Thursday 21 March 2019

Was Asperger really 'non-complicit' in Nazi-era Vienna?

The paper published by Dean Falk [1] was bound to happen. Her analysis of "newly translated and chronologically-ordered information" regarding Hans Asperger - the man who gave his name to Asperger syndrome - represents a push-back against some pretty overwhelming information [2] suggesting that Asperger was not necessarily the 'saviour' that many had once believed (see here).

For those who might not know the background to this story, the article written by John Donvan & Caren Zucker [3] back in 2016 provides an excellent overview. It charts how the man who defined the (now defunct) label of Asperger syndrome worked in some pretty dark times. The depiction of Asperger during the years of Nazi occupation for many years was one of "a cautious yet brave and canny saboteur of the Nazi project to exterminate intellectually disabled children." Donvan & Zucker note that "an overwhelmingly positive narrative of Asperger as a man of moral rectitude came into focus in the new millennium, elevating him almost to the status of hero."

But as far back as the 1990s, not everyone was convinced by this narrative. Indeed, as Asperger syndrome made it's [fairly brief] entry into one version of the DSM, one of the diagnostic 'bibles' used to diagnose autism and a whole host of other behavioural and/or psychiatric conditions, questions were already being asked and not just by one person. It took however another 20 years or so before a historian, Herwig Czech, did some real 'digging' and presented the results of his research. Czech's conclusions were summarised by Donvan & Zucker: "Asperger took care during the war to safeguard his career and to burnish “his Nazi credibility.” Asperger, it would appear, did what was necessary."

The Falk paper talks about 'newly translated' information but really doesn't provide much more data than that which was already unearthed by Czech and other researchers/writers. We're told that various on-line translation services were used to translate several documents; specifically looking at "cultural contexts, Asperger's sustained campaign on behalf of disabled children, and his attitude toward patients."

I've read the full-text of the Falk paper and have to say that I really can't see how it substantially changes some key points. One primary issue is that Asperger seemed to have referred a child - Herta Schreiber - "from the University of Vienna Children’s Clinic to Am Spiegelgrund, where they [children] were murdered between 1940 and 1945." Spiegelgrund was a facility "which superficially resembled a hospital, but which functioned in reality as a killing center for severely disabled children." One might quibble about some of the translations and what was meant by them in terms of intent, but for Herta, such a referral apparently signed by Asperger, was her death sentence: "On 2 September, a day after her third birthday, Herta died of pneumonia, the most common cause of death at Spiegelgrund, which was routinely induced by the administration of barbiturates over a longer period of time." Did Asperger know about what really went on at Spiegelgrund? Certainly other doctors who Asperger worked with seemed to know what was going on there including some of his colleagues and direct superiors. Surely also, given the very consistent number of deaths from 'pneumonia' - many only a matter of weeks after children were referred to Spiegelgrund - most doctors would be questioning what was going on there if they didn't already know. And then we have the post-war picture, and how little was seemingly said about children like Herta by Asperger after the true nature of facilities like Spiegelgrund came to light...

We can never truly know what went on during those dark years. We rely on incomplete records that have been meticulously pieced together to provide a picture; albeit an incomplete picture. Asperger died in 1980 so he is not around to answer the points raised and defend himself. But never forget that Herta was a child. She was 3 years old when she was murdered. On the basis of that important fact alone, and the apparent referral made by Asperger to the place of her death, I find the Falk paper mentioning the word 'non-complicit' to be distasteful and disrespectful to her memory. I similarly find the campaign to restore the 'hero status' of Asperger distasteful and disrespectful to her memory and many others who were considered less than human by such a disgusting regime. To quote from the Donvan & Zucker piece once more: "Czech spoke for only 20 minutes or so that day at the Vienna City Hall. Then he stopped to take audience questions. In that pause, Dr. Arnold Pollak, the director of the clinic where Asperger had worked for much of his career, leapt to his feet, clearly agitated. Turning to the room, he asked that everyone present stand and observe a moment of silence in tribute to the many children whose long-forgotten murders Herwig Czech had returned to memory. The entire audience rose and joined in wordless tribute."


[1] Falk D. Non-complicit: Revisiting Hans Asperger's Career in Nazi-era Vienna. J Autism Dev Disord. 2019 Mar 18.

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

[3] Donvan J. Zucker C. The Doctor and the Nazis. Tablet. 2016. Jan 19.


1 comment:

  1. Tragic. Thank you for writing in memory of this little girl.


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