Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna

Herwig Czech

Abstract

Background

Hans Asperger (1906–1980) first designated a group of children with distinct psychological characteristics as ‘autistic psychopaths’ in 1938, several years before Leo Kanner’s famous 1943 paper on autism. In 1944, Asperger published a comprehensive study on the topic (submitted to Vienna University in 1942 as his postdoctoral thesis), which would only find international acknowledgement in the 1980s. From then on, the eponym ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ increasingly gained currency in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the conceptualization of the condition. At the time, the fact that Asperger had spent pivotal years of his career in Nazi Vienna caused some controversy regarding his potential ties to National Socialism and its race hygiene policies. Documentary evidence was scarce, however, and over time a narrative of Asperger as an active opponent of National Socialism took hold. The main goal of this paper is to re-evaluate this narrative, which is based to a large extent on statements made by Asperger himself and on a small segment of his published work.

Methods

Drawing on a vast array of contemporary publications and previously unexplored archival documents (including Asperger’s personnel files and the clinical assessments he wrote on his patients), this paper offers a critical examination of Asperger’s life, politics, and career before and during the Nazi period in Austria.

Results

Asperger managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities. He joined several organizations affiliated with the NSDAP (although not the Nazi party itself), publicly legitimized race hygiene policies including forced sterilizations and, on several occasions, actively cooperated with the child ‘euthanasia’ program. The language he employed to diagnose his patients was often remarkably harsh (even in comparison with assessments written by the staff at Vienna’s notorious Spiegelgrund ‘euthanasia’ institution), belying the notion that he tried to protect the children under his care by embellishing their diagnoses.

Conclusion

The narrative of Asperger as a principled opponent of National Socialism and a courageous defender of his patients against Nazi ‘euthanasia’ and other race hygiene measures does not hold up in the face of the historical evidence. What emerges is a much more problematic role played by this pioneer of autism research. Future use of the eponym should reflect the troubling context of its origins in Nazi-era Vienna.


Czech H.  Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna. Molecular Autism 2018;9(29)

Munich university remembers executed students: “Law changes, the conscience doesn’t”

Ludwig Maximilians Universität München

Justice, freedom, human rights, moral consciousness, courage, willingness to accept responsibility – what do these values and virtues cost? . . . On 18 February 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested by the Gestapo, after they had scattered copies of their latest leaflet around the Main University Building. Further arrests were made in the days following and, in several separate trials, the leading members of the White Rose were convicted by an inhuman regime and put to death. [Full text]

Germany to probe Nazi-era medical science

Science

Megan Gannon

Soon after Hans-Joachim was born, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. The infant boy suffered from partial paralysis and spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. In 1934, when he was 5 years old, his parents admitted him to an asylum in Potsdam, Germany, where clinical records described Hans-Joachim as a “strikingly friendly and cheerful” child. But his condition did not improve. He spent a few years at a clinic in Brandenburg-Görden, Germany, and then, on an early spring day in 1941, he was “transfered to another asylum at the instigation of the commissar for defense of the Reich”—code words meaning that Hans-Joachim, then 12, was gassed at a Nazi “euthanasia” center. His brain was sent to a leading neuropathologist. . .  [Full text]

 

Decriminalize incest, says German gvmt’s ethics council

LifeSite News

Steve Weatherbe

A German advisory council on ethics has told the government it should decriminalize incest between consenting adults. But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats have wasted no time in rejecting the advice.

On Wednesday the National Ethics Council voted, by a two-to-one margin, to call for the decriminalization of incest. “Criminal law is not the appropriate means to preserve a social taboo,” the council explained in a statement. “The fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination is to be weighed more heavily than the abstract idea of protection of the family.” [Full text]

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German Medical Association apologizes for physician complicty in Nazi atrocities

The German Medical Association has acknowledged and apologized for the participation of German physicians in Nazi programs of forced sterilization, euthanasia, and human experimentation.  The statement also acknowledged that “leading members of the medical community” were involved. [Washington Post]