Pioneering autism doctor Hans Asperger sent disabled children to be killed by Nazis, new study claims

Experts say that the history had to be found and made public – but caution that it should cause no distress to anyone who identifies with the syndrome that took his name

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 19 April 2018 01:00 BST
A memorial for the children killed at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic
A memorial for the children killed at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic (Haeferl)

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Hans Asperger, the Austrian paediatrician who gave his name to a kind of high-functioning autism, helped the Nazis in their murder of disabled children, according to a new report.

The new study claims that the respected professor actively recommended children should be sent to their deaths at Spiegelgrund, where the Nazis enacted a policy they referred to as euthanasia that saw hundreds of children killed.

It darkens the reputation of the doctor, whose name is used by the huge number of people around the world who identify with the syndrome. But experts cautioned how important it is to ensure that people do not feel tainted by the newly discovered history.

“We expect these findings to spark a big conversation among the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their family members, particularly those who identify with the term ‘Asperger’," said Carol Povey, director at the Centre of Autism for the National Autistic Society.

“Autism affects everyone differently and people often have their own way of talking about autism. We will be listening closely to the response to this news so we can continue to make sure the language we use to describe autism reflects the preferences of autistic people and their families.”

“Obviously no-one with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history.”

Asperger's Syndrome is marked by an impaired ability to interact socially with others, tends to affect people of average or above average intelligence. It was first identified by Professor Asperger in 1944 who used the term "autistic psychopathy" to describe the condition of four children under his care.

In 1981, the British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who helped establish the National Autistic Society in the UK, introduced the diagnosis of "Asperger's Syndrome" in honour of her predecessor.

But according to new evidence, the pioneer of autism research whose reputation is that of a strong opponent of Nazi ideology, had a hidden dark past.

Documents uncovered by an Austrian medical historian suggest that Prof Asperger ingratiated himself with the Nazi regime to the extent of participating in its murderous euthanasia programme.

It claims that Asperger sent profoundly disabled children who were under his care to the Spiegelgrund clinic, where they were killed An estimated 789 children, many with severe mental problems, were systematically killed at the Vienna clinic, mostly by lethal injection and gassing.

Others died from disease and starvation, or were subjected to harsh medical experiments.

"Aktion T4", the horrific euthanasia programme personally authorised by Adolf Hitler, set out to cull the incurable and severely disabled.

Up to 300,000 victims, including children, were exterminated at clinics in Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic between 1939 and 1945.

Herwig Czech, from the Medical University of Vienna, set out the claims against Prof Asperger after trawling through previously unexamined documents from the Nazi era including personnel files and patient records.

He said: "These findings about Hans Asperger are the result of many years of careful research in the archives.

"What emerges is that Asperger successfully sought to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded with career opportunities in return.

"This is part of a broader effort by historians to expose what doctors were doing during the Third Reich."

The allegations are reported in the journal Molecular Autism. Its two editors explained why they had made the decision to publish the study, which will inevitably prove controversial in a community made up of millions of people.

One of them, leading British autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, from Cambridge University, said: "We are aware that the article and its publication will be controversial.

"We believe that it deserves to be published in order to expose the truth about how a medical doctor who, for a long time, was seen as only having made valuable contributions to the field of paediatrics and child psychiatry, was guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in their abhorrent eugenics and euthanasia policies.

"This historical evidence must now be made available."

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