Thursday, 19 April 2018

Hans Asperger "was actively involved in the Nazi regime's euthanasia programme in Austria"

Credit: The BBC News website 19 April 2018
Many people will already have seen the headlines (see here for example) covering the paper by Herwig Czech [1] that concluded that: "The narrative of [Hans] Asperger as a principled opponent of National Socialism and a courageous defender of his patients against Nazi ‘euthanasia’ and other race hygiene measures does not hold up in the face of the historical evidence."

It makes for particularly difficult reading insofar as dispelling other highly-cited accounts of Asperger as being some sort of 'hero' - "the narrative of Asperger as an Oskar Schindler-like protector of children with autism" - who claimed "to have shielded his patients from the Nazi regime." Instead, as also acknowledged in an accompanying editorial on the Czech findings [2], the evidence uncovered seems to point to something rather more approaching: "that Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions but was also complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society’s most vulnerable people." The main assertions seem to be around Asperger "referring children both directly and indirectly to Am Spiegelgrund", a notorious clinic that summed up the utter disdain that the Nazi regime had for the beautiful heterogeneity of life.

I don't really want to say too much more on this topic because I'm sure that discussions will go on with regards to the Czech findings and their implications. I do want to raise two points that may be pertinent however.

First, the question of 'does it matter?' that Asperger had such a past is bound to be raised. Yes, it does matter. As a previous opinion piece published just before the Czech article (see here) mentions: "To medical ethics, it does. Naming a disorder after someone is meant to credit and commend, and Asperger merited neither." That author, who also has a book coming out on this topic, went as far as suggesting that: "We should stop saying “Asperger.” It’s one way to honor the children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it."

Second, and related to the first point, is the 'flack' that has been taken by the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) (version 5) when it dropped the term 'Asperger syndrome'. Instead, the authors of this 'diagnostic bible' chose to go down the more generic 'autism' route; something that also looks likely in the context of the ICD-11 proposals too (see here). In view of the Czech findings and bearing in mind that issue of 'medical ethics' it looks like this was a correct decision. I appreciate that this may have knock-on effects for those diagnosed and identifying as having Asperger syndrome - ""No-one with a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome should feel in any way tainted by this very troubling history," Carol Povey, director at the Centre of Autism for the UK's National Autistic Society, said in a statement to the BBC" - but with these new revelations must come some sort of change in thinking.

The Czech findings matter because lives matter. They matter because they paint a picture of a man who lived and worked in very difficult times but a man "that the Nazi authorities saw... in an increasingly positive light, including as someone willing to go along with their ideas of race hygiene."

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[1] Czech H. Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna. Molecular Autism. 2018; 9: 29.

[2] Baron-Cohen S. et al. Did Hans Asperger actively assist the Nazi euthanasia program? Molecular Autism. 2018; 9: 28.

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