Startling new evidence shows that Hans Asperger, after whom Asperger’s syndrome is named, was a Nazi sympathiser who referred mentally handicapped children to a clinic where many were eventually killed as part of a programme of racial purity. The evidence is presented in a paper published in April 2018 in the journal Molecular Autism by Herwig Czech, a researcher in the history of medicine based at the Medical University of Vienna.
Asperger worked at the Paediatric Clinic at Vienna University and during the Second World War he specialised as a paediatrician. Allegations and innuendo against Hans Asperger have bubbled beneath the surface for decades, but the predominant narrative was that he was a kind and caring doctor. For example, in one of her book chapters, Uta Frith, a respected researcher in the field of autism stated, “Asperger clearly cared about these children, who in most people’s eyes were simply obnoxious brats.”
Asperger himself claimed that he had faced arrest by the Gestapo because he was opposed Nazi ideology in relation to racial purity. The issue was never adequately settled because it was believed that the patient case files had been destroyed during World War II and Asperger died in 1980. However, the missing files were then discovered a few years ago, carefully stored in a filing room at the university. These cover the period 1928 to 1944 and were written up by Asperger and his colleagues at the Paediatric Clinic.
Czech has carefully analysed this information and other known facts in relation to Asperger and it is quite clear that Asperger was referring children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund Clinic, where the principles of eugenics were practised. A total of 789 children were exterminated at Am Spiegelgrund Clinic or referred to the Hartheim Euthanasia Centre where they were killed. These included dozens of children sent there by Asperger. Their murders were described as “euthanasia” to make these actions consistent with Nazi eugenic doctrines.
Czech’s research makes it clear that Asperger had a dark side, a very dark side. Just like patients with Asperger’s syndrome, some of his actions suggest a complete lack of empathy for others, particularly his patients. There is no question that he understood the terminal implications of referring children to Am Spiegelgrund Clinic, yet he did so repeatedly.
Asperger’s claims that he was a good guy were genuinely believed by many. In 1981 the imminent English psychiatrist, Dame Lorna Wing, coined the term “Asperger’s syndrome” to describe children who had until then been described as suffering from “autistic psychopathy,” a term first used by Asperger in a 1944 publication. Nowadays, children and adults suffering from this condition are often referred to as “Aspies.”
Given this new information, one must question whether the eponym “Asperger’s syndrome” is appropriate. In April 2002, 600 urns containing the remains of children killed at Spiegelgrund were interred at Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Do we really want to pay homage to this man who knowingly contributed to these deaths?
Perhaps Asperger’s should be renamed “Sukhareya’s syndrome” after a Russian neurologist who published a definition of autistic psychopathy in 1926 that is apparently virtually identical to the description of the condition published by Asperger 18 years later.