning of 1938.
The study argues that while there is scant evidence that Asperger held anti-semitic views there is ‘a notable absence of empathy for their plight under Nazi rule’ and that:
Until the end of his life, as far as his public statements are concerned, he never distanced himself from the racialized anti-Semitism that pervaded Austrian and German political life during the twentieth century nor did he comment on the destruction this had brought down on the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust.
Further evidence cited in the study includes Asperger’s working relationship with Erwin Jekelius, a paediatrician trained at Hamburger’s clinic, who later directed the child killing facility Am Spiegelgrund, where hundreds of disabled children were murdered.
The study suggests that Asperger could not have been unaware of the fate of children sent to Spiegelgrund as this was widely known in Vienna and even abroad. Nonetheless evidence exists that Asperger did transfer children there using diagnostic descriptions that would have placed their lives at risk .