Non-complicit: Revisiting Hans Asperger’s Career in Nazi-era Vienna

Abstract

Recent allegations that pediatrician Hans Asperger legitimized Nazi policies, including forced sterilization and child euthanasia, are refuted with newly translated and chronologically-ordered information that takes into account Hitler’s deceptive ‘halt’ to the T4 euthanasia program in 1941. It is highly unlikely that Asperger was aware of the T4 program when he referred Herta Schreiber to Am Spiegelgrund or when he mentioned that institution 4 months later on the medical chart of another (unrelated) girl, Elisabeth Schreiber. Asperger campaigned vigorously from 1938 to 1943 to have his specialization, Curative Education, take priority in the diagnosis and treatment of disabled children over other fields that promoted Nazi racial hygiene policies. He neither disparaged his patients nor was he sexist. By 1938, he had identified the essentials of Asperger syndrome and described an unnamed boy whom he later profiled (as Ernst K.) in 1944. Rather than doing ‘thin’ research, Asperger made discoveries that were prescient, and some of his activities conformed to definitions of “individual resistance.”

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Curative education is also known as remedial education or special education.

  2. 2.

    In Czech’s paper, the endnote superscript numbers are out of sync with their corresponding texts; the endnotes cited here for his paper correspond to his actual endnotes rather than superscripts in his text.

  3. 3.

    No euthanasia law was ever formally enacted in Germany or Austria during this era Thomas et al. (2006, p. 343).

  4. 4.

    Asperger refers here to the Main (Public) Health Office in Vienna, which established a Department of Eugenics and Racial Hygiene after the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was enacted in Austria in 1940. The Department registered the names of individuals with an array of presumably hereditary defects that potentially rendered them as having “lives not worth living” and, thus, candidates for evaluation for possible forced sterilization (Thomas et al. 2006, p. 344). The Health Office should not be confused with Am Spiegelgrund, to which some disabled children were referred for observation and were surreptitiously murdered under the secret Nazi T4 program.

  5. 5.

    From some of Asperger’s comments in 1944, it is clear that he was writing about Ernst K. in retrospect.

  6. 6.

    By “automaton-like,” Asperger was probably referring to wooden affect (tone-of-voice) combined with physical clumsiness.

  7. 7.

    Czech also observes that, “as far as the written record is concerned, there is no indication that Asperger was guided by personal animosity towards Jews” (Czech 2018, p. 12).

  8. 8.

    For instance, would-be parents who are potential carriers of genes for Huntington’s disease or Down syndrome may, or may not, choose to undergo genetic testing in order to inform choices about conceiving or continuing pregnancies.

  9. 9.

    As noted in the introduction, Sheffer identified Asperger as a child psychiatrist, which he was not.

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Acknowledgments

This paper was inspired by a conversation with Michael Brown, President of the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Laura Holt, SAR’s librarian, helped obtain sources from the German literature. I thank Elga Wulfert of the University at Albany, State University of New York, for expert advice about the translation of Asperger’s 1938 paper, and Uta Frith, University College London, and science writer Steve Silberman for providing useful feedback on an earlier version of this paper. Franz Waldhauser, University of Vienna, is acknowledged for providing information and helpful discussions. I am grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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DF conceived of the study, translated articles from the German literature, interpreted data, drafted the manuscript, and prepared the translation of Asperger’s 1938 article that appears in Electronic Supplementary Material Appendix 1.

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Correspondence to Dean Falk.

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Falk, D. Non-complicit: Revisiting Hans Asperger’s Career in Nazi-era Vienna. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 2573–2584 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03981-7

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Keywords

  • Asperger syndrome
  • Euthanasia
  • Forced sterilization
  • Hans Asperger
  • Nazi-era Vienna
  • T4