How researchers uncovered autism expert Hans Asperger's alleged ties to Nazis

A review of archival documents reveals that Hans Asperger collaborated with the Nazis to euthanize disabled children.

Records indicate the celebrated Austrian doctor collaborated with a Nazi euthanasia program

Dr. Hans Asperger. From his personnel file, circa 1940. (Molecular Autism)
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The term Asperger's syndrome reflects his name and legacy, but now celebrated Austrian doctor Hans Asperger may be forever linked to something much darker — Nazi crimes against children.

An article published yesterday in the journal Molecular Autism cites archival documents that purport to show Asperger collaborated with the Nazis to euthanize hundreds of disabled children — including two of his own patients.

Herwig Czech, the Medical University of Vienna historian who examined the documents, spoke with As it Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

Here is part of their conversation.

What was it that made you want to look into Asperger's personal files and his patient records in the first place?

I've been working in this field of research — the history of Nazi medicine — for quite some time. And my interest in Hans Asperger grew out of this work on euthanasia, [and] crimes of Nazi medicine more generally.

What did you find?

I found that the common narrative of Hans Asperger — as someone who was not a National Socialist himself, who even might have resisted Nazi policies, protected his patients — needed revision, because it didn't hold up to the documentary evidence.

I looked into a lot of different files, but the most important files were patient records from children who had been killed at the infamous child euthanasia facility in Vienna called Am Spiegelgrund.

And in two of these files, there are traces of Hans Asperger who had transferred these children.​

He was the reason these two children were sent there?

They were patients at his clinic. He worked at the University Children's clinic and he had them transferred to the child euthanasia clinic.

Herwig Czech reviewed the documents about Asperger. (Submitted by Herwig Czech)

Was Dr. Hans Asperger a member of the Nazi Party?

He never joined the Nazi Party. He did join an affiliated organization, The German Physicians' League, as a candidate. 

This was a way of having something to show of approval of political loyalty to the regime without joining the party itself.

So he stayed at the margins. But he also tried to adapt and to prove his political trustworthiness, and this was one way of doing that.

I'm wondering how much were doctors forced to participate in at the time?

As a trained pediatrician, even if he had been considered politically unreliable, at worst he would have been dismissed from the university. He could always have found work simply as a private practitioner.

Can you tell us the story of the two young girls who Dr. Asperger referred to the clinic?

One of them, called Herta, was under three years old. According to Asperger, she had suffered brain damage caused by encephalitis. And she was severely handicapped — she had a mental handicap. 

[She] lived with her mother — her father was in the war — with several siblings. Caring for her simply proved overwhelming to her mother.

It seems like there was some complicity, and also acknowledgement from her mother that having this child killed would actually be a relief for her. 

There are also worries that they could lose the diagnosis, which has proven helpful for a lot of people.- Medical historian Herwig Czech

You believe Hans Asperger was involved in the murder of more children. In what capacity?

In his capacity as a specialist consultant for the city of Vienna for "mentally abnormal children" — the wording at the time.

He was called to sit on a commission of seven members who would examine 200 children, patients at the psychiatric hospital.

The commission's task was to categorize these children according to their potential to grow into useful members of society.

The transferral was done later, under somebody else's authority. And the killing took place at the Spiegelgrund insitition.

How has this news been received among people in the autistic community?

Of course it's been received with dismay. People feel betrayed. 

There are also worries that they could lose the diagnosis, which has proven helpful for a lot of people.

In this case, it's not so much about keeping the name, the eponym of Asperger, but about having a separate diagnosis from more severe cases of autism. 

History should not be purged. This is an opportunity to learn and reflect on the past.- Herwig  Czech

Do you think that name should be changed?

I don't think as a historian I should interfere with the clinical usefulness of this category.

And I also don't want to speak for people really affected by this on a personal level.

But from my standpoint as a historian, I would tend to say that history should not be purged. This is an opportunity to learn and reflect on the past, and if possible at all it should be kept.

Written by Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Chris Harbord and Mary Newman. Q&A edited for length and clarity.