The dark history of the man who gave his name to Asperger Syndrome

Dr Hans Asperger

Our country has not been invaded for over 1,000 years. This has been an enormous shaping influence on our island story. I say this because I have been reading two books, connected indirectly to the last war, that show in different ways the lasting psychological trauma resulting from invasion and how fortunate our own country was, not to have been overrun by Nazi Germany, or indeed Soviet Russia.

The first book, Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming by Inara Verzemnieks, is the author’s memoir of her Latvian grandmother, by whom she was raised in the US after her grandparents came to live there after the war.

We all have a powerful instinct to know our origins, especially if they are veiled by catastrophe, and Inara is no exception. When she became an adult, and after her grandmother Livija’s death, she went to Latvia for the first time, to meet her mother’s elderly sister, Ausma, and to learn her side of the two sisters’ story: deported to Siberia for eight years, along with thousands of other Latvians at the end of the war, then a return to their old homeland and the family’s ruined farmstead to pick up the broken threads of her previous life; and then the discovery that her older sister was also alive, in America, and the constant letters that flowed between them as they began to re-establish their long-severed relationship.

We learn that both Russia and Germany invaded Latvia, a small defenceless country on the Baltic; that 70,000 Latvian Jews in Riga were murdered in the local woods by the Nazis, with the help of their fellow-countrymen; that even earlier, one million Latvian refugees had been driven to seek exile in other countries in 1917, during the Great War. Inara writes, “Maybe it is the mounds that appear suddenly deep in the forest…Better to stay quiet…Spend any amount of time in Latvia and you will quickly discover that every family’s history is cratered with epochs of loss and displacement.” It is a book that throws new light on a small forgotten corner of northern Europe.

The other book, Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, by Edith Sheffer, details the sinister role played by Austrian paediatricians and psychiatrists who had embraced the Nazi ideology of “life unworthy of life” to excuse their efficient and deadly euthanasia programme. Thanks to historian Michael Burleigh’s earlier work, Death and Deliverance, we know about this programme, begun in the early 1930s and known and “T-4” after its Berlin address, during which thousands of elderly and sick people were driven to certain institutions that had been designated as killing centres, and there murdered in early versions of the later notorious gas chambers.

What is less well known is how disabled children and young people in Vienna were also selected with ruthless efficiency, sent to Spiegelgrund Institution in the suburbs, and there murdered by starvation or a regime of barbiturate poisoning. Spiegelgrund was one of 37 child euthanasia wards in the Third Reich where it is estimated that over 789 of these tragic children died. They did not merely include those with learning disabilities but teenagers judged to be a-social or anti-social, erratic in their behaviour, not able to fit in with the healthy, heartless society the Nazis desired to create.

Dr Hans Asperger was a well-known and respected child psychiatrist, diagnostician and clinician in Vienna who sent at least 44 children, and probably many more for whom the paper trail is now lost, to Spiegelgrund while well aware of their likely fate. Working closely with medical colleagues who were more directly implicated in the deaths, Asperger cleverly kept himself at a remove in the chain of responsibility and thus evaded being put on trial with other doctors after the war. Famous for giving his name to a type of behaviour on the autistic spectrum, his classification of certain children as having valueless lives is rightly judged today to be abhorrent. It reminds us that there were many corrupt medical personnel involved in this killing machine, nurses and orderlies as well as doctors.

What is slightly irritating is the author’s description – providing no evidence – that Asperger was “a devout Catholic”. Whatever his cultural origins in Catholic Austria he clearly had no understanding (or perhaps had deliberately rejected?) his Faith’s unswerving commitment to the value and dignity of every life, including “the least of my brethren” – the poor, the maimed and the outcast.