How historian Edith Sheffer unmasked the monster who identified Asperger's

by Sally Blundell / 01 October, 2018
Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger. Photo/Alamy

Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger. Photo/Alamy

RelatedArticlesModule - Edith Sheffer Asperger's syndrome

Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger was complicit in Nazi eugenics, sending disabled children to their death.

When University of California historian Edith Sheffer was told her 17-month-old son, Eric, was on the autism spectrum, she decided to find out more about the man whose name has since been given to her child’s condition. She knew Austrian physician Hans Asperger had defended disabled children from Nazi persecution, using the autism diagnosis as a kind of “psychiatric Schindler’s list”, and never joined the Nazi Party.

But in researching the “heroic story of Asperger”, she found this so-called champion of neurodiversity was not only complicit in the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich but also played a key role in the systematic killings of disabled children.

“It was awful,” she says on the phone from her office at Berkeley. “It was way too grim – I was putting myself into a time when my own son might have fallen victim to this regime. I felt like abandoning the project.”

She didn’t. Her new book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, reveals a physician falling ever deeper into the eugenic world of Nazi psychiatry, where unacceptable physical, mental or behavioural disorders could be a passport to death.

In 1932, Asperger was just out of medical school when he was given a job at the prestigious University of Vienna Children’s Hospital. With the support of hospital chair Franz Hamburger, he was one of four co-founders of the new Curative Education Clinic, alongside appointed president Erwin Jekelius. In his inaugural lecture, Jekelius made it clear that a severely disabled child “does not belong in an educational institution or hospital, but in protection, which, for me personally, means the protection of the national community from these unfortunate creatures”.

Edith Sheffer. Photo/Lisa DeNeff

Two years later, Asperger was appointed clinic director. In diagnosing children, Asperger applauded those autistic youths whose intelligence and “astonishingly mature special interests” led to “outstanding achievements”. Such children, he believed, were capable of “social integration” or Gemüt, the metaphysical capacity for social bonds – an arbitrary cornerstone of Nazi psychiatry.

Others, girls in particular, were pronounced “morally” damaged, “degenerate”, even “waste”. For these, Asperger prescribed institutionalisation or transfer to the Spiegelgrund facility at the Steinhof Psychiatric Institute, one of 37 child-killing facilities where hundreds of children were starved or given overdoses of barbiturates until they died.

One of these was three-year-old Ulrike Mayerhofer, brought to Asperger’s clinic by her mother. Asperger described Ulrike as “severely autistic, very inaccessible from the outside”. He determined that, “since the child is a heavy burden at home, especially with regard to the healthy siblings, institutional placement is advised”. Asperger sent Ulrike to a children’s home which transferred her to Spiegelgrund. A month later, the child died, purportedly of pneumonia.

Asperger was not as active in the child euthanasia programme as some of his colleagues, but he was, writes Sheffer, “in the club”. He joined pro-Nazi organisations, described himself as a eugenicist and transferred children to imminent death at Spiegelgrund from his own clinic and as a consultant on public health panels – enough grounds, says Sheffer, to drop his name from medical terminology. “We rename schools and streets for a lot less than child murder.”

ASPERGER’S CHILDREN: THE ORIGINS OF AUTISM IN NAZI VIENNA, by Edith Sheffer (W.W. Norton, $45.99)

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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