At least no one ever put up a prominent statue to Hans Asperger, so we are spared the scene where they bring in the crane to drag another historical figure down from his pedestal. But essentially, that is what has just happened to Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who lent his name to the syndrome that recognized autistic traits in verbally fluent individuals who demonstrate superior intelligence and creativity. As the current issue of the scholarly journal Molecular Autism makes clear in specific detail, Asperger, who lived and worked in wartime Vienna, not only went along with the Nazi project to murder disabled children—in some ways, he facilitated it, putting his expert’s signature on documents that dispatched such children to facilities where they were murdered. The new, novella-length study by the medical historian Herwig Czech answers many of the questions that have dogged Asperger for decades, except for one: why it took so long for the story to come out in full.
Two things have protected Asperger’s reputation up till now. The first was a geographical and language barrier. Asperger, who lived between 1906 and 1980, never published in English, and spent almost no part of his professional life outside of Austria. This mundane fact proved critical. Starting at the conclusion of World War I—when scientists from Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom shut out their German and Austrian peers from Western European conferences, journals, and the like—the German language began to lose its position as a lingua franca of science and research. English started to take over. Moreover, following World War II, there was a taint to virtually all Nazi-era medical scholarship, owing to the disgusting and well-documented ethical breaches associated with some of the research conducted. This unquestionably dampened international discussion of Asperger’s ground-breaking 1944 paper, in which he wrote about four intellectually capable but socially struggling Austrian boys and for the first time described the syndrome that he called “autistic psychopathy.”