Asperger's Syndrome, the Nazi Regime and the Dangerous Power of Labeling People

tags: Nazi, Hans Asperger, Aspergers Syndrome

Edith Sheffer, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of the forthcoming bookAsperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.

If a child receives a medical diagnosis, it’s natural for a parent to jump into research. If the parent is a historian, perhaps the urge is magnified — so when my son was diagnosed with autism at 17 months old, I read widely about the condition, including its historical origins. I learned that the man credited with developing our idea of an autism spectrum and Asperger disorder — Hans Asperger — conducted his research in Nazi Vienna.

This fact brought a strange confluence of interests, since I am a specialist in 20th century Germany and central Europe. I was amazed to find that, though just this month a study in the journal Molecular Autismdid address the topic, at the time there was no in-depth research on Asperger’s Nazi-era activities. The little written about Asperger, in parent manuals and online blurbs, depicted him as a resister of Nazism and compassionate with his patients. Some speculated that Asperger tried to protect them from Nazi killings by emphasizing their special abilities and potential value to the state, using the autism diagnosis as a way to save them from the extermination that could face those seen as disabled.

I was excited to write a positive book about autism and the Third Reich. My first day in the Austrian National Archives in Vienna, however, dispelled any notion of a heroic tale.

Leafing through Asperger’s district Nazi party file, I saw that officials deemed him a supporter of the regime and its racial policies. His professional and patient records, then, showed that he participated in Vienna’s child killing program. Through his clinic and positions in the Nazi government, Asperger endorsed the transfer of dozens of children to their deaths at Spiegelgrund, Vienna’s death center.

Discovering these stories, it was difficult to reconcile Asperger’s role in the killing program with his reputed support for children he deemed promising. Both were in the documentary record. The double-sided character of Asperger’s actions led me to realize the double-sided nature of Nazism as a whole. The Reich’s project to transform humanity involved both treatment and elimination. ...

Read entire article at Time Magazine

comments powered by Disqus