Hans Asperger, the Austrian paediatrician who pioneered research into autism and after whom Asperger syndrome is named, “actively cooperated” with a Nazi programme under which disabled children were killed, an academic paper published on Thursday says.
The article by medical historian Herwig Czech published in the journal Molecular Autism says that Asperger referred severely disabled children to Vienna’s notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic where almost 800 children died under the Nazi programme – many of them by lethal injection or being gassed.
After reviewing archive documents including Asperger’s personnel files and patient records, Czech found that although Asperger did not join the Nazi party itself he did join affiliated groups and “publicly legitimised race hygiene policies” including forced sterilisation.
“Asperger managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities,” the paper said.
It added, however, that nothing suggested Asperger’s work on autism was tainted. He first described a group of children with the condition as “autistic psychopaths” in 1938. Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism where those affected are relatively high-functioning, was later named after him.
Vienna’s medical faculty was purged and its ranks filled with Nazi ideologues after the country’s annexation by Hitler’s Germany in 1938.
The paper said that after that annexation, Asperger tried to prove his loyalty to the Nazi regime, giving public lectures in which he declared his allegiance to central elements of Nazi medicine, including “race hygiene”. He also signed off on reports with “Heil Hitler”.
His involvement in the Nazis’ child “euthanasia” programme included being on a commission that screened more than 200 patients at a home for mentally disabled children, the report said. Of those, 35 were deemed “uneducable” and sent to be killed at Spiegelgrund, where they died, it added.
“The (child euthanasia) programme served the Nazi goal of eugenically engineering a genetically ‘pure’ society through ‘racial hygiene’ and the elimination of lives deemed a ‘burden’ and ‘not worthy of life’,” the report’s publishers said in a statement. Asperger, who died in 1980, also recommended the transfer of two girls, one aged two and the other five, to Spiegelgrund, it said.