Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program

Natasha sheldon - June 28, 2018

In 1938, Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician working at the University of Vienna Paediatric Clinic, became one of the first specialists to identify and label the symptoms of a specific form of autism amongst the children under his care. The children affected were often highly intelligent. However, they also found social interaction and communication difficult. Asperger labeled these children as “Autistic Psychopaths.” His findings became part of his doctoral thesis, and in 1944 he published them. Dr. Asperger’s contributions to the study of autism were finally recognized after his death in 1980 as ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ as it became increasingly known, began to receive widespread acceptance.

Asperger conducted much of his ground-breaking work under the shadow of the Nazis and their Eugenics program. Two years before ‘The Final Solution” was implemented, the Nazis murdered around 200,000 adults and children deemed ‘unworthy of life” because of their mental and physical disabilities. It was long believed that Asperger had put himself at risk, refusing to hand over his vulnerable patients to the Nazi authorities. However, new evidence gleaned from medical records, Nazi documents and Asperger’s personnel files suggests that Asperger was, in fact, complicit in the Eugenics program, sending disabled children from his clinic in Vienna to their deaths.

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program
Hans Asperger, bottom right amongst the staff of Vienna’s Children’s Clinic in the 1930s. Courtesy of Maria Asperger Felder. Google Images.


Hans Asperger and Asperger’s Syndrome

Johann “Hans” Asperger was born in Vienna on February 18, 1906. The eldest of three boys, Asperger was a lonely child who found it difficult to make friends and referred to himself in the third person. Social inadequacies aside, Asperger was a talented linguist and had a pedantic interest in the poetry of Franz Grillparzer. Interestingly, the young Asperger seems to have displayed many of the same characteristics on the autism spectrum that was eventually to bear his name. If he were a sufferer of Asperger’s himself, this would have given him a unique insight into the condition.

Asperger studied medicine at the University of Vienna under Dr. Franz Hamburger, graduating with his medical degree in 1931. That same year, he joined Vienna University’s Children’s Clinic. In 1932, he moved to the Therapeutic Pedagogy Ward as an ‘auxiliary’ physician. The ward had been founded in 1911 by Erwin Lazar to treat what was termed “mental imbalance” in children. Today, these children would be deemed to have behavior problems. In early twentieth century Vienna, they were problem children, referred to the clinic by the authorities. Most were treated as outpatients, but severe or interesting cases were admitted.

By 1935, Asperger was an assistant physician and in charge of the ward. At some point, he began to study the behavior of certain children who passed into his care. Four boys, in particular, were singled out as specific case studies however it is believed that over four hundred children were involved. All exhibited certain shared behaviors and abilities. Asperger’s child case studies found making friends hard, displayed little empathy, were often physically clumsy and yet able to become super absorbed with activities that interested them.

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program
Hans Asperger with a young patient. Google Images.

Asperger grouped these behaviors under the title “Autistic psychopathy” from the ancient Greek for self-autos and psychopathy meaning personality disease. However, he also recognized that his young patients were extremely talented. Asperger became convinced that with the right help his “Little Professors” could become highly productive adult members of society. Asperger presented his findings for the first time at a workshop in 1938. They also formed the basis of his doctoral thesis and finally in 1944 he published his results. Asperger went on to have a respected career in child psychology. However, it was not until his death on October 21, 1980, that his work in autism was recognized.

Towards the end of World War II, Asperger had opened a school for children with a Sister Viktorine Zak. However, the school was bombed and destroyed- and much of Asperger’s work with it. However, in 1981, the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome” finally became an accepted medical term. For a British psychiatrist, Lorna Wing had rediscovered Asperger’s thesis and spread the word about his work. Asperger went from being ignored in the English speaking world to being regarded as a pioneering hero. Stories began to spread of how he helped and protected his young patients during the Nazi era at significant personal risk.

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program
Hans Asperger from his personnel file, c. 1940. Google Images

Hans Asperger: Nazi opponent?

The emergence of Hans Asperger from the shadows naturally led to some scrutiny of Asperger himself, especially as his career had blossomed during the Nazi period. Many of Asperger’s child patients fell into the category of “unworthy of life‘ because of the more antisocial and ungovernable aspects of their personalities. In Nazi society, anyone who was dependent and required care to the extent that they could not function as a ‘fully productive’ member of society fell into this category. Doctors became the eyes and ears of the Reich, rooting out those deemed physically, mentally and genetically unfit. Hans Asperger was perceived to have resisted this.

Asperger never joined the Nazi party unlike many of his contemporaries at the hospital. Indeed, references in his surviving papers suggest he was actively opposed to Nazi ideology. A narrative began to develop where Asperger was the savior of the children in his care. However, some of the evidence used was ambiguous at best. Adam Feinstein’s history of autism, written in 2010, refers to references in Asperger’s surviving papers where he seems to have expressed sympathy for some Nazi ideology. This sympathy was feigned, according to Feinstein, to draw away Nazi suspicion.

The testimony of Asperger himself forms a large part of this sympathetic narrative. During his inauguration to the Vienna chair of pediatrics in 1962, Asperger told how the Gestapo tried to arrest him twice, because of his refusal to hand over child patients with what the Nazi’s termed ‘deficiencies.’ He was only saved, he claimed, by the intervention of his mentor, Dr. Hamburger, “a convinced National Socialist.” This possibility of arrest was the reason why he distanced himself from the children’s hospital and signed up a military doctor in 1943.

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program
Hans Asperger as an elderly man. google Images

In other interviews, Asperger made sure he established a firm ideological distance between himself and the Nazis- particularly on the question of eugenics. During a 1974 radio interview, Asperger condemned the program as “totally inhuman’. He explained when reporting on his patients, he went to great lengths to emphasize their potential rather than their deficiencies in an attempt to shield them from death.

However, this view of Asperger’s benevolence began to be questioned. The fact that Asperger’s career began to blossom at the expense of his Jewish colleagues with the rise of Nazism was noted. This may have been merely an unfortunate coincidence; a ‘sign of the times.’ However, the Nazi links to Asperger, worrying references to his beliefs in newly discovered papers, and Asperger’s close links with the euthanasia clinic, Am Spiegelgrund, began to build a picture of a less than caring doctor.

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program
Erwin Jekelius, head of the Spiegelgrund Clinic. google Images

Hans Asperger and Eugenics

Asperger’s personnel files, political assessments by Nazi authorities, and medical case records, once thought destroyed, have recently been rediscovered in Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna. Herwig Czech, a medical historian, examined these documents. He has found that they tell a very different version of Asperger’s story. They show that Asperger needed no protection from the Gestapo- because he was never in danger from them. Party officials in Vienna had “no objection whatsoever” to Asperger and reports by the Vienna Gestapo made in August 1940, state that they had nothing on him. More damningly, however, was the fact that these same papers implicate Asperger in sharing aspects of the Nazi philosophy of eugenics and being involved in the program.

As Nazism rooted itself deeper into Austrian society, the language Asperger used to describe his young patients began to change. In 1938, he described autistic children somewhat vaguely as “well characterized.” However, just three years later, he described these same children as “abnormal.” By 1944, Asperger had gone further still, referring to his patients as being outside “the greater organism” of the Nazi state. Perhaps Asperger was creating a smokescreen to protect himself from scrutiny as Adam Feinstein claims. However, such descriptions would hardly have safeguarded his patients.

Indeed, there is evidence that Asperger knowingly referred children in his care to the notorious Spiegelgrund clinic, which was headed by his old colleague and another of Dr. Hamburger’s protégées, Erwin Jekelius. Under Jekelius ‘s regime, between 1940 and 1945, nearly 800 children were sent to Spiegelgrund where they were experimented upon and murdered by barbiturate-induced pneumonia. Knowing Jekelius as well as he did, it is unlikely Asperger was unaware of what occurred in this clinic.

Startling Revelation Suggests Respected Doctor Hans Asperger Aided the Nazi Eugenics Program
Herta Schreiber, who Asperger referred to the Spiegelgrund Clinic. Google Images

Based on this information, it seems that Asperger’s hands were far from clean in the matter of the eugenics program. However, he was ‘selective’ about who he sent to Spiegelgrund. Asperger’s decision was motivated by his belief that if there was a chance a child could improve and be of ‘use’ within society, every effort should be made on that child’s behalf. Consequently, Asperger seems to have sent those children he believed were beyond hope of recovery to Spiegelgrund. One of those heartbreaking victims was two-year-old Herta Schreiber. Herta had contracted encephalitis, which had left her with mental and physical problems. Asperger referred the little girl to Spiegelfrund. Three months later, she was dead.

Perhaps Asperger saw the murder of children, like Herta, as a necessary evil; a sacrifice that would save at least some of the children under his care – and of course himself. However, the fact remains that Hans Asperger tried to sanitize his past by obscuring events- and lying. His name, once lauded, is now stained. However, Herwig Czech does not believe that should obliterate the good he did towards a greater understanding of autism: “I think we also have to part ways with the idea that an eponym is an unmitigated honor of the person,” he explained, in a response to debates over the removing of Asperger’s name from this syndrome, “It is simply a historical acknowledgement that can be, in some cases, troubling or problematic.”

NOTE: Recognized since 1944 as a form of high-functioning autism, Asperger’s Syndrome disappeared from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013. While it was previously considered a stand-alone diagnosis (separate from autism itself or another kind of autism previously known as “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified,” or PDD-NOS) Asperger’s Syndrome now falls under the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in which patients could be grouped along a continuum from mild to severe.


Where Do We Get our stuff? Here are our sources:

New evidence ties Hans Asperger to Nazi eugenics program, Hannah Furfaro, Spectrum, April 19, 2018.

Hans Asperger ‘Actively Assisted’ Nazi Eugenics Policies, Study Claims, Brigit Katz,, April 19. 2018.

Did Hans Asperger actively assist the Nazi euthanasia program? Simon Baron-Cohen, Molecular Autism, April 19, 2018

Asperger Syndrome, The National Autistic Society

History of Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger Syndrome-ME.UK

Did Hans Asperger (1906-1980) have Asperger Syndrome? Viktoria Lyons and Michael Fitzgerald, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, November 2007, Volume 37, Issue 10, pp 2020-2021

Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, Herwig Czech, Molecular Autism, April 19, 2018