In case you hadn’t noticed, a paper came out recently entitled Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, and it’s been stirring things up in Autistic corners of the world. Apparently, Asperger’s role and involvement with Autistic children in Nazi-era Vienna was a lot less benevolent than a lot of people have supposed.
The news isn’t good, especially for those who have seen Asperger as an under-the-radar resister to genocidal fascists, a kind of light in the general darkness, whether it was WWII or the cluelessness that’s dominated discussions about Autism, lo, these many years. His descriptions of Autistic kids have been called out as perceptive, even appreciative, and his name has been associated with Autistic folks with a certain profile of abilities and support needs. But… he was allied with the Nazis.
The paper is open access, and you can either read it online or download a PDF. I skimmed through it yesterday. The text itself is over 30 pages, and then there are 10 pages of endnotes (which is fun for some of us – you know who you are 😉 It’s no small task to wade through paragraph after paragraph of carefully woven narrative, citations, references, and so forth, which go directly against the prevailing perception of the once-favored Herr Doktor.
Asperger never joined the Nazi party, apparently. But he did plenty to appear compliant. ‘Beginning in 1938, he took to signing his diagnostic reports with “Heil
Hitler”,’ and he described some of his partly-Jewish-descended patients as “Mischlings” (“mixed Jewish blood”, which was literally damning, for those times). This is just not good:
On 27 June 1941, 2 months before her third birthday,
Asperger examined a girl at his clinic named Herta
Schreiber (Fig. 6). The youngest of nine children, Herta
showed signs of disturbed mental and physical development
ever since she had fallen ill with encephalitis a few
months before. Asperger’s diagnostic report on Herta
reads as follows:
Severe personality disorder (post-encephalitic?): most
severe motoric retardation; erethic idiocy; seizures. At
home the child must be an unbearable burden to the
mother, who has to care for five healthy children.
Permanent placement at Spiegelgrund seems
absolutely necessary.95 (Fig. 7)
Herta was admitted to Spiegelgrund on 1 July 1941. On
8 August, Jekelius reported her to the Reich Committee
for the Scientific Registration of Serious Hereditary and
Congenital Illnesses, the secret organization behind child
“euthanasia.” In the form he sent to Berlin, Jekelius
pointed out that Herta had no chance of recovery but that
her condition would not curtail her life expectancy—an
In the end, Asperger did have blood on his hands. As did everyone who actively cooperated with Nazis at that point in history.
Now, before you start thinking I’m an apologist for this sort of thing, rest assured, I’m not. I’m seriously reconsidering referring to myself as an Aspie, or talking about Aspergers Syndrome at all. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with referring to myself as having a “syndrome”, anyway. If I have a syndrome, then the rest of humanity does, too — and they’re far worse off (not to mention more dangerous and impaired) than I am, thank you very much.
Here’s the thing, though… So much of our completely justifiable outrage doesn’t account for how things were, back then. I often wonder why — why?! — any Jewish or otherwise non-Nazi doctor or professional would have wanted to stay and work in Vienna, in those days? It was their home… okay. They were settled there and had their roots there, and nobody was going to push them out. Okay. I understand that perspective. But if things are going south… or even smelling like they’re going to… why stick around?
I say this as someone who grew up in an environment that literally wanted to destroy me. As a woman, as an intelligent person, as a non-binary queer. I’ve moved a number of times in my life, and for the past 23 years, I’ve been settled in a place where I can peacefully exist without constantly looking over my shoulder or worrying about being attacked or losing my job or being pushed aside, just because I’m different.
I also lived in southern West Germany from 1985-87, in an area that had a lot of children of hardcore Nazis. Even some surviving Nazis. Around midnight in the pubs, when the televisions signed off for the day and the national anthem played, all the old-timers who were out late drinking would be mournfully silent during the song, then their stories would turn to the “old days”, for example, when they worked in concentration camps. Hmm. Something about sitting a few tables away from someone who might have had a day job at Auschwitz … well, it makes you think.
It still makes me ill, to recollect.
And what I remember so clearly from those days in rich, well-appointed, idyllic West Germany was how hush-hush everything “unpleasant’ was, and how incredibly screwed up a lot of people were. Heavy, heavy drinking. Domestic violence. Just a ton of dysfunction simmering under the surface of what was an otherwise prosperous and well-run society — the most prosperous in Europe, at the time. It was seriously messed up. If everything was that twisted under excellent economic conditions in times of peace, I can’t even begin to imagine how screwed up it was back in Asperger’s time.
Now, I wasn’t a professional in Vienna in the 1930s, so I can’t know for sure what I personally would have done at that time, but in my own life I’ve relocated over less dangerous circumstances, and I seriously doubt I would have stuck around. Maybe it’s because of the lessons from that relatively recent history that I’m so willing to relocate — I’ve learned what happens when you “stick it out” even though things are clearly developing against you. In any case, I’m pretty sure I would have booked passage and gotten the hell out of Europe, if I’d had the chance. Hell, even if I hadn’t had a chance, I would have done my best to get out of there. Of course, that wasn’t always possible, especially if you were Jewish, but Asperger wasn’t Jewish. He probably would have had far fewer barriers to leaving. He had more of a choice than most. He chose to stay.
With this in mind, my attitude has always been that Dr. Asperger did a deal with those devils. In fact, I feel like pretty much anyone who stayed behind and continued to be installed in their position in Nazi-occupied areas, had to collaborate at least a little bit, to keep practicing their profession. Think… Vichy France. And a little bit of collaboration could morph into a lot without even realizing it. It’s not hard, under those conditions, to get swept in, even if you are trying to find a balance. The vice was so tight, the control was so pervasive, and everyone and everything was so scrutinized by the Nazis’ machine, that I firmly believe there was no way anybody could have practiced professionally — especially medicine — without furthering the Nazi agenda to some extent.
There were some Schindlers in the crowd, of course, but the vast majority were not… making increasing concessions as the years wore on, to stay in the game, till the pendulum of history swung back around and they could get back to their non-Nazi-fied lives.
Does this vindicate Asperger or any of his other contemporaries who went along (er, like thousands upon thousands upon thousands of everyday people), hoping the bad dream would finally pass? Not even close. But it does put things in perspective.
And whenever we look at history, I feel we must view it in light of how things were, back then. Not how they are (or should be) now. That’s extremely hard, these days, because the world we live in (and lots of young people have grown up in) is so very, very different from how things were in 1930s Vienna. Or the 40s. Or the 50s, for that matter. Things that used to really suck have been turned into consumer commodities, with the rough edges buffed off to make them more saleable. The 1950s have morphed into the “mid-century” with stylish furniture and television shows (e.g., Mad Men) extolling that “simpler time”. But some of us still remember just how completely screwed up that time was, with women not being allowed to have their own credit cards without their husband’s approval, and homosexuality being a jailable offense. The 1960s have been cast in a counter-culture light, but for many people they were just an extension of the oppressive 1950s, with the Vietnam War taking place of the Korean Conflict. I know my own upbringing in the latter half of the 60s was every bit as oppressive, sexist, classist and exploitive as the 1950s were for others. We look back through the lens provided by a market economy that has everything to gain from us reveling in the good, while setting aside the bad.
The whole 20th century was a bit of a sh*tshow, as far as I’m concerned. And yet, it was an improvement on the 19th. Indoor plumbing. Electricity. Internet. Every generation has its disgraces that it can never get free of. And when we lose sight of that, we lose the ability to think critically and assimilate the lessons of the past.
So, no, Asperger has never had a “get out of jail free card” from me. I’ve always known he was culpable. Especially for the stuff that wasn’t documented.
Plus, beyond the times he lived in, he wasn’t the only medical / psychiatric professional whose practices were suspect. Let’s not forget how young the psychological field is. It’s been around for just over 100 years. Not a long time, really, and in many ways, it’s still in its infancy (despite what the Psy.D’s of the world would have us believe.) Especially with regard to Autism, pretty much most medical professionals have been barbaric / sadistic in their treatment of people like me… And many still are. It’s not so different from the treatment of queers when I was growing up was. If you were a homo, you could get shipped off to a psychiatric facility, given the early version (ugh) of shock treatment, be beaten, killed, lose your job and your home… you name it. And there was nothing you could say about it, because those were the norms of the day. If you were really that different, that’s what you could reasonably expect.
I’m not saying it was right. I’m saying that’s how it was. And it was even worse in prior decades and centuries. When we lose sight of that miserable fact, we stop being able to have a rational conversation about Asperger, Autism, difference, and human nature in general.
So, no, the whole “Asperger was a Nazi collaborator” trope hasn’t ruined my day / week / month / year / life. I’ve always figured his record was far more besmirched than anyone guessed. Just the fact that he was able to keep practicing medicine after the Anschluss, and throughout the reign of the Nazis, always seemed clear evidence that he was compliant in ways that killed off people like me. We just didn’t have documented proof, till recently.
To which I say, “Meh. So what else is new?” People have been trying to destroy me, my entire life. They haven’t succeeded. Yet. They will keep trying. I don’t take it personally. I see them for what they are, and I act accordingly. I live my life — in places where I can live safely. I avoid people who wish me harm, and I try not to give them my money. I don’t take their sh*t, but I know my life force is worth more than hassling with people like that. I have things to do. I have another world to create. Asperger being ID’ed as a Nazi accomplice doesn’t make his work any less useful — for the good it’s actually done. It just makes our understanding of him — and the human species — a little more complete.