Fact Check

Is Asperger's Syndrome Named After a Nazi Enabler?

Hans Asperger, an Austrian psychiatrist, first described what he called "autistic psychopathy" in 1941.

Published May 11, 2021

 ( Czech 2018)
Image Via Czech 2018
Asperger's syndrome was named after Hans Asperger, who aided the Nazis in the euthanasia of children deemed mentally incompetent.

While the full extent of Hans Asperger's collaboration with the Nazis remains contested, documented evidence exists that he referred children to the infamous Am Spiegelgrund clinic; it is unlikely that he was unaware of the fact this clinic practiced child euthanasia under the Nazi's "Aktion T4" program.

In 1981, English psychiatrist Lorna Wing proposed the term "Asperger's syndrome" as a syndrome in which individuals exhibited some symptoms of autism but did not fit that diagnosis as it was understood at the time. Wing chose that name as a reference to Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, whose case reports Wing used to define the syndrome.

In 1944, Asperger described a condition he termed "autistic psychopathy." Early childhood autism, as a condition, had been described a year earlier by psychiatrist Leo Kanner. Wing argued Asperger's research described individuals who should be included "together with early childhood autism, in a wider group of conditions which have, in common, impairment of development of social interaction, communication and imagination." Today, both conditions would fit under an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis.

Wing, as described in her 1981 paper, chose the name Asperger's syndrome as more precise and less problematic term than the "autistic psychopathy" terminology proposed by Asperger:

The many patterns of abnormal behaviour that cause diagnostic confusion include one originally described by the Austrian psychiatrist, Hans Asperger. The name he chose for this pattern was autistic psychopathy, using the latter word in the technical sense of an abnormality of personality. This has led to misunderstanding because of the popular tendency to equate psychopathy with sociopathic behaviour. For this reason, the neutral term Asperger's syndrome is to be preferred and will be used here.

Historians and medical researchers have, however, argued that naming something after Asperger is problematic in and of itself because of his actions during the Nazis' rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s. Though Asperger himself claimed to have resisted Nazi atrocities and held his academic post at the University of Vienna until 1977, the argument that he collaborated with them stems most centrally from the role Asperger played sending children to an infamous children's medical clinic known as Am Spiegelgrund.

From September 1939 to the end of World War II, the Nazis undertook a program of involuntary euthanasia targeting disabled children now known as "Aktion T4." As described by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

On August 18, 1939, the Reich Ministry of the Interior circulated a decree requiring all physicians, nurses, and midwives to report newborn infants and children under the age of three who showed signs of severe mental or physical disability.

Beginning in October 1939, public health authorities began to encourage parents of children with disabilities to admit their young children to one of a number of specially designated pediatric clinics throughout Germany and Austria. In reality, the clinics were children's killing wards. There, specially recruited medical staff murdered their young charges by lethal overdoses of medication or by starvation.

One of these clinics was Am Spiegelgrund, which was closely connected to a children's clinic that employed Asperger — the Vienna University Children’s Clinic — and which was run by a former colleague of his. In 1935 he took charge of the clinic's remedial education ward. In at least two documented instances, children assessed by Asperger at his clinic were sent to Am Spiegelgrund where they perished.

As described by medical historian Herwig Czech, in 1941 Asperger examined a girl at his clinic named Herta Schreiber who was two months shy of her 3rd birthday. In records he recommended that Schreiber be sent to Am Spiegelgrund:

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.

The girl was ultimately sent to Spiegelgrund. "A day after her third birthday," Czech wrote, "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."

The other documented case concerns a 5-year-old girl named Elisabeth Schreiber (apparently unrelated to Herta). In this case, he argued "Spiegelgrund would be the best possibility" for her, as revealed in his notes:

Erethic imbecility, probably on a post-encephalitic basis. Salivation, ‘encephalitic’ affects, negativism, considerable language deficit (is now slowly starting to speak), with relatively better comprehension. In the family, the child is without a doubt a hardly bearable burden, especially under their crowded living conditions, and due to her aggressions she endangers the small siblings. Therefore it is understandable that the mother pushes for institutionalization. Spiegelgrund would be the best possibility.

"She died of pneumonia—like Herta and so many other children at Spiegelgrund—on 30 September 1942," Czech wrote, "shortly before her sixth birthday."

Until recently, the prevailing view regarding Asperger was that he resisted the efforts of the Nazis — a view that stems largely from his own assertions. In a 1974 interview, Asperger claimed that:

I was never willing to accept this concept—in other words, to notify the [Public] Health Office of the mentally deficient—this was a truly dangerous situation for me. I must give great credit to my mentor [Franz] Hamburger, because although he was a convinced National Socialist, he saved me twice from the Gestapo with strong, personal commitment. He knew my attitude but he protected me with his whole being, and for that I have the greatest appreciation.

"It is impossible to determine whether Asperger in some cases abstained from reporting children who met the criteria for child euthanasia,'" Czech argued. "However, it is documented that he personally referred a number of children to the Spiegelgrund 'euthanasia' facility."

At the very least, as Ketil Slagstad wrote in the Norwegian journal Tidsskriftet, Asperger was "a well-adjusted piece in a deadly regime." While he never joined the Nazi party, he did belong to several Nazi adjacent organizations. He was as well, Czech wrote, able to thrive professionally under the Nazis, including — Asperger said — thanks to the protection of Franz Hamburger, an avowed Nazi and eugenicst. On several occasions, the Nazi regime deemed Asperger to be politically reliable. At a time when Jewish academics and academics deemed politically unreliable were being kicked out of university posts, Asperger was able to advance his own career.

In light of these facts and of the documentation that he recommended at least two children to Am Spiegelgrund, the claim that Asperger's syndrome is named after a man who aided the Nazis is "True."

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.