Hans Asperger and the Nazis

By Neuroskeptic | April 20, 2018 9:04 am

Big news this week as Hans Asperger, autism pioneer and namesake of Asperger’s syndrome, is accused of having collaborated in the murder of children during the Nazi rule in Austria. The accusations come in the form of a long paper by historian Herwig Czech in the journal Molecular Autism.

Czech presents an analysis of Asperger’s activities as head of the Heilpädagogik Ward of the Pediatric Clinic at the University of Vienna, from 1935 to 1943. Here, Asperger was responsible for the evaluation of countless children with behavioral problems or disabilities; those with autism formed only a small fraction.

asperger

I’ve read Czech’s paper and I found it convincing, and depressing. What follows is my interpretation of the evidence that Czech presents.

Hans Asperger was not a Nazi. He never joined the Nazi party, and he was, initially, viewed as a potential opponent of the Nazi regime owing to his earlier association with Catholic organizations.

However, Asperger was not an anti-Nazi. Czech argues powerfully that the widespread view that Asperger was somehow a dissident who went out of his way to protect his patients, is mistaken.

After vetting Asperger, the Nazis decided that he was politically “unobjectionable”. He worked closely with outright Nazis, and he joined Nazi-affiliated organizations. Most importantly, there is no evidence that Asperger was viewed as a dissident at any point by the Nazi regime. And there is no indication that he objected, in principle, to sterilization or ‘euthanasia’ of disabled children.

It is true, Czech says, that Asperger used his position to argue that many children with mental or behavioural problems were not hopeless cases of hereditary degeneracy, but rather, that they could become productive members of society, given the right education and care. In this way, Asperger might appear to have been an advocate for ‘saving’ children from sterilization or worse.

However, Czech goes on to point out that Asperger was by no means exceptional in his view that some troubled children could be ‘salvaged’. This was in line with Nazi doctrine, which held that harsh measures were only called for in incurable cases, where the child would always be a ‘burden on society’. Hence, it is not surprising that Asperger was never suspected of disloyalty on account of his belief that many children could be rehabilitated.

This brings us to the most troubling question: what did Asperger think of the children who couldn’t be cured? Here, Czech points to a small number of documented cases in which Asperger referred children to a ‘clinic’, Am Spiegelgrund, which – amongst other things – was a killing center. The killing program was officially secret, but the truth was widely known, and Czech says it is “extremely implausible” that Asperger didn’t know what happened at Spiegelgrund.

The single most damning piece of evidence is that Asperger wrote, in the notes of a girl called Herta Schreiber, that “permanent placement at Spiegelgrund” was called for. This phrase is probably a euphemism for killing, which was rarely explicitly discussed on paper in the Third Reich. Schreiber was sent to Spiegelgrund, as Asperger had directed, and died there weeks later, aged 3.

herta-schreiber

My overall impression is that Asperger was, depressingly, a middle-of-the-road figure. He was not a Nazi, but he did not oppose them. He did not send many children to Spiegelgrund, but he sent some. He was politically and morally banal.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: autism, ethics, history, papers, select, Top Posts
ADVERTISEMENT
  • Neuro_Seance

    Even three years in anything but a loving home could have been an infinity of misery, terror and dread for a child like Herta Schreiber, but also for one like Shirley Temple. In Herta’s case we have seen the photo, which was necessary but still an assault on hope. (Are those necessary? How often?) It’s an ungodly situation, that of the orphan in the control of sociopaths. Don’t ever watch Pasolini’s Saló.

  • Bernard Carroll

    “He was politically and morally banal.” That term banal bothers me. It implies a lack of personal agency in Asperger’s politics and ethics. But I have not been able to come up with an alternative term…

    • http://stephan-zielinski.com/ Stephan Zielinski

      “Banal” was a very deliberate choice. Check out the Wikipedia article it links to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eichmann_in_Jerusalem

      • Bernard Carroll

        I did already, and I still think we need another term. Thanks.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          hmmm… “Opportunistic” isn’t quite right. “Indifferent” maybe?

          • Bernard Carroll

            How about disingenuous?

    • Duncan Baxter

      Depressingly, when good people do nothing, evil spreads from evildoers, to those who are neither good nor evil — the “ordinary person”.

  • http://www.morningmail.org Belfast

    Can’t cite the reference off-hand, but it is in my mind that Asperger said that Asperger’s syndrome was proof that the soul did not exist. Having such a view it is no big leap to killing soulless humans from killing soulless cattle and sheep.

  • jonathanpulliam

    “Let the other people worry about it.”

    — Heinrich Trummpler

  • smut clyde

    There was also this, from two years ago: Silberman casting innuendoes on Herwig Czech’s claims, because Czech had not given him copies of the records.
    https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/01/20/463603652/was-dr-asperger-a-nazi-the-question-still-haunts-autism

  • Robin Oliver

    This blog is WICKED. It appears to justify the murder of disabled children.

    • TLongmire

      If you are referring to my comment I would suggest you look at that image of an innocent girls tormented soul”perhaps by demons” and you tell me it’s not wicked to do nothing to stop it. When your only choice is the lesser of two evils that doesn’t make you evil but it does prove our lots are not those of righteous creatures.

      • Robin Oliver

        I still maintain the wickedness of your comment. We are not entitled to murder someone because we think their quality of life is poor. Such an assessment may be wrong in any case. You are advocating euthanasia of disabled people. The photograph proves nothing. All children cry.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+