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Hans Asperger: Sometimes depicted as compassionate, but he participated in the Nazi euthanasia programme (© Wilhelm Hlosta/APA/Press Association Images )

One day, in the early 1980s, I was queuing up for an ice cream. There was a young man ahead of me. I watched, astonished, at the way he spoke to the young woman at the counter. He wasn’t just rude. She was evidently upset and yet he was completely indifferent to the effect his behaviour had on her. His mother sat outside. I suggested she speak to him about his behaviour. “You evidently haven’t heard of Asperger’s Syndrome,” she said.

She was right: I hadn’t. Lorna Wing had only just published the journal article which introduced the term, “Asperger’s Syndrome”.  That year (1981), one in 2,500 children in America were classified with autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s. By 2016 this had risen more than 35-fold to one in 68.

At the same time, a wave of books appeared about Nazi doctors and psychiatrists, including Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors (1986), Benno Müller-Hill’s Murderous Science (translated 1988), Robert Proctor’s Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis (1988) and Michael Kater’s Doctors Under Hitler (1990). Martin Amis acknowledged the importance of Lifton’s book for his novel about a Nazi doctor, Time’s Arrow (1991). 

Asperger’s Children
explores the career of the man behind Asperger’s Syndrome. Who was Hans Asperger, now regarded as one of the most famous psychiatrists of his time? Was he a benevolent and humane doctor? Or was he deeply implicated in Nazi psychiatry and its darkest episode, euthanasia?

This is Sheffer’s central charge. During the Second World War, the Nazis killed between 5,000 and 10,000 children as “unfit”. This led to an even more murderous adult euthanasia programme. As Sheffer writes, these adult killings “soon moved to mass selections and wholesale deportations from asylums and hospitals to six major killing centers in the Reich”. The second-largest killing centre in the Reich was Spiegelgrund in Vienna and one of the key psychiatrists there during the early years of the war, deciding who should live and who should die, was Hans Asperger. 

Asperger’s Children is not a biography. Sheffer uses Asperger’s career and work as a way of looking at the history of Nazi psychiatry in the Reich. His ideas were radicalised by the rise of what Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann called “the racial state”, the biologising of categories of belonging and non-belonging. Autism was at the heart of this and Asperger was a rising star in the debates about autism. 

It is a complicated story. First, as Sheffer points out, “Asperger is often depicted as compassionate and progressive.” He was a practising Catholic and never joined the Nazi Party. However, the archives tell another story. “Files reveal,” she writes, “that Asperger participated in Vienna’s child killing system on multiple levels. He was close colleagues with leaders in Vienna’s child euthanasia system and, through his numerous positions in the Nazi state, sent dozens of children to Spiegelgrund children’s institution, where children in Vienna were killed.”

Born in 1906, Asperger was brought up in a small village in rural Austria. He grew up in a devout Catholic family, who had been farmers for generations. This is important for several reasons. Catholics were later passionately opposed to Nazi euthanasia. At the same time, Austria was a hotbed of Nazism: 14 per cent of the SS membership and 40 per cent of personnel in extermination programmes were Austrians.
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