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New study investigates whether Hans Asperger actively assisted the Nazi euthanasia program

BioMed Central

Pediatrician Hans Asperger, after whom the condition of Asperger Syndrome was named, actively cooperated with the Nazi regime, according to a study published in the open access journal Molecular Autism.

Herwig Czech, a historian of medicine at the Medical University of Vienna and author of the study, analyzed Asperger's Nazi-era publications along with previously unexplored documents from Austrian archives, including the doctor's personnel files and case records from his patients. He concludes that the narrative of Asperger as an active opponent of the Nazi regime and its policies cannot be upheld in the light of the examined evidence; his role was much more problematic than that.

The study points to instances where Asperger referred profoundly disabled children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic, which participated in the Third Reich's child euthanasia program. The program served the Nazi goal of eugenically engineering a genetically 'pure' society through 'racial hygiene' and the elimination of lives deemed a 'burden' and 'not worthy of life'.

In the Am Spiegelgrund clinic, hundreds of children, many of them with severe mental disabilities, were killed, mostly through lethal drugs. Their deaths were mostly recorded as due to pneumonia.

Herwig Czech said: "These findings about Hans Asperger are the result of many years of careful research in the archives. What emerges is that Asperger successfully sought to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded with career opportunities in return. This is part of a broader effort by historians to expose what doctors were doing during the Third Reich."

The article is accompanied by an editorial by the two Editors-in-Chief of the journal, Simon Baron-Cohen (Cambridge University) and Joseph Buxbaum (Mount Sinai Medical School), and two of the reviewers, Steve Silberman (author of the book Neurotribes, and winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize) and Ami Klin (Emory University). In the editorial, the editors and reviewers explain their reasons for publishing the article.

Simon Baron-Cohen said: "We are aware that the article and its publication will be controversial. We believe that it deserves to be published in order to expose the truth about how a medical doctor who, for a long time, was seen as only having made valuable contributions to the field of pediatrics and child psychiatry, was guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in their abhorrent eugenics and euthanasia policies. This historical evidence must now be made available."

Joseph Buxbaum said: "We are persuaded by Herwig Czech's article that Asperger was not just doing his best to survive in intolerable conditions, but was complicit with his Nazi superiors in targeting society's most vulnerable people".

Ami Klin commented: "The degree of Asperger's involvement in the targeting of Vienna's most vulnerable children has remained a vexing question in autism research for a long time. Some will say that many of Asperger's colleagues were more vociferous supporters of Nazi racial ideology than he was. Some may also say he sacrificed some children to save others. We believe that the value of Czech's scholarship is that it establishes the necessary evidentiary framework for future discussion."

Steve Silberman said: "Herwig Czech has performed a valuable service to history by diving deep into the archives and making his findings available to fellow scholars. The case of Hans Asperger provides a troubling example of the horror that can be unleashed when medical professionals allow themselves to become complicit with a brutal ideology."

The editorial also discusses a new book by Edith Sheffer entitled "Asperger's Children: The origins of autism in Nazi Vienna" which covers similar evidence.

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Notes to editors:

1. Article:
Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and "race hygiene" in Nazi-era Vienna.
Czech, Molecular Autism (2018).
DOI: 10.1186/s13229-018-0208-6

The article is available here: https://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13229-018-0208-6

2. Editorial:
Did Hans Asperger actively assist the Nazi euthanasia program?
Baron-Cohen et al, Molecular Autism (2018).
DOI: 10.1186/s13229-018-0209-5

The editorial is available here: https://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13229-018-0209-5

3. Molecular Autism is a peer-reviewed, open access journal that publishes high-quality basic, translational and clinical research that has relevance to understanding the etiology, biology, and psychology of autism and related neurodevelopmental conditions, and to interventions that target symptoms that cause suffering. Research that includes integration across levels is encouraged. Molecular Autism publishes empirical studies, reviews, and brief communications.

4. A pioneer of open access publishing, BMC has an evolving portfolio of high quality peer-reviewed journals including broad interest titles such as BMC Biology and BMC Medicine, specialist journals such as Malaria Journal and Microbiome, and the BMC series. At BMC, research is always in progress. We are committed to continual innovation to better support the needs of our communities, ensuring the integrity of the research we publish, and championing the benefits of open research. BMC is part of Springer Nature, giving us greater opportunities to help authors connect and advance discoveries across the world.

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