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Doctor Who Described Asperger's Syndrome Had Nazi Ties, New Study Says

A memorial to victims killed in a Nazi euthanasia program is seen at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna in 2003. (Ronald Zak/AP)
A memorial to victims killed in a Nazi euthanasia program is seen at the Am Spiegelgrund clinic in Vienna in 2003. (Ronald Zak/AP)

The Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger is known for his pioneering work describing the form of autism that now bears his name. But previously unexamined documents now show Asperger was also involved with a notorious euthanasia program run by Nazis in Austria.

Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt ( @Ericnpr) speaks with Herwig Czech, a medical historian at the Medical University of Vienna who discovered Asperger’s secret past.

Interview Highlights

On how Asperger may have collaborated with the Nazis

There were two children, two little girls, that he referred directly to a clinic in Vienna that was known — at least among insiders such as himself — as a euthanasia clinic. It was an institution that served as a killing center in the context of the so-called child euthanasia program

It was part of a secret network of such killing institutions that were spread all over Nazi Germany. In Vienna alone, over 700 children died in this institution, many of them poisoned by barbiturates until they would die, mostly of pneumonia.

The child euthanasia program was part of a larger effort to purge the German body politic of people that were considered unworthy to live, that were considered hopeless cases who could not be expected to contribute to the war effort, to the economy, to the society at large.

On whether Asperger knew that he was sending children to be euthanized

Officially, the child euthanasia program was a state secret. But at the same time, word spread. Many people who were family members, for example, but also the wider public found out what happened there. There were even public demonstrations at one point in Vienna. It was very much an open secret…It’s very hard to imagine that [Asperger] could have no idea what he was doing.

On whether the name of Asperger’s syndrome should be changed 

I’m sure that for many people this raises very serious question about this link, about his associations. But in no way I think people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome should be affected by this directly or in the view of society.

From a historical standpoint, I do not think the eponym “Asperger’s syndrome” should be purged from history because of these connections to National Socialists. There are other eponyms with similarly troubling origins in Nazi Germany. I think these should be used with caution. They should be used as an opportunity to learn about history, to reflect on history, but not to erase them from history.

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