A new study found that Hans Asperger, a renowned German pediatrician, was an active collaborator of the Nazi regime who referred children to the infamous Am Spiegelgrund clinic — a notorious euthanasia clinic.

Portrait of Hans Asperger from his personnel file. Image credits: Herwig Czech/Molecular Autism.

It’s a story that will make no one happy. Herwig Czech, a historian of medicine at the Medical University of Vienna and author of the study, analyzed Nazi-era publications along with previously unexplored documents from Austrian archives, which included Asperger’s personnel files and case records from his patients. He reports finding significant evidence that Asperger participated in the Third Reich’s child euthanasia program, whose goal was to engineer a genetically ‘pure’ society through ‘racial hygiene’ and the elimination of lives deemed a ‘burden’ and ‘not worthy of life’. Czech writes that Asperger “managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities”.

Asperger's

Asperger’s Syndrome is a type of autism. People with this condition find it very hard to communicate with other people. They also struggle to understand what other peoples feel and think and tend to exhibit patterns of repetitive thinking and preference. However, most people suffering from Asperger’s are actually of average or above-average intelligence.

Vocally, Dr. Asperger was a stern opposer of the Nazi regime, claiming to shield his patients from unwanted interference. In a 1980 inauguration speech at the University of Vienna, he claimed he was wanted by the Gestapo (Nazi secret police), for refusing to turn in children. However, Czech found evidence that claims otherwise. A total of 789 children are said to have been killed at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic, several of whom were sent by Dr. Asperger.

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Needless to say, the article is already sparking controversies. However, the article is accompanied by an editorial penned by leading researchers: the two Editors-in-Chief of the journal, Simon Baron-Cohen (Cambridge University) and Joseph Buxbaum (Mount Sinai Medical School), and two of the reviewers, Steve Silberman, and Ami Klin (Emory University), who express their strong support for Czech’s findings.

“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 pediatrics 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.”

Joseph Buxbaum added:

“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”.

Hans Asperger first identified the syndrome in 1944. However, it was called “autistic psychopathy” until 1981, when British psychiatrist Lorna Wing introduced the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome.

Of course, no sufferer from any disease should be tainted with this troubling history. It remains to be seen whether or not the medical community will uphold the syndrome’s name or not.

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