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The Horrifying Nazi Roots of the Doctor After Whom Asperger’s Syndrome Is Named

One cannot escape the fact that Asperger worked within a system of mass killing as a conscious participant, very much tied to his world and to its horrors. – Edith Sheffer, Asperger’s Children

An interview with Edith Sheffer.

Related Link Edith Sheffer's Amazing Book, "Asperger’s Children:  The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna"

Austrian physician Dr. Hans Asperger (1906-1980) is perhaps best known today for his research on autism that he conducted with children in Nazi Vienna. His research was little known until 1981, a year after his death, when a British psychiatrist Dr. Lorna Wing defined an autism spectrum disorder and named it “Asperger’s syndrome.” Her fresh view of autism was based on Asperger’s obscure 1944 doctoral thesis as well as studies by other researchers. 

Until recently, Asperger was portrayed in the media as a compassionate psychiatrist who quietly resisted Nazi policies in wartime Vienna, conducted innovative research, and saved children from death.

However, prize-winning author and history Professor Edith Sheffer reveals a much more complex and sinister portrait of Asperger and his activities as a physician for children in her groundbreaking new book Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna(W. W. Norton, 2018). 

Sparked by a personal interest in autism, Professor Sheffer set out to learn more about this disorder and to tell the story of a heroic Austrian physician who acted in the best interests of his child patients. Instead, she found that Asperger embraced the tenets of Nazi psychiatry and eugenics and that he was complicit in the extermination of children who were “ineducable” or otherwise considered “life unworthy of life.” He willingly transferred children to the notorious Vienna clinic, Am Spiegelgrund, where hundreds of children were killed as part of the Nazi euthanasia program. Children there also were subjected to gruesome and often lethal medical experiments. Although not a member of the Nazi Party, Asperger joined pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations, described himself as a eugenicist, and endorsed ideas of racial purity.

And Professor Sheffer learned that Asperger’s autism research was flawed and unscientific—and that he never defined a spectrum disorder based on scientific principles. 

Professor Sheffer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She specializes in the history of Germany and central Europe. Her first book, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain(Oxford University Press, 2011), won the 2012 Paul Birdsall Prize from the American Historical Association, and the 2011 Fraenkel Prize for best first book of European history. She is currently researching her next book, Hidden Front: Switzerland and World War Two, an in-depth history of a nation whose pivotal role was decisive in the course of the Second World War.  Professor Sheffer also is involved in a project through Stanford's Spatial History Lab that maps the transnational development of child psychiatry as a discipline: "Forming Selves: The Creation of Child Psychiatry from Red Vienna to the Third Reich and Abroad.”She has been acclaimed on numerous occasions for her research and writing as well as her innovative approaches to teaching history.

Professor Sheffer generously spoke by telephone on the evolution of her new book about Asperger and her original research.

Dr. Hans Asperger (about 1956)

Robin Lindley: What inspired you to investigate and write about the life of Dr. Hans Asperger and his work in Nazi Vienna?

Professor Edith Sheffer: My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 17 months old. Like any parent, I read what I could about the diagnosis. All of these parent manuals said that Leo Kanner was the child psychiatrist who learned about autism in the United States. Then there would be a paragraph or two about Asperger saying not much is know about him. He worked in Nazi Vienna and he had a heroic reputation for defending children with disabilities, for defining autism in a positive way, and for rescuing children from the euthanasia program. He could be seen as using autism as a psychiatric Schindler’s List. This is the reputation that he had.

I set out to tell this heroic story. When I had a conference in Vienna for Broken Bridge, I went to the archives to see what I could find about him. I found Asperger’s District Nazi Party file and that was enough to show that he’d been complicit in the regime and its euthanizing measures.

I actually thought of abandoning this project. I was so horrified by what I found in looking at the case stories of the children. I didn’t think I could engage in the topic at all on a personal level. But then I felt it was a really important story to be told that hadn’t been. I said yes.

Robin Lindley: The story is very moving and I appreciate your efforts in retrieving this material that had been long forgotten. I was moved by the book’s dedication to your son Eric and your comments about him in the acknowledgements section of the book.

Professor Edith Sheffer: He really wanted to add his voice to this. He felt very strongly about the issues and, as I wrote in the acknowledgments, he really chafed against autism label and wanted to have his voice heard.

Robin Lindley: Your son showed a lot of courage and tenacity in encouraging you to explore this dark history. How would you briefly describe autism for readers? I realize it’s a perplexing condition.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Autism is an amorphous label for people thought to have challenges with social relations and narrowed interests. I think there are a lot of problems with the diagnosis, as individuals diagnosed with the condition can bear extremely little resemblance to one another. The problem is, we just don’t have an adequate vocabulary to describe autism. Right now, it serves as an expansive umbrella diagnosis. Researchers suggest that autism is a kind of a catch-all term. It likely encompasses many different physiological conditions that one day will be split into different diagnoses, or different subtypes. 

I think the situation is similar to the diagnosis of “female hysteria” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which lumped together women with different underlying conditions:  schizophrenia, epilepsy, syphilis, bipolar, anxiety, etc. Science was not yet at a point to disaggregate those diagnoses. 

I think it’s an interesting question—in the absence of more definitive science -- the extent to which psychiatric diagnoses are open to cultural influence. At a time when women were asserting visible roles in public life, the image of the hysterical woman captured the public mind. Now, the idea of the autism spectrum draws on anxieties about our children’s integration into a perfectionist and fast-changing world.  On one end, a youth with autism might face a lifetime of severe disability and isolation, and on the other, adapt and be perceived to have superior abilities. Hysteria was a diagnosis of overly-emotional women, while now, if you think about it, autism is a diagnosis of under-emotional boys (the ratio is 5:1 boys to girls) with the main image as white, urban, and middle-class. 

This is not to deny the very real challenges, of course, of children diagnosed with the conditions. My aim is to show how psychiatric diagnoses can be fluid things. Definitions emerge from the interactions of patients, doctors, and social forces -- and, in a continual feedback loop, diagnoses change over time. In pointing out this changeability, I hope to underscore the ethics of respecting every child’s mind and treating those minds with care. I mean to show, and warn, how easily a society can issue labels, medications, and interventions. May this research give us pause in considering how we describe and portray our children and inform discussion on where we go from here. 

Robin Lindley: As you mention, Asperger has been remembered as benevolent and as the definer of an autism spectrum disorder. Your research certainly belied that view of Asperger and challenged this popular perception. Could you say a bit about Asperger’s background and how your research evolved?

Professor Edith Sheffer: Sure. One of the things I fought to understand was how he fit into the milieu of Nazi child psychiatry. What the book does is sketch the world of Nazi Vienna and situates Asperger with it. 

I begin in the 1920’s with Asperger’s predecessors in the clinic in which he worked and locate them within progressive notions of child development in Vienna and helping children who were on the street in the wake of the chaos after World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. There was this outpouring of experts that was often progressive and well-intentioned but then, in the course of the 1930’s, the state became more interventionist by taking children away from their homes and institutionalizing them. 

I look at how Asperger came to Vienna and very quickly got in with his mentor, Franz Hamburger, who became head of the University of Vienna Children’s Hospital, a very powerful position in 1931. Hamburger was ardently pro-Nazi and on the far right of the political spectrum. As he began purging liberal and Jewish faculty, Asperger was one of his first hires. Asperger had solid right-wing credentials. He was a member of several anti-Semitic and anti-liberal organizations. 

Hamburger really trusted Asperger as his postdoctoral student and installed him as director of the Curative Education Clinic when he was just 28 in 1934. Asperger had never published in curative education which was akin to what we’d call holistic psychiatry and there were long-time staff physicians in the clinic who he was promoted ahead of because of his political reliability.

Robin Lindley: You found, however, that Asperger was not a member of the Nazi Party.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes. He was devout Catholic and there were a lot of Austrian Catholics who eschewed Nazism for religious reasons. It was not unusual not to be a member of the Nazi Party. Only three in ten physicians in Vienna were Nazi Party members, so that’s a bit of a misconception to think that it was unusual not to be a member. That said, Hamburger assured that every other doctor at the hospital was a member. But Asperger was so close to Hamburger that he had that political protection. 

Hamburger also insisted that his doctors be published and “be saturated with National Socialist principles.” That’s a direct quote. Asperger was definitely reliable enough and his district Nazi Party files—about 20 documents in there—testify that there were no concerns about his reliability when it came to sterilization and racial hygiene measures and other activities that were going on at the Children’s Hospital. Asperger and his colleagues were doing a lot of medical experimentation on children. 

No, he was not a member of the Nazi Party, and he has gotten a lot of points for that, but the book shows that he was trusted by these figures and participated in the euthanasia itself.

Robin Lindley: As you write, Asperger was a self-proclaimed eugenicist and he was “shaped by Nazi ideology.” That’s a chilling finding.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Right. And to me, one of the biggest findings of that book that has gotten lost in the focus on the euthanasia program, is the extent to which his definition of autism was shaped by Nazi ideology. Asperger originally believed in not even diagnosing children. He thought their characteristics were so individuated that he couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. He published in 1937 that we can’t diagnose children. And then, just months after that, in 1938—after the Nazis annexed Austria—he came out with his own diagnosis that he called autistic psychopathy.

Asperger’s diagnosis was one of social detachment of children who could not join the group. He was really following in the footsteps of his senior colleagues in Germany who started to diagnose children who were unable to join in collective activities such as the Hitler Youth. They had been developing diagnoses like autism in the thirties long before Asperger came around. Right after the Anschluss was when Asperger delivered his diagnosis. He was a young man then and, in the book, I show how year by year he sharpens his definition of the diagnosis and uses evermore fascist terminology. 

By 1944, he was talking about children who could not become “members” in the greater “organism” and describing them as unable to learn. He used terms for them such as “grotesque,” “sadistic,” and “dilapidated.” He referred to them as burdens. So his definition of autism changed over the years as he was up for promotion. To me, that’s one of the biggest findings of the book: the idea that he found these children unable to join the productive society. 

And the thing that is really telling, right after the Third Reich, Asperger ended his work on autism and never published work on autism again. He wrote over 300 articles in the postwar period and wrote only a handful of short pieces about autistic psychopathy; he never conducted systematic research on autism again. To my mind, that speaks to the idea that he fits with his colleagues in Nazi child psychiatry in identifying children who were fit for the Volk. And then, after the war, the ideas and the times changed. 

Robin Lindley: You delve into Asperger’s embrace of Nazi psychiatry and you write about the double-sided nature of Nazism and of Asperger. You also stress that Third Reich was a “diagnostic regime” that obsessed about labeling and indexing everyone. Some see that form of government as a “biocracy” or a political system based on biology and, in the case of Nazism, based on race, genetics, medicine and health.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes. We so often think of the Third Reich in terms of extermination, but if you back up and look, the Nazi project was as much a fascist project. The goal of my book is to put fascism back into Nazism. There’s the positive role of collective spirit of the people, and they believed that some children could be remediated to become fully productive members of the Volk. People who were labeled asocial or shy could be taught to work. Those who were seen to have enough German blood could be Germanized. 

So, there was a project to reclaim people and not only exterminate people, which led to active labeling. To say that this Pole can be Germanized, you needed a doctor to evaluate and measure the facial features to make these conclusions.

It really struck me that the act of diagnosis is what enabled these populations to be designated as redeemable or not redeemable. Then, if you look even more closely at the regime, even the category of Jewishness is unstable. Officials in different regions have different definitions of a half-Jew or three-quarters Jew was, or what constituted a German.

Robin Lindley: And it’s striking that the labeling and other aspects of the regime you stress, including extermination, were seen as a healthy part of a healthy process under the Third Reich.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes. And you go back to Asperger who has this reputation of saying nice things about children he diagnosed and rescuing them. He absolutely believed in the superiority of some of these children. He wrote that they were superior to normal children. For the ones he thought could be redeemed, he absolutely believed that and he believed that in the postwar period. So, he really had this two-sided nature of his views. It’s just that he transferred the irredeemable to the killing centers.

Robin Lindley: What did you find about the atmosphere in Vienna at the time? As I recall, Austria was more pro-Nazi than Germany. 

Professor Edith Sheffer: Austrian enthusiasm for the Reich even took Hitler by surprise. When German tanks rolled in on March 12, 1938, they were met by cheering crowds. Very quickly, there was a spontaneous wave of anti-Jewish violence, which took people by surprise. Ten percent of the population of Vienna was Jewish and anti-Semitism was rife in Austria way worse than in Germany. The violence unleashed in March was much greater than Germany had even seen until the Night of the Broken Glass in November 1938. And it turns out that Austrians were about 40 percent of the personnel in concentration camps and other locations of mass extermination. They were grossly overrepresented. And while 8 percent of the Reich population, they comprised 14 percent of the SS.

People think this [pro-Nazism] was because of the large number of Jews in Austria and the proximity to eastern Europe with more nationalistic tensions and provincialized thinking than the average German. And Asperger worked in this milieu. 

Robin Lindley: And what was the Spiegelgrund facility in Vienna where children were exterminated?

Professor Edith Sheffer: Spiegelgrund was the second largest of 37 killing centers for children in the Reich. The death rates there were extremely high. 

Robin Lindley: For context, most of the child killings in Spiegelgrund occurred after the regime ostensibly ended the T4 program which preceded the Holocaust and involved the extermination of people with a variety of physical and mental disabilities.

Professor Edith Sheffer: It was actually the T4 program that allowed Spiegelgrund to have children because Steinhof [Psychiatric Institute], the greater facility, held thousands of adults and about three thousand were deported to gas chambers in the summer of 1940. The T4 program cleared enough beds for children that year, and Spiegelgrund was established for the children.

Often child euthanasia and adult euthanasia in the T4 program are conflated. They were very different. Child euthanasia was meant to become a permanent part of the health care system. It was seen as an extension of sterilization to cleanse the gene pool. The T4 program was more about eliminating people who were a drain on the state. 

The child euthanasia program involved very close observation of children. These children have massive case files. The T4 program of extermination really became haphazard and killed thousands and thousands of people. Child euthanasia was supposedly a more scientific process. The physicians believed that they were engaging in scientific observation. In comparison to T4, the numbers for child euthanasia are small. Up to ten thousand children were killed whereas with adult euthanasia, people put the numbers at two hundred to two hundred and fifty thousand killed. 

Child euthanasia was a very deliberative process. The thing that fascinates me about this chapter of Nazi extermination was the role of women. Nurses injected the children they cared for and mixed barbiturates used in the killing, unlike the T4 program. 

Robin Lindley: Thank you for distinguishing those horrific programs Professor Sheffer. The T4 program ended as the result of public outcry about the atrocious mass killings, but I sense there wasn’t a public outcry about the extermination of children in places like Spiegelgrund.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Some parents delivered their children to the killing center. There was an outcry about the T4 program in 1940 and even protests in Vienna that summer. Even newspapers talked about T4. People knew about child euthanasia but there wasn’t an outcry and, as I discuss in the book, some parents actually wanted their children to be killed in the program. They were a burden at home and they had other children to deal with and the husbands may have been away at the war.

Robin Lindley: What happened to children at Spiegelgrund, the center for child killing?

Professor Edith Sheffer: At Spiegelgrund, there were nine pavilions that housed children, two of which were designated for killing. A lot of children were seen there. If they were considered in one of the difficult-children classifications, they would always be at risk for death. There were regular selections. The children would be lined up and evaluated. There was a punishment pavilion where kids could always be in danger of being selected and sent onto Pavilion 15, the killing center. There was also a school there and some semblance of daily life for a large number of the kids there. 

Robin Lindley: What was the process of child killing at Spiegelgrund?

Professor Edith Sheffer: The children marked for death would usually be issued barbiturates over several weeks. There was a large variance and they would experiment with dosage and how quickly children died. The goal was to make these murders look like natural deaths. They would grind barbiturates into the food and the children would slowly waste away, usually developing pneumonia. So the official cause of death would be pneumonia. The vast majority of children ostensibly died of pneumonia and then from starvation and or other conditions. For children who were unable to eat, they’d inject Luminal or morphine.

Robin Lindley: What was Asperger’s role in the child euthanasia program at Spiegelgrund.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Asperger himself did not work at Spiegelgrund. He was a close associate with its director, Erwin Jekelius, who was engaged to Hitler’s sister, and a co-director of Spiegelgrund, Max Gundel. Asperger was tied to Spiegelgrund. He gave talks and published about the most difficult cases of children at Spiegelgrund, so he’s on the record about that. While he didn’t actually work at Spiegelgrund, he transferred dozens of children there and designated them for killing.

Robin Lindley: And Asperger was then well aware of the child euthanasia program.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Absolutely. Asperger transferred children to Spiegelgrund in several capacities. He transferred children from his clinics. He also worked for the Nazi government as a consultant for the Public Health Office as a member of a panel that evaluated the children and they transferred 35 children to Spiegelgrund who were subsequently killed. He also transferred children as a consultant for a remedial school. So he functioned in several different capacities. 

Robin Lindley: That explains your finding in the book that Asperger participated in child killing on “multiple levels.” And you mention that physicians also conducted medical experiments on children at Spiegelgrund and used some gruesome procedures such as encephalography. 

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes. With the encephalography, children would lie face down and get a lumbar puncture and it would be absolutely excruciating, and they’d be sent back to their beds. Those deaths were not of pneumonia, and its not easy to estimate how many deaths were from encephalography. 

Children would also have their brains harvested. There were about 400 brains that were discovered in the cellar of Spiegelgrund.

I should say that Asperger’s hospital used Spiegelgrund to conduct its own experiments. Elmar Turk, a fellow postdoctoral student of Asperger’s, worked under Hamburger and conducted tuberculosis vaccine experiments. He would infect children with tuberculosis and then send them to Spiegelgrund for observation and, as I wrote in the book, he asked things like, “Can you take detailed notes on this child as he dies.” He wanted to know exactly what this looked like. And then he wanted to be present at the autopsies. 

There were a lot of medical experiments happening at Asperger’s hospital. A fellow postdoctoral student, Herbert Goll, was depriving babies of fats and Vitamin A to see how long it took them to die. 

Again, Asperger himself was not doing this, and I tried to explore in the book his complicity. He could have done more, but he also didn’t have to work at that hospital. 

Robin Lindley: You detail the treatment of many children in your book. Were there a couple of cases that particularly struck you in the course of your research?

Professor Edith Sheffer: Sure. I have a chapter that compares and goes into depth in the case histories of four children. What struck me was that gender nature of Asperger’s diagnoses. He described two boys with autistic psychopathy, and he wrote about these boys as “superior to normal children” and described their “autistic intelligence.” These boys had been kicked out of school and had misbehaved and been disruptive. They had atypical social relationships. They didn’t make eye contact. They didn’t join in games. But Asperger saw them as [manifesting] “superior autistic intelligence.” 

I also looked at the cases of two girls in his clinic who manifested very similar symptoms. Asperger described their issues in equivalent terms. He deemed them to have hormonal menstrual issues and transferred them to Spiegelgrund. And you look at that files of these girls and they were drawing pictures and writing letters, but they were deemed “ineducable.” 

Robin Lindley: The story of the treatment of those talented girls was heartbreaking. Did they survive Spiegelgrund? 

Professor Edith Sheffer: One definitely survived and the other is not on the roster of children who were killed. Asperger’s clinic designated Elfriede Grohmann for Pavilion 17, which was the observation pavilion for death for Dr. Illing. Margarete Schaffer was pre-selected and “introduced” to Jekelius and transferred to Spiegelgrund that same day. 

When you look at their medical files, these girls were indistinguishable from the boys. It illustrates the power of these doctors to determine life or death. 

Robin Lindley: Did you learn what happened to the two boys that Asperger found of “superior autistic intelligence?

Professor Edith Sheffer: Asperger followed one of the boys, Fritz V., into adulthood. Fritz reportedly became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in the work of Isaac Newton. 

Robin Lindley: The stories you relate on extermination of young people are heart wrenching. Did you encounter any resistance to your review of the medical files and other evidence in the course of your research?

Professor Edith Sheffer: It’s interesting. Austria has a reputation for not dealing with its past as openly as Germany, which has been coming to terms with its past. Spiegelgrund is a bit of an exception in the recognition of Austria’s crimes.

As I was doing this research, there was a lot of publicity about Spiegelgrund. Vienna put on an opera about it in 2013. There had been an effort to bring a leading doctor, Heinrich Gross, to trial in 2000, and that brought a lot of publicity to Spiegelgrund. 

I must say in talking with people here about my research, I get a lot of skepticism and resistance. Some asked “Was Asperger really like that? Didn’t he rescue children?” I’ve been surprised by the reception of the book in the reviews. 

Robin Lindley: Is there an argument that Asperger was working in the context of his time and within the medical standards and politics of his society then? Other doctors were doing the same thing.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes. There’s a sense that everyone was doing it. Did Asperger have a choice? What’s good about the book is that it lays out that he did have a choice. He didn’t have to associate with the Nazis. 

So far, I’ve been surprised by how receptive people are to this message and even to the idea of no longer using Asperger’s name. In a review in Nature, Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher, said we should no longer use Asperger’s name [as part of a diagnosis]. 

Robin Lindley: You have also suggested removing Asperger’s name from autism diagnoses in your articles.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes. There are a number of diagnoses that now go by other names that had been named after doctors who had been engaged in extermination. These physicians had the godlike power to label you and make snap judgments about your worthiness. 

Robin Lindley: And many of the medical personnel who had worked at Spiegelgrund thrived after the war and never faced justice. Asperger worked without any repercussions for his role in advancing the Nazi policies. His autism work stopped by the end of the war. You note that Jekelius and a nurse were tried for war crimes. 

Professor Edith Sheffer: And [Spiegelgrund Director] Illing was tried and sentenced to die. Jekelius died in Soviet captivity. Only four people who worked at Spiegelgrund were even brought to trial. 

Robin Lindley: And you include the story of Dr. Heinrich Gross who benefited for decades after the war from his collection of 400 brains from children who had been exterminated at Spiegelgrund.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Absolutely. Andreas Rett of Rett’s syndrome drew on the Gross collection. These body parts circulated in Vienna after the war without any questions. 

There were three attempts to bring Dr. Gross to trial and finally, in 2000, an excellent case was assembled against him but he was deemed unfit to stand trial, which caused a lot of controversy because he seemed perfectly health.

Robin Lindley: I saw a film that showed him at a bar and he was quite lucid and talking with people after he was deemed unfit for trial.

Professor Edith Sheffer: I’ve seen that, and he looked totally fine.

Robin Lindley: To go back to Asperger, he gets credit for defining the autism spectrum disorder—but did he even do that?

Professor Edith Sheffer: He never used the word spectrum and he believed that the children he looked at were fundamentally distinct from the children that [autism researcher] Leo Kanner was looking at. Leo Kanner was looking at children with more impairments who were much less independent. They were unable to go to school. 

It was Lorna Wing, a leading British psychiatrist, who put together the work of Asperger and Kanner, and came up with the spectrum was her concept. She herself did far more research on children described as having Asperger’s syndrome. She was looking for a name for the diagnosis and they named it after Asperger as a professional courtesy, but she fundamentally changed what Asperger wrote. She first of all called it a syndrome because she wanted to use a neutral word. Asperger called it a psychopathy, and called children psychopaths, which has connotations in German psychiatry with criminality, depravity, and sadism. 

So, Lorna Wing fundamentally changed the thrust of the diagnosis and she also dispensed with its harsher rhetoric and eugenicist undertones. What she introduced in 1981 bore little resemblance to what Asperger wrote but he got credit. We should really be calling it Wing Syndrome. 

Robin Lindley: So Asperger gets much more recognition than he deserves for any of his autism research, which seems very limited in retrospect.

Professor Edith Sheffer: Asperger’s thesis was not well-written science. He contradicts himself all the time. He studied just four boys. At one point, he said that he saw more than 200 children, but that was his only reference to 200 children and his thesis was very unsystematic. It was kind of a rush job because he was headed to Croatia and he was seeking a promotion. 

Asperger did not describe what we understand as the condition Asperger’s syndrome, which is another reason that I suggest we no longer use his name. Lorna Wing deserves a lot of credit for helping us recognize children with different kinds of challenges and introducing a spectrum. 

Robin Lindley: After the war, Asperger continued to work as a researcher, but had abandoned any work on autism. Was he ever challenged or officially investigated for his work during the Nazi period?

Professor Edith Sheffer: He never joined the Nazi Party, so he had a pristine reputation. He was named the interim head of Children’s Hospital, later went off to Innsbruck. He returned to Vienna and became chair of pediatrics, a prestigious position. But, since he’d never been in the party, he could claim he had been a resister. He claimed he risked his life by not reporting children. And it is possible that there were children he decided not to report. There’s no way to prove that, but I’ll allow for the possibility that he might have rescued some children. But it’s undeniable that he also transferred children to Spiegelgrund. Asperger cultivated his reputation after the war. 

There was a move to look into Asperger after Lorna Wing published Asperger syndrome as the official diagnosis in the diagnostic manuals. The American Psychiatric Association, for an eponymous diagnosis, is supposed to investigate the individual behind it. 

Robin Lindley: You’ve uncovered a trove of information on Asperger and medicine in wartime Vienna. I wondered how you stayed healthy as you—and as other historians have done—dug deep into the horror of the atrocities you examined.

Professor Edith Sheffer: At first, it was devastating, and—as I told you—I really thought about abandoning the project. But then, you become desensitized to the material and look at it with more detachment—to keep it from killing your soul. If I pull back and look at the book, I feel the emotion again, but I had to work on it in an analytical manner, I had to distance myself from the material. What’s hard is talking to my son about. The story has a lot of impact for him. 

Robin Lindley: Your son sounds like a very bright person with a lot of insight—as displayed in his words on autism that you share in your acknowledgments section. 

Professor Edith Sheffer: He’s wonderful. As a mother, of course what was going through my head at the beginning of this book was what would have happened to Eric and what would Asperger have said about Eric. So this had a personal connection. And Eric himself asked, “What would happen to me?” 

Robin Lindley: You have changed the thinking about Asperger with your research. What is the resonance now for us in terms of labeling people and biomedical ethics that you see? What lessons can we draw from the story of Asperger?

Professor Edith Sheffer: For me as a mother, it was interesting to delve into the process of psychiatry and labels and to realize that today, psychiatry is still in flux. We still don’t have a handle on psychiatric diagnoses. We must try to understand the extent to which society is defining what we look for in children, what teachers try to discern, how the media represents children. Diagnosis is a reflection of priorities of the time. 

At the end of the book, I end up comparing autism to female hysteria at the turn of the century. Autism is a heterogenous diagnosis. It’s multiple conditions. Cases can look very different from one another. With hysteria, we were eventually able to break it down into schizophrenia or epilepsy or syphilis or bipolar disorder, which is the beginning of trying to understand autism. People agree that there are multiple conditions but we just don’t understand what they are yet. 

I took away that we need to treat people as individuals with individual needs and not as labels. 

Robin Lindley: It’s so important to remember the danger of categorizing and labeling people. Didn’t your son Eric write that there is no autism?

Professor Edith Sheffer: Yes, he did. He said it’s not real. I would agree. One day we might be able to break up what we call autism into separate subtypes or distinct diagnoses. But, unlike a lot of psychiatric diagnoses where there’s a biochemical mechanism that’s been identified that you can take a pill for, there’s no pill for autism because it’s multiple conditions. 

Robin Lindley: I appreciate Eric’s insight. What’s your next project?

Professor Edith Sheffer: Switzerland in World War II. Switzerland is essential to understanding how the war unfolded as it did. There is of course the economic story of banking, trade, and hard currency. But I’m interested in multiple angles, from intelligence to diplomacy to Jewish refugees and knowledge of the Holocaust. 

There’s a big story about the Red Cross. The Red Cross had observers in concentration camps and ghettos and they were reporting back to Geneva. The Red Cross sat on this knowledge because it didn’t want to violate its neutrality. 

Robin Lindley. I look forward to the next book. It’s been an honor to talk with you Professor Sheffer. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and congratulations on your groundbreaking book on Asperger and Nazi psychiatry.