When the question was put to Lorna Wing in 1993, in a transatlantic phone call, she was shocked by it.
Was Hans Asperger, as a young man, a Nazi?
The question referred to the Austrian pediatrician whose work gave rise to the well-known cluster of human characteristics known as Asperger’s syndrome. Lorna Wing was the influential London-based child psychiatrist, globally recognized as a leading expert on autism, who had brought Asperger’s syndrome international recognition.
Wing, who also had an autistic daughter, had stated writing about Asperger’s work only in 1981, after Asperger himself was already dead, when her husband, who knew German, translated a clinical paper the Austrian published in 1944. It contained his observations of “autistic” behaviors—he used that word—in several boys he treated during the years his country was welded into the Third Reich. During that troubled time, and for decades afterward, Asperger lived and worked almost exclusively in his home country, and primarily in Vienna, at the University Children’s Hospital, where he was ultimately named Chair of Pediatrics. Asperger wrote only in German, creating a body of published work which, upon his death in 1980 at 74, was still almost entirely unknown in the United States and Britain, the countries where autism was then most recognized and most studied. Within a decade, however, thanks to the attention Lorna Wing brought to it, Asperger’s syndrome, if not the man himself, was on its way to worldwide renown, both as a diagnosis, and as a source of personal identity for many of those given it.
But now, in 1993, this phone call. And the question specifically about the man himself.
Hans Asperger…a Nazi?
Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Study Center felt uncomfortable even asking it that day in 1993. But he believed he should, because doubts about Asperger’s character had been raised. And a decision had to be made quickly about whether to posthumously honor Asperger by naming a condition after him in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible” of psychiatry.
For months, experts led by Volkmar had been looking at studies, running field trials, and debating with one another, in conference rooms, by phone, and by fax, whether Asperger’s syndrome deserved that formal recognition.
It would be something “new,” in that it recognized impairments in the ability to relate socially in individuals who previously were overlooked as needing support or therapy, due to their otherwise good and even superior levels of intelligence, as well as often precocious and sophisticated use of language. Some of Asperger’s boys, for example, were super smart, as well as creative. At the same time, these boys’ challenges in connecting socially were profound. For being a little odd in their intonation (often either flat or sing-song); for being unable to maintain eye contact with other people; for their tendency to take extremely deep interests in narrow subjects, which were often all they wanted to talk about, they were routinely bullied, friendless, and misunderstood as rude or hostile. Wing, who wanted to help similarly-behaving children she was treating in London during the 1970s and 1980s, saw significant overlap between these behavioral traits so detrimental to social connection—traits Asperger had described with the adjective “autistic”—and those of children with more “classic” autism: the boys and girls, more readily given the autism diagnosis, who exhibited extremely limited speech, and IQs often well below average. Wing began to promote the view, most popular nowadays, that all of these children’s challenges represent multiple manifestations of a single autism “spectrum.” It was to that end that she resurrected Asperger’s work—less to introduce a new diagnostic label, than to illustrate the breadth and depth of that spectrum.
By 1993, however, Asperger’s syndrome was a serious candidate for inclusion as a standalone diagnosis in the upcoming revision of the DSM. Due out the following year—the book would recognize Asperger’s as one of the “pervasive developmental disorders”—or not—pending the conclusions of Volkmar’s working group.
Volkmar’s Yale Child Study Center was the leader in Asperger’s research in the United States. At one point, a research request for volunteers with the condition had given Yale a roster of more than 800 families and individuals across the country. At Yale and elsewhere, clinicians who found the concept useful and relevant had been diagnosing patients with Asperger’s without waiting for the DSM to sanction its usage.
Yet there was still vigorous disagreement over the validity of the concept. It was unclear whether individuals with the diagnosis were truly different in presentation from those described as “high functioning autistic,” an already familiar and much-used concept. Beyond that, it was evident that clinics were independently tweaking the criteria, leading to widespread inconsistency in how the Asperger’s label was applied. Given this, many argued that Asperger’s was not a necessary or useful addition to the diagnostic lexicon.
On the other hand, the World Health Organization had just endorsed Asperger’s as a stand-alone condition. Of greater relevance, Volkmar himself was among those convinced of its validity, having seen plenty of people at the Yale Child Study Center whose symptoms appeared to justify a diagnosis of Asperger’s. Volkmar, charismatic, persuasive, and thorough, would be one of the final arbiters of whether the condition would be enshrined in the DSM. So it mattered when, with only months left till the new manual was due, he decided to investigate the question of whether Hans Asperger had been a Nazi.
Eric Schopler, for one, was convinced of it. A psychologist based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was director and lead designer of Division TEACCH, the nation’s first-ever statewide public school program devoted to educating children with autism, which launched in 1971. As such, he was for many years America’s most respected authority on autism, certainly among his colleagues. He was also among those who considered Asperger’s ideas superfluous to the understanding of autism, not to mention sloppily conceived. His attacks on Asperger’s work in the 1990s were noticeably personal, reflecting an antipathy not justified by mere professional disagreement. “The seeds for our current syndrome confusion were sown in the rich soil of his few publications,” he once wrote. In Schopler’s view, Asperger had never “succeeded in identifying a replicable psychiatric syndrome.”
Schopler’s antipathy can be understood as the bitterness of a man who, as a child, had to flee Germany with the rest of his Jewish family, and who remained suspicious of any adult—German or Austrian—whose career as a medical professional had thrived during the Nazi era. He had no more to go on than that; it was guilt by association. But this did not prevent him from launching a one-man whisper campaign to the effect that Asperger had probably been a Nazi sympathizer, if not a collaborator or actual party member. More than once, Schopler dropped such innuendos in print, in publications he oversaw, such as the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. There and else¬where, he pointedly made reference to Asperger’s “longstanding inter¬est in the German Youth Movement,” hinting at a connection between Asperger and the Hitler Youth. Still, perhaps because Schopler kept his allusions subtle, most people who knew of Asperger’s syndrome in the 1990s were unaware of any controversy concerning Asperger’s past.
Volkmar, for example, did not hear about it until late in the DSM review process. But it was not Schopler who brought it to his attention. During the field trials Volkmar was running in order to test the pro¬posed criteria for Asperger’s, two Yale colleagues he held in high esteem raised the subject. One, Donald Cohen, the longtime director of the Yale Child Study Center, had published widely on autism. The other was a young star in the field, a clinician and investigator named Ami Klin. As a psychology PhD candidate in London, Klin had caused a stir with a brilliantly designed study showing that autism affected children’s responses to the sounds of their mothers’ voices. It had been Cohen who personally recruited Klin to Yale in 1989. The two men formed a close mentor-protege relationship based on both a fascination with autism and a powerful sense of Jewish identity. Cohen was an observant Jew and a dedicated student of the Holocaust. Klin had been born in Brazil, the son of Holocaust survivors, and had earned his undergraduate degree in history and political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The question the two men kept turning over was whether Asperger might be implicated, in any way, in the medical atrocities ascribed to the Nazis who ruled Vienna. Both knew that the medical profession had already embarrassed itself by its failure to ask this question about several doctors and researchers who had practiced under the Third Reich. Modern textbooks still carried references to diseases named for Nazi-era scientists whose ethics were repellent, if not criminal, such as neurologists whose significant discoveries were made by dissecting the brains of children and adults murdered by the Nazis. A Dr. Franz Seitelberger of Vienna had been a member of the SS, while Professor Julius Hallervorden of Berlin was known to select live patients whose brains he planned to study after their deaths by “euthanasia.” Hallervorden infamously said, “If you are going to kill all these people, at least take the brains out so that the material gets some use.” Yet the terms “Seitelberger disease” and “Hallervorden-Spatz disease” still appeared in academic publications.
In 1993, Asperger, dead 13 years, never a great presence on the world stage, remained a little-known figure. Uta Frith had published a cursory review of his life and work in 1991, to accompany her translation of his big 1944 paper. In addition, a talk Asperger gave in Switzerland in 1977 had appeared in translation in the magazine of a British autism organization in 1979, but it was not widely distributed. In short, Volkmar could get little information about Asperger on his own, and had no true “Asperger expert” to turn to. It was in that context that he called Lorna Wing, the one person he knew who had met Hans Asperger (one time, over tea), and posed the question to her: Was Hans Asperger, as a young man, a Nazi?
Lorna Wing gasped. “Hans Asperger, a Nazi?” He could hear her indignation. She spoke of his deep Catholic faith and lifelong devotion to young people.
“A Nazi? No,” Wing said. “No, no, no! He was a very religious man.”
It was a short conversation, but it settled the issue.
A few months later, the DSM-IV appeared. Ninety-four new mental disorders had been proposed for inclusion, but only two made it. One was Bipolar II Disorder. The other was Asperger’s Disorder.
In 1993, Wing and Volkmar knew nothing, of course, of the information about Asperger that would be unearthed in the years ahead.
The first warning sign came in 1996. That year, Ami Klin, along with Volkmar and psychologist Sarah Sparrow, began putting together a book they planned to title Asperger Syndrome. Yet Klin still could not shake his misgivings. And, because his name would be on the cover of the book, he decided that something more than a phone call to Lorna Wing was necessary in order to establish that Asperger’s hands were clean.
In late 1996, Klin began writing to archives and institutes in Germany and Austria, seeking any documentary or other information on the Austrian doctor. This yielded little. But then a professor in Cologne, Germany, referred him to Austrian historian Michael Hubenstorf, who taught at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Berlin’s Free University. “We would like to be able to write that he was a benevolent doctor whose primary concern was his patient’s [sic] well being,” Klin wrote Hubenstorf. “But we are not sure of that.”
Hubenstorf responded a few weeks later with a four-page letter and a five-page catalog of Asperger’s career postings, promotions, and publications he had assembled. Klin’s concerns, he wrote, were justified. While he had found no record of formal membership in the Nazi Party, Hubenstorf informed Klin that Asperger’s “medical career was clearly set in a surrounding of German Nationalists and Nazis,” and that he was regularly promoted within that setting. He believed the doctor might have downplayed his previous connections to known Nazis such as Professor Hamburger, his onetime mentor, whom Hubenstorf described as “the most outspoken Nazi pediatrician of them all.”
“It remains unclear how much of a fellow traveler he was,” Hubenstorf concluded. But his advice to Klin was to err on the side of caution. He recommended against publishing “anything before the utmost effort has been made to clear Prof. Asperger’s past.”
In the end, Klin chose not to take Hubenstorf’s advice. Weighing everything, he recognized that no “smoking gun” had been found—no evidence that Asperger had directly participated in any Nazi medical crimes. In the meantime, Klin had received a copy of an obituary of Asperger that portrayed him as a warm, gentle doctor devoted to the care of children. Asperger’s daughter, Maria Asperger Felder, also vouched for her father’s reputation when Klin reached out to her. Herself a psychiatrist, she wrote that her father had been at odds with the Nazis’ racial determinism, that he had been an enemy of children’s suffering, and that he had never lost “his lifelong interest in and his curiosity about all living creatures.”
This was the story of the benevolent doctor that Klin had hoped would turn out to be the truth. In 2000, Klin, Volkmar, and Sparrow published Asperger Syndrome, with a foreword by Asperger’s daughter.
The “benevolent doctor” version of Asperger had strong appeal, and would inform many assessments of his work. Indeed, an overwhelmingly positive narrative of Asperger as a man of moral rectitude came into focus in the new millennium, elevating him almost to the status of hero. Increasingly, he was seen as a cautious yet brave and canny saboteur of the Nazi project to exterminate intellectually disabled children. This image of him echoed the assessment made by psychologist Uta Frith, in 1991, that Asperger had been an ardent defender of the “misfits” the Nazi eugenics program was designed to destroy. “Far from despising the misfits,” Frith wrote in the introduction to her definitive translation of his 1944 paper, “he devoted himself to their cause—and this at a time when allegiance to misfits was nothing less than dangerous.”
The hero image was amplified by Berlin psychiatrist Brita Schirmer, who in 2002 called attention to Asperger’s “humanity and his courageous commitment to the children entrusted to him in times when this was by no means obvious, or without danger.”
In 2007, the Dublin-based psychologists Viktoria Lyons and Michael Fitzgerald wrote a letter to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders that celebrated Asperger as a man who “tried to protect these children from being sent to concentration camps in World War II.”
And in 2010, the British autism historian Adam Feinstein published the results of his own reporting trip to Vienna to investigate the rumors that Asperger was sympathetic to Hitler. “The very opposite is more likely to be the case,” he concluded.
This view of Asperger rested on a number of compelling stories. It was said that he had twice narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo while working at the Vienna Hospital, and that he had risked his own safety by failing to report the names of disabled children to the authorities. An entry in his diary, written during a 1934 visit to Germany, seems to shudder at the gathering Nazi storm: “An entire nation goes in a single direction, fanatically, with constricted vision.” His Catholic faith, and his membership in the Catholic youth organization known as Bund Neuland, have also been cited as evidence of his association with a progressive morality that was at odds with the Nazi agenda.
Above all, this view rested upon Asperger’s clear statements, from early in the Nazi era, defending the right of mentally challenged children to society’s support. During the 1938 talk in which he described his autistic cases for the first time, he declared, “Not everything that falls out of line, and thus is ‘abnormal,’ has to be deemed ‘inferior.’ ”
Likewise, at the conclusion of his better-known 1944 paper, the one that later caught Lorna Wing’s attention, he saluted the medical profession’s “duty to stand up for these children with the whole force of our personality.”
Thus, the case seemed strong for Asperger as a humanitarian and liberal thinker. It was an optimistic and inspiring portrait that spoke to modern sensibilities. And it would prove to be seriously flawed.
One of the best-known laundry detergents in the world goes by the brand name Persil. Originally manufactured in Germany, Persil is the Tide of Europe. In Austria, after World War II, the word came to signify, with grim humor, the furious, sometimes ludicrous, efforts made by Germans and Austrians to clear their reputations. Prompted by the Allies’ “denazification” policy, an effort to purge Nazi Party members and collaborators from positions of influence, millions scurried to track down witnesses to their innocence. Especially prized was the testimony of Jews who could vouch for some moment of kindness or decency shown as the Holocaust unfolded. Often, those seeking to clear their names portrayed themselves as having been victims also, claiming that they had been threatened with arrest by the Gestapo, or stymied in their careers for standing up to Nazi policies. Others insisted that they had gone along with the Nazis as a ruse, and that they had secretly resisted the Nazi system from within. At the end of the process, those who succeeded came away with a document the Austrians called a persilschein, or “Persil certificate,” confirming that they had been certified innocent, or “clean.” Even at the time, there was much cynicism about persilschein.
Without doubt, there were at least some authentic secret resisters among the Austrians. But a good many of these claims were nothing more than whitewash jobs. Michael Hubenstorf’s letter to Ami Klin had pointed to the possibility that Asperger’s past had also been whitewashed to some degree. Indeed, a second look at the hero narrative offers reasonable grounds for skepticism. To start with, the story of Asperger’s near arrest by the Gestapo had only one source, and that was Asperger himself. As far as is known, he brought it up twice in public: in a 1962 talk and during a 1974 radio appearance. To any astute Austrian familiar with the persilschein phenomenon, this raises the suspicion that Asperger embroidered on his experience of being politically vetted by the Nazi authorities, or perhaps even concocted the story in full. This vetting was a process most public servants had to endure under a law passed after the Anschluss to weed out Jews and anyone else deemed “unreliable.” No doubt Asperger’s being a non-party member was looked into, but in the end the Nazis cleared him.
Another flag should have been Asperger’s membership in Bund Neuland, which was, by Asperger’s own account, crucial to his development as a young man. While ardently pro-Catholic this group also espoused an anti-modern, pan-Germanic nationalist philosophy, and its tensions with the Nazis stemmed primarily from the Reich’s anti-Church position. Otherwise, there was a fair amount of common ground between Bund Neuland and the Nazis. For example, a 1935 issue of the Neuland monthly periodical highlighted the problem of “excessive Jewish influence” in the upper reaches of society, and discussed the need for “a clean separation” between the “Jews of Vienna” and the rest of the population.
Then there were Asperger’s own words. His 1934 diary entry about all of Germany moving “in a single direction, fanatically” has been cited—originally by his daughter, and then by others, relying on her account—as evidence that he condemned the Nazification of Germany. Read in full, however, it seems more ambiguous, with hints of awe and admiration as well as consternation: “An entire nation goes in a single direction, fanatically, with a constricted vision, certainly, but also with enthusiasm and dedication, with tremendous discipline and control, with a terrible effectiveness. Now only soldiers—soldierly thinking—ethos—Germanic paganism…” Moreover, it is the sole known excerpt of Asperger’s writing that suggests concern about where things might be headed as of 1934.
Four years later, on October 3, 1938, there was no ambiguity in the language he used to open a historic address he gave to an assembly of his fellow physicians. The words he used sounded startlingly pro-Nazi, and came at the beginning of the talk in which he discussed his cases—whom he called “autistic psychopaths”—for the first time. This was a full seven months after the Nazi Anschluss, when Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich, yet Asperger’s opening lines were nothing short of a valentine to the newly Nazified Austria.
“We stand in the midst of a massive renovation of our intellectual life, which encompasses all areas of this life—not least in medicine,” he began. This new thinking, he said, was “the sustaining idea of the new Reich—that the whole is greater than the parts, and that the Volk is more important than any single individual.”
In a handful of words, this was the defining vision of German fascism, which Asperger, in the next breath, applied to his fellow doctors. This “sustaining idea,” he urged, “should, where it involves the nation’s most precious asset—its health—bring profound changes to our entire attitude.” This applied, he said, to “the efforts being made to promote genetic health, and to prevent the passing on of diseased heredity.” It was hard not to miss the clear reference to the Nazi-driven “science” of race improvement through eugenics. “We physicians must carry out the tasks that fall to us in this area with full accountability,” Asperger declared.
This salute to the Anschluss, to the Nazis, to the suppression of individuality, and to the task of purifying the genetic lineage of the nation should by itself have dealt a fatal blow to the idea that Asperger secretly resisted the Nazi agenda. A review of other medical talks and papers printed that year in the same weekly journal where Asperger’s appeared shows that the opening of his talk was far from typical. Defenders of Asperger sometimes argue that he had a hidden anti-Nazi agenda—that he sought to throw the Gestapo off his scent by paying lip service to the regime. Brita Schirmer described the preamble as a “deft chess move” on Asperger’s part. His defenders usually assert, as a corollary, that the full text of Asperger’s speech, together with his 1944 paper, constitute an unambiguous argument to protect and nurture all vulnerable children, no matter the level of their disability.
But Asperger did not, in either the talk or the paper, make that argument. Despite recognizing in passing that autistic traits can be seen in children of both stronger and weaker mental capacity, he had little to say about helping the latter. Rather, he focused on the boys who possessed what he called “social worth”—a term he did not apply to all children. The boys in the group he favored would later be known as the “Asperger’s type,” and decades later as “Aspies.” They were those he described as being “more lightly affected,” as well as not at all rare in the population. Virtually every account of Asperger has him describing his boys, with affection, as “Little Professors”—this presumed a reference to their intelligence and their sometimes pedantic style. (That turns out to be a myth; Asperger himself never actually used the term Little Professors.)
Asperger made this preference explicit in his 1938 talk, where he admitted that he “thought it more rewarding to choose two [of his] not so severe and therefore more promising cases” to present. That would always be his pattern. In 1944, when discussing his “more lightly affected” children, Asperger was effusive in celebrating how far they could go, dwelling especially on those who had the potential to reach the uppermost echelons of society. To be sure, he was convinced—and said—that autistic traits were more often a detriment than a benefit for the majority of people who had them. But he was pleased to report that, for some, autism delivered special intellectual talents, and that those so endowed could “rise to high-ranking occupations.” He cited, as examples, professors and scientists and even an expert on heraldry. He also reported that some of the more able children he had treated had become assets to a country at war. During the third year of the Second World War, Asperger noted, he had received letters and reports “from many of our former children” serving on the front lines. In 1941, he wrote that these boys were “fulfilling] their role in the professional life, in the military, and in the party.”
Thus, again, his boys had demonstrated their “social worth”—in terms that the Third Reich appreciated.
That said, Asperger’s vision of special education and what it could achieve was not quite as exceptional as his supporters suggest. Contrary to popular understanding, special education had its place in Nazi Germany. The Reich allowed that disabled children who could become productive citizens should be afforded support and education to achieve that end. Even the Hitler Youth had special units for the blind and the deaf. But the Nazis drew a line where the cost of supporting a child was expected to exceed that child’s ultimate material contribution to the state. For that child the Nazis had no use; his or her life was worthless.
Asperger did not go that far in anything he published, and the Catholic faith he professed opposed sterilization and euthanasia. But he never did advocate for the children he seems to have considered less “rewarding.” Indeed, he appeared to write off the possibility of improving outcomes for those whose autistic traits were accompanied by a “pronounced intellectual inferiority.” Rather than lay out a path to helping them, he simply noted the “tragic” fate of such individuals, or at least a sad minority of them. “In the less favorable cases,” Asperger wrote, “they roam the streets as comic originals, grotesquely unkempt, talking loudly to themselves, addressing people in the manner of the autistic.” When speaking of these “less favorable cases,” Asperger never celebrated their autistic differences. Rather, his tone was one of pity.
Eric Schopler never made the detailed case presented here for a less heroic version of Asperger. Instead of evidence, he had instinct, which perhaps came from being a Jew who had lived part of his life in Germany. Perhaps this instinctive suspicion also explains the nearly complete silence concerning Asperger on the part of one of his most famous contemporaries—Johns Hopkins child psychiatrist Leo Kanner. In 1943, Kanner published psychiatry’s seminal article on autism—the one that introduced the concept to his field. It was so influential that, for some years, textbooks still referred to autism as “Kanner’s syndrome.” Also a Jew—one who assisted hundreds of Jews fleeing the Holocaust in gaining entry to the US, and then finding work—Kanner may have viewed Asperger as too comfortably ensconced in Nazi Vienna, and thus preferred not to recognize him. Interestingly, on the single occasion when Kanner mentioned Asperger in print, he misspelled his name.
But instinct was not evidence. In short, there was still no smoking gun. And then there was.
In May 2010, a soft-spoken Austrian academic walked into Vienna’s City Hall and its ceremonial gathering place, the Wappensaal, where a symposium honoring the memory of Hans Asperger was under way. Herwig Czech was a 35-year-old historian and lecturer at the University of Vienna. He had been invited to speak at the symposium by organizers from the Vienna children’s hospital where Asperger had done his most important work. A number of autism’s research luminaries were in attendance, and Lorna Wing herself was scheduled for an afternoon talk.
Czech’s academic specialty was the role of medicine during the Third Reich. It was a hallmark of his work to unearth the discrepancies—often embarrassing—between the accounts medical professionals gave of themselves after the war and their actual conduct during it. Czech’s interest in this area was perhaps connected to his dawning awareness during his boyhood that his warm and loving grandfather had been “a convinced Nazi.” It was not something the old man ever talked about openly, but the knowledge lay heavily on Czech, given what he was learning at school about the darkness of those years.
Which brought Czech to City Hall, some 30 years after Asperger’s death. Before him, in their hands, all of the seated attendees held the day’s program, its cover featuring a black-and-white photograph of a young Dr. Asperger, wearing a white lab coat and engaged in deep conversation with a young boy—presumably one of his patients. The symposium’s title appeared above the photo: “On the Trail of Hans Asperger.” The event had been prompted by the growing international recognition of Asperger’s work. Over two days, presenters would explore the man’s career and offer assessments of the latest scientific findings regarding Asperger’s syndrome.
The organizers had received word beforehand that Czech had stumbled across compromising details regarding their honoree. This could not have been welcome news, but in the spirit of scientific inquiry, they encouraged him to keep digging and to report whatever he might find. But once Czech was standing in front of them, there was a slight awkwardness to the situation: Among the 150 or so audience members were his daughter and some of his grandchildren. The title of Czech’s talk, printed in the program brochure, was “Dr. Hans Asperger and the Nazi Child Euthanasia Program in Vienna: Possible Connections.” Awkwardness gave way to surprise, and then shock, as Czech drew a portrait of Asperger that left the hero narrative in tatters, based on a trove of original documents he had excavated. There was, for example, a 1941 letter Czech had found in the archives of the Spiegelgrund—the facility on Vienna’s outskirts which superficially resembled a hospital, but which functioned in reality as a killing center for severely disabled children. Those chosen for death at the Spiegelgrund were poisoned by phenobarbital, which was administered in suppositories, or mixed into the children’s meals. The drug, in sufficient doses, causes the lungs to malfunction. As a rule, “pneumonia” was listed as the official cause of death.
Asperger’s letter, addressed to the Spiegelgrund’s administration, reported on the recently conducted medical evaluation, at the University Hospital, of a little girl named Herta Schreiber. The handwriting was Asperger’s. Herta was then 2 years old, the youngest of nine children—of whom five still lived at home—and she had been sick all spring since contracting encephalitis. Her condition did not appear to be improving, and in June her mother had brought her to be seen by Asperger at his clinic.
The letter contained an assessment of Herta’s condition. It was apparent that she had suffered some sort of major insult to her brain: Her mental development had halted, her behavior was disintegrating, and she was having seizures. Asperger seemed unsure of his diagnosis. He noted several possibilities: severe personality disorder, seizure disorder, idiocy. Then, in plain prose, he offered a decidedly nonmedical opinion: “When at home, this child must present an unbearable burden to the mother, who has to care for five healthy children.”
Having expressed his empathy for Herta’s mother, Asperger rendered his recommendation: “Permanent placement at the Spiegelgrund seems absolutely necessary.” The letter was signed “Hans Asperger.” Everyone in the audience grasped the meaning of Asperger’s letter. It was a death warrant. Indeed, Czech confirmed that Herta was admitted to the Spiegelgrund on July 1, 1941, and killed there on September 2, 1941, one day after her third birthday. Records state that she died of pneumonia. Notes from the hospital archives quoted her mother as agreeing, through tears, that her daughter would be better off this way, rather than living in a world where she would face constant ridicule and cruelty. It was Czech’s assessment that Herta’s parents supported the Nazi agenda.
The effect in the room was powerful. As they listened, members of the audience stole glances at the picture of Asperger and the boy on the cover of the program. Suddenly, the celebratory nature of their gathering seemed wildly off key, as Czech went on delivering, in a quiet, affectless voice, more disturbing news from the Nazi past.
In February 1942, he reported, Asperger was the senior pediatrician representing the city of Vienna on a commission asked to review the health status of 210 Austrian children residing in mental hospitals in lower Austria. Several months earlier, the government had begun taking steps to apply mandatory education laws even to children in these hospitals, as long as they were “educable.” A panel of seven experts was charged with compiling a list of the names of those children who should, despite their mental challenges, start attending classes in either traditional academic or special-education settings. In a single day, Asperger and his colleagues went through the records of all 210 children. While 17 were found to be too young for compulsory education, and 36 too old, the panel designated 122 of them as ready for schooling.
That left 26 boys and 9 girls. Their fate, Czech reported, was known, and he believed Asperger knew it as well. A written summary detailing the commission’s composition, purpose, and procedures clearly stated that those children judged to be not “educable” were to be “dispatched for Jekelius Action” as quickly as possible. When that was written, Erwin Jekelius, a former assistant to Asperger’s mentor Franz Hamburger, was the fiance of Hitler’s younger sister, as well as director of the Spiegelgrund. “Jekelius Action” was a euphemism the commission’s members would have understood quite well. Asperger once said he took a “great risk” by refusing to report children to the authorities. This, clearly, was not one of those times.
Czech also shared findings suggesting a greater affinity between Asperger and the Nazis than Asperger had admitted to. According to the file the Nazi Party kept on him, he was repeatedly judged to be an Austrian whom the Nazi authorities could trust, even more so as the years went by. Each time Asperger applied for a post or a promotion, he was cleared as someone who, though not a party member, abided by Nazi principles in the performance of his job. In one instance, a party official wrote that he “conforms to the principles of the policy of racial hygiene.”
In the years following his talk, Czech would discover other evidence of how far Asperger went to conform. He found letters in Asperger’s handwriting that used “Heil Hitler” as their closing salutation. This was not mandatory. He also unearthed a job application filled out in Asperger’s hand in which Asperger described himself as a candidate for the Nazi Doctors Association, a group that functioned as a medical policy arm of the party and was instrumental in closing the medical practices of Jewish physicians. He also learned that Asperger had applied to be a medical consultant to the Vienna branch of the Hitler Youth, though there is no record of him having been accepted. All in all, in Czech’s view, Asperger took care during the war to safeguard his career and to burnish “his Nazi credibility.” Asperger, it would appear, did what was necessary.
Czech spoke for only 20 minutes or so that day at the Vienna City Hall. Then he stopped to take audience questions. In that pause, Dr. Arnold Pollak, the director of the clinic where Asperger had worked for much of his career, leapt to his feet, clearly agitated. Turning to the room, he asked that everyone present stand and observe a moment of silence in tribute to the many children whose long-forgotten murders Herwig Czech had returned to memory. The entire audience rose and joined in wordless tribute.
Adapted from In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, Copyright © 2016 by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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