Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna by Edith Sheffer — a venerated doctor’s dark secrets

The Times
By Dominic Lawson

Across the medical world, Dr Hans Asperger has been been regarded with a kind of reverance. Not only is his name immortalised as a medical term for those on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, he spent many years looking after such people within the Austrian mental care system.


But as Edith Sheffer, an American historian who happens to have an autistic son, now sets out with impeccable research, Asperger, far from being a great man, knowingly participated in the pseudo-medical eugenics programme that murdered disabled children in Nazi-controlled Vienna. It was an Austrian medical scholar, Herwig Czech, who three years ago published an academic paper revealing Asperger’s role in this. Sheffer’s Asperger’s Children, though, is the first book to dig into the depths of his complicity — and to explain how his political and medical opinions combined to produce such a depraved outcome.


Asperger was not a member of the Nazi Party, a fact that stood him in good stead at the end of the Second World War, when he went on to become chair of paediatrics at the University of Vienna. He was able after this to establish the legend that he had been an anti-Nazi who saved the lives of disabled children who might otherwise have been killed.


It is certainly true that he was fascinated by autistic boys who seemed to display peculiar abilities involving memory and calculation: he definitely saw potential in people whom other doctors of that time and place might have dismissed as hopeless oddballs. Sheffer uncovers an interview Asperger gave in 1940: “With a coarse sieve, many useful things fall into the muck bucket; take a fine sieve and economise — with human souls, too!...Slowly, slowly, some will become useful people.”


As Sheffer notes, Asperger here likens disabled children to a waste product. And his employment of the word “useful” is the key to his thinking. Though an apparently devout Catholic, he enthusiastically shared the Nazi view that individuals had no intrinsic worth other than what they might contribute to society (the “Volk”).


This was not the product of war and the desperate fight for national survival (as the Nazis defined it): in a lecture on what he termed “autistic psychopathy”, delivered in 1938, Asperger declared: “The fundamental idea of the new Reich — the whole is greater than the parts, the Volk more important than the individual — must lead to profound changes in our entire attitude towards the most valuable asset of the nation, its health.”


That same year, Asperger applied to join the National Socialist German Physicians’ League, which, as Sheffer notes, “was not a straightforward doctors’ professional association, but a lead ‘fighting organisation’ of the Nazi Party that sought to co-ordinate physicians according to party principles and was involved in the persecution of Jewish doctors.”


Perhaps this was gratitude on Asperger’s part. His precocious advancement within Vienna’s childcare system was a direct consequence of the appointment of Franz Hamburger to the chair of the University of Vienna children’s hospital in 1930. Hamburger joined the Nazi party in 1934, but he had been a founder member of a society for racial hygiene in Graz in 1924, and immediately purged the children’s hospital of its senior Jewish staff, employing his own supporters in their place: including, at the age of just 25, one Hans Asperger. Even in 1977, Asperger looked back on this with unaffected nostalgia, saying that Hamburger “was a teacher of great charisma. Most of what I learnt from him still holds.”


Along with Asperger, Hamburger also appointed Erwin Jekelius, and this is where the medicine moved into murder. Asperger and Jekelius continued to work closely for many years, and in 1941 cofounded what they called “The Curative Education” at Vienna University. But the cure for many mental disabilities was, in Jekelius’s view, euthanasia: he authorised the murder by starvation or fatal injection of thousands of adults and children at a wing of Vienna’s Steinhof Psychiatric Institute, known as Spiegelgrund. A number of those children (it’s not clear how many) were sent there into Jekelius’s far from tender hands by Asperger.


The killings, which took place in Spiegelgrund’s “Pavilion 15”, were never described as such. In postwar trial testimony, its second director, Ernst Illing, admitted: “The matter was disguised, no-one from the outside was to know.” But Asperger knew. He was the “curative educational consultant” of a panel that decided to which institution mentally disabled children should be sent. On one day alone, 210 children’s cases were considered, and 35 were judged “incapable of educational and developmental engagement”. They were sent to Spiegelgrund, as the written instructions required, to be “dispatched for Jekelius Action”. As Sheffer points out, “ ‘Jekelius action’ was an instruction to kill. All of the 35 youths transferred by Asperger’s commission died.”


For this reader, the father of a 22-year-old with Down’s syndrome, the most distressing passages in Sheffer’s book are the description of the fate of children with this condition, roughly 10% of those done away with in Spiegelgrund’s Pavilion 15. Sometimes the parents were persuaded by Jekelius that he had done his best for their child, sometimes parents were even grateful.


Not Luise Gschwandtner, mother of Herta, who had been born “mongoloid” (as it was then described). Herta died within 11 days of her transfer to Spiegelgrund, with “pneumonia” given as the cause. Luise wrote to Illing: “I still can’t grasp why my dear little Herta had to leave me so fast, to die so quickly... We still can’t believe that our child was not curable. I am completely heartbroken. I would gladly sacrifice my life for my child.”


Then Luise, with some courage, came to the point: “Now I have to bear twice the pain because people are saying straight to my face that she was simply poisoned, so to speak, eliminated.” Illing warned Luise that he would launch a police action against her if she continued to accuse him and his colleagues of murder.


The Spiegelgrund director met his reckoning in a trial after the war: he was sentenced to death. Asperger went on not just to become Austria’s most venerated expert in the field of children’s health, but to worldwide fame by having a medical condition named after him. As Sheffer suggests at the end of her searing, wonderfully written book, the least that can be done to honour the memory of those children killed in his name is to excise it from popular use.

Edith Sheffer