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New evidence shows Hans Asperger participated with Nazis in child euthanasia

HANS ASPERGER
Courtesy of Maria Asperger Felder
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This revelation has made authorities question the name of Asperger's syndrome.

The psychiatric medical community is in an uproar after famed Austrian pediatrician and medical theorist, Hans Asperger, the name behind Asperger’s syndrome, has been revealed to have been in association with the Nazi party during World War II.

Live Science reports, according to a study published in the journal Molecular Autism, Asperger “publicly legitimized race hygiene policies, including forced sterilizations.” While he was previously thought to have courageously defended his patients from Nazi-ordered euthanasia, now it appears that he participated in the murder of children.

Asperger’s syndrome is now defined as a neurodevelopmental condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate, interact and behave typically with others in social situations. Hans Asperger wrote about autism in the late 1930s to the early 1940s. However, his research was not publicized until 1981, at which point his research became so prevalent that the term “Asperger’s syndrome” became used to refer to those with autism who are high-functioning.

This new evidence comes from Asperger’s notes, which were believed to have been destroyed at the end of WWII. The recovered files include personal files, political assessments by Nazi authorities and medical records from different institutions, including the notorious child “euthanasia” clinic Am Spiegelgrund. Lead researcher of the study, Herwig Czech, a medical historian at the Medical University of Vienna, described the language Asperger used in his notes to be “remarkably harsh” when referring to his child patients.

In the study, Czech wrote, “Asperger had an acute sense of their religious and ‘racial’ otherness and that anti-Semitic stereotypes sometimes found their way into his diagnostic reports.”

Czech found that while Asperger never joined the Nazi party in an official capacity, he was a part of several organizations in affiliation with the Nazis and was offered job opportunities as a reward for loyalty. The most damning evidence comes from his notes from the infamous clinic Am Spiegelgrund, where many disabled children were experimented on and murdered. Live Science has Czech describing the atrocities:

In 1941 Asperger referred the “hopeless cases” of 3-year-old Herta Schreiber and 5-year-old Elisabeth Schreiber (no apparent relation to Herta) to Am Spiegelgrund, records show. Both little girls had mental disabilities and died of pneumonia not long after arriving at the clinic. In particular, Herta Schreiber was likely given barbiturates that ultimately led to her death, Czech found.

It’s unclear whether Asperger, or the children’s mothers for that matter, knew what awaited the children. “All we have to go by is Asperger’s short note on Herta, in which he calls for her ‘permanent placement’ at Spiegelgrund — whether this was a conscious euphemism for murder or not, it is clear that he did not expect Herta to return,” Czech wrote in the study.

Czech also found that Asperger was a part of a committee that reviewed some 200 cases of children in a psychiatric hospital. The report labeled 35 children as “uneducable” and “unemployable,” words that are believed to mark these children for death. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is assumed that these damaging diagnoses led to their untimely deaths.

It is unclear what action the medical community will take in light of this new evidence. Czech suggests that while Asperger’s reputation has been ruined, his research is still valid. Czech contends that rather than purge the man from history, “it should be seen as an opportunity to foster awareness.”

However, Edith Sheffer, a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who is about to release a new book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, believes that allowing Asperger’s syndrome to be named for such a man is an undeserved honor:

“In light of this research, we should no longer use the term Asperger syndrome,” Sheffer told Live Science in an email. “In medicine, eponymous diagnoses are granted to recognize individuals who first defined a condition as well as to honor their life. In my opinion, Asperger meets neither criterion.”

The term Asperger’s syndrome has been losing popularity in recent years, because psychiatrists say it is one manifestation of what is now called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and should just be referred as such. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the diagnosis guidebook, removed the term from their publication in the DSM-5, which came out in 2013.

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