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Austism pioneer Hans Asperger 'collaborated' with Nazi regime, study finds

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By Alice Tidey
A form refers a child, Herta, to the Nazi's child "euthanasia" programme
A form refers a child, Herta, to the Nazi's child "euthanasia" programme   -   Copyright  Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna

The late Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, known for his pioneering work on autism, assisted in the Nazi regime’s euthanasia programme in Austria, a new study revealed on Thursday.

“The narrative of Asperger as a principled opponent of National Socialism and a courageous defender of his patients against Nazi ‘euthanasia’ and other race hygiene measures does not hold up in the face of the historical evidence,” Herwig Czech wrote in the study published in Molecular Autism.

The Austrian medical historian from Vienna’s Medical University based his findings on previously-untouched documents such as Asperger’s personnel files, medical records from various institutions including the child “euthanasia” clinic Am Spiegelgrund and political assessments by Nazi authorities.

According to the documents, Asperger sent 35 children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna, where they were then killed. Nearly 800 patients are said to have been killed at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic.

The findings contradict Asperger's own comments. Following WWII, Asperger claimed that he had been wanted by the Gestapo for refusing to hand patients over to officials.

Czech also found that “anti-Semitic stereotypes sometimes found their way” into Asperger’s diagnostic reports.

“The way he pathologized some children’s mental troubles, rather than acknowledging the reality of the persecution they faced, suggests a certain indifference towards their fate under the regime’s anti-Jewish policies,” the historian added.

Czech stressed that Asperger was not an official member of the Nazi party but that he had “managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime” for which he was rewarded with career opportunities.

Hans Asperger was born in Vienna in 1906. He is most known for his work on what he described as “autistic psychopathy,” a term used until his death in 1980. It was then renamed Asperger syndrome.

In an editorial published Thursday, the editors of Molecular Autism — Simon Baron-Cohen, Ami Klin, Steve Silberman and Joseph D. Buxbaum —write that “the degree of Asperger’s involvement in the targeting of Vienna’s most vulnerable children has remained an open and vexing question in autism research for a long time.”

Czech's article, they write, show how Asperger's "not only collaborated with the Nazi but actively contributed to the Nazi eugenics programme."

They also express their support and respect for Czech for his “meticulous” research and for the late Dr. Lorna King who coined the term Asperger syndrome and developed the concept of “Autism spectrum.”

Carol Povey, director at the UK National Autistic Society said in a statement that the findings are likely “to spark a big conservation” among those who identify with the term Asperger.

“No-one with a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this troubling history,” she added.