Hans Asperger assisted Nazi regime of euthanasia, report claims
Asperger’s Syndrome named after paediatrician who was a pioneer of autism research
A man stands in front of the “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free) gate in the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, Poland. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Hans Asperger, the respected Austrian paediatrician whose name describes a form of high-functioning autism, actively assisted in the murder of disabled children by the Nazis, a new report claims.
Asperger’s Syndrome, marked by an impaired ability to interact socially with others, tends to affect people of average or above average intelligence.
It was first identified by Professor Asperger in 1944 who used the term “autistic psychopathy” to describe the condition of four children under his care.
In 1981, the British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who helped establish the National Autistic Society in the UK, introduced the diagnosis of “Asperger’s Syndrome” in honour of her predecessor.
But according to new evidence, the pioneer of autism research whose reputation is that of a strong opponent of Nazi ideology, had a hidden dark past.
Documents uncovered by an Austrian medical historian suggest that Prof Asperger ingratiated himself with the Nazi regime to the extent of participating in its murderous euthanasia programme.
Asperger is said to have referred profoundly disabled children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, where their “unworthy” lives were snuffed out.
An estimated 789 children, many with severe mental problems, were systematically killed at the Vienna clinic, mostly by lethal injection and gassing.
Others died from disease and starvation, or were subjected to harsh medical experiments.
“Aktion T4,” the horrific euthanasia programme, personally authorised by Adolf Hitler, set out to cull the incurable and severely disabled.
Herwig Czech, from the Medical University of Vienna, set out the claims against Prof Asperger after trawling through previously unexamined documents from the Nazi era including personnel files and patient records.
He said: “These findings about Hans Asperger are the result of many years of careful research in the archives.
“What emerges is that Asperger successfully sought to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded with career opportunities in return.
“This is part of a broader effort by historians to expose what doctors were doing during the Third Reich.”
The allegations are reported in the journal Molecular Autism, whose two editors explained why they believed Prof Asperger to be guilty as charged.
One of them, leading British autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, from Cambridge University, said: “We are aware that the article and its publication will be controversial.
“We believe that it deserves to be published in order to expose the truth about how a medical doctor who, for a long time, was seen as only having made valuable contributions to the field of paediatrics and child psychiatry, was guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in their abhorrent eugenics and euthanasia policies.
“This historical evidence must now be made available.”
Co-editor Professor Joseph Bauxbaum, from Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City, said: “We are persuaded by Herwig Czech’s article that Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions, but was complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society’s most vulnerable people.”
Another point of view was presented by Canadian expert Anthony Bailey, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
He said the accusations against Prof Asperger should be seen “in context”.
Prof Bailey said: “Virtually all doctors in Germany at that time were members of the Nazi Party and there was almost no opposition to the euthanasia programmes for the mentally ill and handicapped, except from one or two heads of asylums and a very small number of Catholic bishops. ”
Carol Povey, from the National Autistic Society, said: “We expect these findings to spark a big conversation among the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their family members, particularly those who identify with the term ‘Asperger’.
“Autism affects everyone differently and people often have their own way of talking about autism. We will be listening closely to the response to this news so we can continue to make sure the language we use to describe autism reflects the preferences of autistic people and their families.
“Obviously no-one with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history.”