Children’s hero was the one who sent them to Nazi hell
Hans Asperger was tasked with helping children but was in fact a Nazi collaborator who sent them to their deaths
The pioneering Austrian paediatrician whose name came to describe patients with Asperger’s syndrome was in fact a Nazi collaborator who sent children to their deaths, new research reveals.
Hans Asperger has for decades been regarded as a hero in the field of autism treatment and research, said to have shielded his young patients from the menace of Hitler’s occupation.
But analysis of a crucial set of documents, which were previously assumed destroyed, shows he not only collaborated with the Nazis but “actively contributed” to their eugenics programme.
Published in the journal Molecular Autism, the new study says Asperger referred “profoundly disabled” children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna, despite knowing what took place there.
The children were murdered through starvation or lethal drugs as part of the Third Reich’s goal of engineering a genetically “pure” society through “racial hygiene”.
Their cause of death was recorded as pneumonia.
Am Spiegelgrund was a children’s clinic in Vienna where 789 children were killed under the Nazi regime’s Children’s Euthanasia Programme between 1940 and 1945. Sick and disabled children who were sent to the clinic were subjected to cruel medical experiments. They died by lethal injection, gas poisoning, disease or malnourishment.
Asperger, who died in 1980, subsequently became director of a Viennese children’s clinic and after the war was appointed chair of paediatrics at the University of Vienna.
In his inauguration speech he boasted of being hunted by the Gestapo for supposedly refusing to hand over children.
However, the new research by Herwig Czech, a historian of medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, finds no evidence for this.
Instead, he concludes “Asperger managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities”.
Czech also found the paediatrician “publicly legitimised race hygiene policies including forced sterilisations”.
A linked editorial, co-written by Cambridge experts, says Asperger “willingly became a cog in the Nazi killing machine” and describes a wider corruption of the psychiatric profession which “became part of the eyes and ears of the Third Reich”.
While Asperger was not a member of the Nazi Party, he enjoyed “premature promotion” under his mentor Franz Hamburger, who, according to the study, once described National Socialist ideology as central to his practice of paediatrics.
Asperger was the first to designate a group of children with distinct psychological characteristics as “autistic psychopaths”.
He published a comprehensive study on the topic in 1944, which only found international acknowledgement in 1980, after which the eponym “Asperger’s syndrome” became increasingly used, in recognition of his contribution to the field.
Asperger’s syndrome is one of a range of similar conditions on the autism spectrum disorder which affects a person’s social interaction, communication and behaviour, although children with Asperger’s typically function better, with normal intelligence and near-normal language development.
While the extent of the paediatrician’s links with the Nazis has been an ongoing source of discussion, the Austrian has been granted largely a clean bill of health in a number of influential books over the last few decades.
By contrast, the new editorial says “Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions but was also complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society’s most vulnerable people”.
It described the Am Spiegelgrund clinic as a “killing machine”.
The National Autistic Society said it expected the findings to prompt a “big conversation” among the 7,000 autistic people in Britain.
Carole Povey, director at the Centre of Autism, said: “Obviously no one with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history.”
– © The Daily Telegraph