Asperger’s Children

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.

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