Why Did It Take So Long to Expose Hans Asperger's Nazi Ties?

Suspicions dogged the autism researcher for years, but they were largely unverifiable, until now.

A memorial for children murdered at Am Spiegelgrund
A memorial for children murdered at Am Spiegelgrund, including patients of Hans Asperger (Ronald Zak / AP)

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.”

For the next four decades, that paper went virtually unnoticed and was minimally cited in the main centers researching autism, which were located in Britain and the United States. It was only in 1981 that the influential British psychiatrist Lorna Wing drew attention to it. Wing was just then beginning to develop the now familiar concept of the autism spectrum, and saw Asperger’s account of autistic psychopathy as an important demonstration of autistic traits in a wider range of individuals than previously documented. Historically, the autism label had been used more narrowly, applied to individuals profoundly challenged in areas like learning, communication, or self-care. For the sake of discussion around the Austrian’s work, she also urged adoption of a less jarring name for it: Asperger’s syndrome.

Thus did the syndrome become famous, but not the man, who died the year before Wing told a wider world about his work, and about whom that wider world knew essentially nothing. In that vacuum, just a few people in the English-speaking world began asking questions.

One of the earliest was Eric Schopler, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina who had been running an innovative education program there for autistic people since 1971. Schopler was an immigrant, having fled Europe as a child with his Jewish family, and among the first English speakers to raise suspicions about Asperger—though he never made a compelling case for them. In the late 1980s, he was openly maligning the quality of Asperger’s work, while making cloaked suggestions that Asperger was, at a minimum, a Nazi sympathizer. Influential among autism experts into the early 2000s, Schopler apparently never made any real effort to substantiate his suspicions. Yet his comments stirred up a cloud of rumors, and others started asking questions.

Following Schopler was the Yale psychologist Fred Volkmar, another major figure in the autism field. In 1993, he was on the committee appointed to investigate whether Asperger’s syndrome merited inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the main reference book used for coding mental diagnoses. The committee was trying to judge the syndrome’s clinical validity. But Volkmar told me in an interview that he was also concerned about the reputation question, since there was honor attached to being named in the DSM. He made a transatlantic phone call to the only person he knew who had ever met Asperger—Lorna Wing—and asked her point blank whether she knew anything about Asperger being a Nazi. Wing was shocked at the question, and, although she had only met Asperger once, for tea and conversation, she apparently felt compelled to vouch for him. She, too, did not actually have much information, but she knew him to be a religious man, and shared that with Volkmar. As exculpating evidence, it was thin, but there was no known evidence on the other side. In 1994, when a new edition of the DSM appeared, Asperger’s syndrome was listed in it.

A few years later, a second Yale psychologist, Ami Klin—who now leads the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine—attempted a more comprehensive investigation, ahead of copublishing an academic book to be titled Asperger Syndrome. Klin went as far as reaching out to various archives and research centers in Germany and Austria, and shared that correspondence with me for my research. “We would like to be able to write that he was a benevolent doctor,” he wrote to one historian. “But we are not sure of that.” The answer that came back from that same historian was ambivalent: Records were hard to come by, and while Asperger certainly worked and survived in a Nazi-dominated professional environment—which should be grounds for caution—he never joined the Nazi party, and there was no evidence implying he’d been personally involved in its immoral enterprise. Klin went with the benefit of the doubt, and published a book whose foreword, written by Asperger’s daughter, described Asperger’s “lifelong interest in and his curiosity about all living creatures,” and his opposition to Nazi determinism.

In 2016, along with my coauthor Caren Zucker, I published a social history of autism that laid out the story of people asking these questions, and the lack of clear answers. But we also explored a corollary development: the growing popularity of a version of Asperger that was the complete opposite of the possible Nazi sympathizer Eric Schopler had been whispering about. This story asserted that Asperger, far from working with Nazis, was secretly working against them, and was actively saving vulnerable children’s lives. This narrative, which proved amazingly durable in the absence of confirmable facts to back it up, was the second thing shielding Asperger’s reputation.

This version of Asperger was built with just a few available data points. Those included comments made about Asperger’s virtue by his children as adults; praise for his character by people who worked with him long after the war years; a line from a talk he once gave concerning challenged children, in which he asserted that “not everything that falls out of line” need be considered “inferior”; and, most critically, Asperger’s own testimony in a 1974 interview, in which he said that he twice had close calls with gestapo.

But making this narrative work also required a certain selective memory. In some early public statements Asperger made, he sounded unmistakably enthusiastic about what was going on in Nazi medicine and genetics. In 1938, months after Austria was welded to Hitler’s Germany, Asperger gave a public talk in which he hailed the new era, and embraced the principle that “the Volk is more important than any single individual”—the central tenet of fascism. Further, he expressed support for the regime’s goal “to prevent the passing on of diseased heredity,” which was how the Nazis justified euthanasia of disabled people.

These statements alone might seem fatal to the hero story, but some argued that Asperger was only saying those things to throw the Gestapo off the scent. This transformation of a Vienna pediatrician into a wily resistance figure—credited by one writer with making “deft chess moves” against the Nazis—was enormously appealing. It gave professionals working in the autism field an inspiring forebear, and was also an attractive characterization for people given the Asperger’s diagnosis, many of whom, since the late 1990s, had been building a kind of pride movement in response to lifetimes of rejection, bullying, and isolation. The Asperger resistance story wasn’t crucial to fighting the condition’s stigma, but it didn’t hurt—it was a nice add-on for those who sometimes spoke of their “Aspie pride.”

I found it appealing too, and in the first draft of my book’s short chapter on Asperger’s past I described the resistance narrative as standing up to “a fair-minded analysis,” in the absence of solid countervailing evidence.

Then, in the spring of 2014, six or so months before my deadline, I got a call from Jeremiah Riemer, the freelance translator I’d asked to check the English translation I was using to quote Asperger’s writing in German. Riemer asked me if I’d ever heard of Herwig Czech—the historian whose work has just appeared in Molecular Autism. It seems my friend, frankly suspicious of the hero narrative (which he said had a great deal to do with being a Jew well acquainted with the history of postwar patterns of Austrian denial of responsibility), had googled around in German, and come across an interview Czech gave to an Austrian newspaper raising questions. I had never heard of Czech, but we were to become well acquainted over the next two years, as he gradually shared with my coauthor and me most of the details that he has now made public in full.

At the start, I found it difficult to accept what he was telling us over email and Skype calls: that Asperger, after examining numerous disabled children, had signed documents recommending their placement in the pseudo-hospital called Am Spiegelgrund, where, his follow-up work showed, they had been murdered. With my coauthor, I flew to Vienna, where Czech laid out the documents, showed us Asperger’s signature, and walked us around the grounds of Am Speigelgrund and into the building where the marked children waited to die—a place that was the more chilling for actually looking like an ordinary ward.

Here, at last, was a researcher who bridged the language barrier, and knew his way around an archive. Czech was able to provide what had been missing before: minute, documentable detail, which made clear that the hero story was a fantasy.

Zucker and I included Czech’s findings on Asperger in our book, but it did not deal a lethal blow to the myth. Out on press tour, we found that most reviewers and interviewers representing general audiences were far more interested in other aspects of autism’s history than the character of one distant Austrian, and unfamiliar with the resistance narrative anyway. Among those more directly connected to autism, we encountered some who were stunned and dismayed, but we also got pushback from people who charged us with sensationalism, fabrication, and Nazi baiting. Quite reasonably, some thought it better to withhold judgement until Czech’s work was peer-reviewed and fully published.

Now that it has been, this does appear to be, at long last, Hans Asperger’s crane moment. But the disgrace of the man’s actions does not negate the value of his clinical insights, nor does it reflect negatively, in the slightest way, on individuals who were at one time given the Asperger’s diagnosis. I say “at one time” because the DSM dropped Asperger’s in 2013, for being clinically problematic in practice. The change shifted most Asperger’s-diagnosed individuals into an updated and broader diagnosis called “autism spectrum disorder.” Since then, most (but not all) of the people I know with the old diagnosis have stopped using it, instead calling themselves, simply, “autistic.” Which, given what we’ve now learned, may be just as well.