Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger is seen as one of the most important names in the overall study of the condition Autism – which affects around 1% of children.

His importance to the field led to the naming of “Asperger’s Syndrome”, a sub-type of Autism. He was originally viewed as a hero, having supposedly saved children with the condition from being killed.

However, as time has gone on, the truth has appeared. The truth is that Asperger took part in the murder of children with disabilities during the Nazi regime.

It is these revelations which have led many people to call for the “Asperger’s” name to be dropped. Indeed, the medical field has recently moved towards “Autistic Spectrum Disorder” being used, but the name “Asperger’s” is still very common.

Please note that this article may have some distressing content within it. Please only read on if you are comfortable with this.

The Nazi’s had an impact on Austria too, where Asperger worked

What is Autism?

Autism is a condition that is usually deemed a developmental disorder that is seen in children, but it affects many peopple in adulthood.

Typically, people with Autism have problems with social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive behaviours or interests.

There is a big variety in cases of Autism, with it considered to be a “spectrum” of disorders. Apserger’s Syndrome was previously viewed as a sub-type of Autism.

Autism in Nazi Germany

Much of the revelations of Asperger’s role comes through the book Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna – by Edith Sheffer.

She tells how back in 1939, German farm workers Richard and Lina Kretschmar wrote to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, asking for permission to kill their severely disabled son, who they described sickeningly as a “monster”.

Hitler sent his personal physician to take a look at the child. Tragically, within days the child had died – presumably from poisoning. This was the first known victim of the Nazi’s killing program that targeted the “disabled”.

This death alone was appalling, and how any parent could do such a thing is baffling. This death seemed to spark the Nazi’s into life, as death became the answer to those who they considered to not be capable of being in the “master race” that the Nazi’s sought to create.

Hans Asperger’s Role in Nazi Germany

Thousands of children that were deemed to be disabled were murdered during the Second World War by the Nazi’s. Among those considered to be disabled was those with what would eventually be called Autism.

One such institution where murders took place was Spiegelgrund – a clinic for children in Vienna, Austria. It is believed almost a thousand children died here.

This is where Hans Asperger comes into the story. Asperger was a young paediatrician at the time, who worked in the clinic. Asperger never joined the Nazi Party, and was believed to privately have disdain for the party.

However, it is believed that Asperger was fully aware of the child euthanasia programme that was in progress. And how couldn’t he be? After all, so many children he assisted mysteriously disappeared.

Asperger was treating those with disabilities, whether this was physical or mental. While Autism wasn’t an official diagnosis at the time, those with autism-like symptoms were among those to be considered disabled. Other conditions related to disabilities include Cerebral Palsy, a low intellectual ability, and missing a limb.

It is believed that Asperger protected children that he deemed were “intelligent”. But this was far from everyone, and he was therefore party to what was happening.

Various accounts from survivors of Spiegelgrund have painted an awful picture. Forced injections, beatings, humiliations and of course, the death of many children, usually done through poisoning.

He was also known to be close friends with Erwin Jekelius. Jekelius was in charge of the notorious Steinhof Lunatic Asylum, which in itself was a place of thousands of deaths. Again, Asperger must have known what was happening.

Jekelius was a notorious part of the Nazi Party, even to the extent where he was engaged to Hitler’s sister – Paula. While this didn’t result in marriage, the link is clear.

After the Second World War, he did not face any criminal proceedings, unlike many of his colleagues. He went on to have an esteemed academic career.

In the years since

Asperger died in 1981. His thesis, which he had written about what he called “Autistic Psychopathy”, was discovered in 1982, leading to the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome being created.

Since then, Asperger’s Syndrome has become very well-known. Just as the name has become better known, the number of children diagnosed with some form of Autism has risen enormously.

Asperger’s Syndrome is seen as a sub-set of Autism. In recent years, health professionals have worked towards the creation of “Autistic Spectrum Disorder”. This has largely led to “Asperger’s” to no longer be diagnosed, but it is still commonly used in healthcare.

One of the main problems is that many people are unaware of the original story of Hans Asperger, and where the name of the condition comes from. The name of the condition clearly has a negative backstory to it.

A major step in the right direction started in 2011, with the DSM-5 removing the category of Asperger’s Syndrome. Europe followed suit in their ICD-11 in 2021. This means that in theory, no one should be diagnosed as having “Asperger’s Syndrome” from now on.

The Takeaway

We cannot change history, but we can learn from it. We owe it to all of the children who were killed by the Nazi killing machine. Moreover, we owe it to those who have Autism to not associated them with someone who partook in so many murders.

Even though the horrors of the Nazi regime finished many decades ago, some of the details continue to be released. This was a vile period in history, and so many people tragically lost their lives.

This article takes some content from Edith Sheffer’s book Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, published by W.W. Norton. You can order this book at the following link:

The featured picture used in this article is courtesy of Wikipedia. File Photo: Creative Commons License: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.