by Edith Sheffer, Norton, 320pp, £20
The historian Michael Burleigh’s book Death and Deliverance, a detailed indictment of the Nazi euthanasia programme, known as T-4 from its Berlin address, provides the background to this new work by Edith Sheffer. She examines the career of the Austrian doctor Hans Asperger, who gave his name to a form of high-functioning autism, and adds detail to Burleigh’s earlier research. The result is a devastating critique of the Viennese medical profession under the Third Reich.
Dealing with the deliberate mistreatment – sometimes the killing – of children in a designated hospital, the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna’s suburbs, it makes particularly painful reading. The author shows how the medical establishment, purged of its large Jewish element, swore a loyalty oath to Hitler. She records that, depressingly, “Medicine came to be one of the most Nazified professions in the Third Reich.”
What especially taints the name of Asperger is that his diagnosis of “autistic psychopathy” was deeply influenced by Nazi values. His now famous 1944 paper on autism was discovered and publicised in 1981 by a British psychiatrist who named the condition “Asperger’s syndrome”. The paper described young people who appeared to be closed in on themselves, lacking in the Nazi virtue of Gemüt: a sense of collective belonging, community feeling or social spirit.
The description came to include children and adolescents who, by today’s standards, would not be considered autistic at all. They simply lacked the ability to adapt to organisations such as the Hitler Youth because of behavioural problems, often influenced by poor, inadequate or neglected backgrounds. Typically brutal, the Nazi attitude was that one either merged with das Volk or was purged.
Sheffer’s book is excellent on the background to Viennese social and medical attitudes, pointing out that the city’s public welfare office theorised about forced sterilisation of “the inferior”, and possibly their “extermination”, as early as the 1920s – well before the Nazis came to power. Where it is weaker is on the background, private and family life of Asperger himself. We only see him through his quoted remarks in his scientific papers, or in his role at the University Children’s Hospital in Vienna. Although Asperger was married, we never even learn the name of his wife (it was Hanna Kalmon). Occasionally (and irritatingly) Sheffer describes him as a “devout Catholic”, but provides no evidence of this. It is rather like assuming the Irish must be “devout Catholics” simply because they live in Ireland.
She does raise the intriguing question: did Asperger suffer from the syndrome that became associated with him? That he seemed abnormally detached from reflecting on the consequences of his referrals of children to the killing pavilions at Am Spiegelgrund is clear. However, to associate him with those people on the spectrum of social and communicative disorders does the latter an injustice.
From all that Sheffer tells the reader, it is clear that Asperger was skilled at distancing himself from compromising situations, clever at adjusting his psychiatric language to suit Nazi ideology and practised in defending his morally ambivalent behaviour. Cold-blooded rather than autistic would be my own diagnosis.
Asperger’s career thrived in Vienna during the Nazi period, especially when Jewish doctors vanished. Although he did not join the Nazi Party (a shrewd move), this proved no obstacle to his advancement and he got on exceptionally well with his more notorious Nazi medical colleagues, in particular Max Gundel, Erwin Jekelius and Franz Hamburger.
Jekelius was deeply implicated in the T-4 euthanasia programme. Tellingly, Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, was to write of Jekelius: “He was the only man I ever encountered in my whole life whom I would dare to call a Mephistophelean being, a satanic figure.”
Asperger – conscientious, white-coated and unsmiling behind his glasses – is known to have been responsible for sending at least 44 children to their deaths. The number is probably far higher, but the paperwork is too patchy to provide certain proof. Altogether, at least 789 children and adolescents were murdered at Am Spiegelgrund during the Nazi period. The method included deliberate neglect to the point of starvation and regular barbiturate injections.
Sheffer’s verdict on Asperger is damning: although he may have felt pressured into accepting these deadly “treatments”, nonetheless “he chose his milieu and colleagues. He had numerous volitional ties to the euthanasia programme, and it pervaded his professional world.” Although he complained that his anti-Nazi reputation had delayed his promotion to associate professor, “he still attained the position in October 1943 at 37, a young age”.
Asperger’s culpability in the euthanasia programme was at a remove. After the war he remained a respected figure, holding the chair of paediatrics at the University of Vienna for 20 years. He died in 1980. Yet history shows him to have been an integral link in the chain of death warrants for children deemed unfit for Nazi society.
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