Was this autism pioneer also a Nazi?

Senior Correspondent
Viennese psychologist Hans Asperger is considered by many to be one of the first to diagnose and define autism as we know it today.

Hans Asperger at the Children’s Clinic of the University of Vienna Hospital in 1940

Viennese psychologist Hans Asperger is considered by many to be one of the first to diagnose and define autism as we know it today.

Asperger ran a clinic for autistic children in Vienna in the 1930’s until Hitler’s invasion of Austria. The clinic was lauded for its creative, humane approach, and it’s believed Asperger shielded some disabled children from the Nazis, fearing they would be killed by the Third Reich’s zeal for genetic and racial purity.

But what became of Asperger during WWII, and more importantly: was the psychiatrist also a Nazi sympathizer?

In several chapters of their book, “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism,” authors John Donvan and Caryn Zucker throw cold water on what they call the “optimistic and inspiring portrait” of Asperger. (Donvan and Zucker will be featured on the NewsHour tonight, where they’ll discuss the broader themes in their book.)

While acknowledging there is “no record of the doctor himself joining the Nazi party,” in their book, and in a recent excerpt published in Tablet, the authors present what they describe as “smoking gun” evidence that Asperger not only praised Nazi ideology, but also helped consign severely disabled children to early deaths at a Nazi-inspired medical facility.

Citing the research of medical historian Herwig Czech, Donvan and Zucker detail how Asperger recommended that several severely disabled children be sent to the Spiegelgrund, which the authors describe as a “facility where so many children had died of ‘pneumonia’ after being poisoned with phenobarbital.”

They also cite Czech’s research on Asperger’s apparent closeness to the Nazi Party:

“Czech also shared findings suggesting a greater affinity between Asperger and the Nazis than Asperger had admitted to. According to the file the Nazi Party kept on him, he was repeatedly judged to be an Austrian whom the Nazi authorities could trust, even more so as the years went by. Each time Asperger applied for a post or a promotion, he was cleared as someone who, though not a party member, abided by Nazi principles in the performance of his job. In one instance, a party official wrote that he ‘conforms to the principles of the policy of racial hygiene.’”

Steve Silberman, author of the award-winning book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” (which also contains a lengthy section on Asperger), writes today on NPR.org that Aspberger was a pioneering doctor forced to deal with “terrible historical forces,” and one who paid occasional lip-service to the Nazis rather than being a true believer.

Silberman writes:

“…I ultimately came to take a more nuanced view of Asperger as a compassionate clinician and educator working under the most difficult possible circumstances as Hitler and his henchmen rose to power… I also made clear that once the Nazis marched into Austria to annex the country for the Fatherland in 1938, nearly all of Asperger’s colleagues became fervent members of the Nazi party, while his Jewish colleagues were purged from the faculty at the University of Vienna and forced to flee the country or face death in a concentration camp. Many chose to commit suicide instead.”

Silberman acknowledges that the psychiatrist’s decision to allow children to be sent to the Spiegelgrund facility was the “darkest episode of Asperger’s career,” and says he’s amending future editions of his book to reflect this fact.

That said, Silberman hopes this debate doesn’t overshadow the enormous contribution Asperger made to our understanding of autism, which was largely unknown for decades after the war.

“It would be unfortunate if Donvan and Zucker’s revelations are used to discredit the work of Asperger… As filmmaker Saskia Baron points out in her review of In A Different Key in The Guardian,”Whether Asperger was a saint or a sinner should not dominate the discourse around autism.” (She probed the ethical dimensions of the Third Reich’s medical crimes in her documentary Science and the Swastika: Hitler’s Biological Soldiers.) What matters is focusing on the availability of services and support for autistic people and their families — a population that has been drastically underestimated in history, primarily because Asperger’s work was not made widely available in English until 1991.”

You can watch the NewsHour’s full interview with Steve Silberman here.

The interview with John Donvan and Caryn Zucker will be posted later tonight.