Autism’s Dark Roots in Nazi Vienna

A new book from the historian Edith Sheffer investigates the medical pioneer Hans Asperger’s involvement in a Third Reich eugenics program.

“For success in science and art,” the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger once proposed, “a dash of autism is essential.” For success in medicine during the heyday of the Third Reich, as Edith Sheffer’s account of his career shows, the requirement was different. More than a dash of Gemüt—which Nazi psychiatrists defined as commitment to community (just what autistic children were said to lack)—was crucial.

W. W. Norton

Sheffer, a historian at UC Berkeley, isn’t the first to probe the past of the man whose name has become a popular psychiatric label. In the 1980s, Asperger’s decades-old portrayals of socially isolated but bright boys in his care caught the attention of autism researchers. His own history got a brief vetting in the early 1990s, in preparation for the christening of a new diagnosis in his honor. Asperger, dead by then, got credit for never having joined the Nazi Party and for being a champion of neurodiversity.

Far harsher assessments—that he was a passive collaborator or else an active participant in the Nazis’ eugenics mission—have since emerged. As Sheffer digs deep into the broader “child killing” context in which he prospered, the dark verdicts blur. It’s possible that Asperger sent as few patients as he could to the notorious Spiegelgrund facility, which was explicitly dedicated to socially “integrating” certain children and eliminating others (mostly by barbiturate overdose). Still, he did send some—and they weren’t impersonal cases. They were small people whose qualities and quirks he had carefully examined. “The child euthanasia program,” Sheffer writes chillingly, “reveals an intimate dimension to extermination.”

This article appears in the June 2018 print edition with the headline “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna.”