It has been said that Johann “Hans” Asperger, the pioneering Austrian physician who first described the profile of distinct psychological characteristics that later became known as Asperger syndrome in a workship in 1938, resisted the Nazi’s brutal “euthanasia” program by refusing to hand his patients over to officials. But as Kate Connolly reports for the Guardian, an expansive study published in the journal Molecular Autism has found that Asperger played an active—if complex—role in the regime, even sending his patients to near-certain death at a notorious euthanasia clinic.
By Brigit Katz
The new study joins previous research into Asperger’s connection with the Nazis, including work led by Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Study Center and John Donvan and Caren Zucker, authors of In a Different Key. This latest effort is the product of eight years of research by historian Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna, who pored through Asperger’s personnel files, assessments by Nazi authorities and medical case records, among other documentary evidence.
Nazi Germany’s “euthanasia program,” which began approximately two years before the genocide of European Jews, targeted people with psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities who were said to be a genetic and financial drain on the German state, and therefore “unworthy of life,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It has been estimated that 200,000 adults and children were murdered in the name of this policy.
The goal of Czech’s research was to re-evaluate a narrative that emerged in the years after WWII, which trumpeted Asperger as an opponent of the euthanasia program. The strongest claim supporting this view, the paper states, alleges that the Gestapo twice tried to arrest Asperger because he did not report patients with certain “deficiencies.” But, Czech notes, the “only known source for this claim is Asperger himself, who mentioned the incident in 1962 at his inauguration as the Vienna chair of pediatrics” and during a 1974 interview.
In fact, Czech found evidence that Asperger referred children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, a euthanasia facility where 772 children are said to have been killed. One of these patients was a toddler named Herta Schreiber, who began to exhibit signs of disturbed mental and physical development after contracting encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain commonly caused by a viral infection.
“At home the child must be an unbearable burden to the mother, who has to care for five healthy children,” Asperger wrote in his diagnostic report, according to the study. “Permanent placement at Spiegelgrund seems absolutely necessary.”
Schreiber was sent to Spiegelgrund, where she died three months later of pneumonia, the most common cause of death at the clinic, which routinely induced the illness in its patients by administering barbiturates over a long period of time.
Did Asperger know what was going on at this clandestine killing facility? “While the euthanasia killings at Spiegelgrund (as elsewhere) were officially a secret, and parents were routinely deceived about the true nature of the institution and the fate awaiting their children, rumors nevertheless abounded, and Asperger was in an exceptional position to know the truth,” Czech writes.