Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna

Asperger’s career before 1938

In 1911, Erwin Lazar (1877–1932) established the

(Therapeutic Pedagogy Ward) at the Vienna University Children’s
Clinic (part of the city’s general hospital), which had achieved
international renown under its director Clemens von Pirquet
(1874–1929) ([27]:320, [28]:161).Footnote 9 Lazar regarded Heilpädagogik as a direct descendant
of psychiatry, although the classic psychiatric illnesses such
as psychoses were rarely diagnosed in the children he treated.
Instead, he diagnosed the vast majority of his patients with
“psychopathy” or mental “imbalance.” Most of the ward’s
patients—in 1925, he mentioned a figure of 5000 annually—were
diagnosed at the outpatient clinic. Only a relatively small
number—complicated cases or cases of special clinical
interest—was admitted over longer periods. Many children were
referred by welfare institutions, the police, or the courts.
Under Lazar, Heilpädagogik took inspiration from a variety of
concepts, including Cesare Lombroso’s criminal biology, Ernst
Kretschmer’s constitutional types, and Sigmund Freud’s
psychoanalysis [28].

Asperger joined the children’s clinic in May 1931
under Pirquet’s successor Franz Hamburger (1874–1954). In 1932,
he started working at the clinic’s Heilpädagogik ward as an
“auxiliary physician” (). In May 1935, he took charge of the
ward and reached the position of an assistant.Footnote 10 Asperger had not obtained his specialist doctor
qualification in pediatrics and had published only a single work
in Heilpädagogik (on bed-wetting) [29].Footnote 11 This raises the question why Asperger’s colleague
Georg Frankl was not promoted to the position—Frankl was 9 years
older and had been working at the ward since 1927.Footnote 12 Two years after Asperger’s promotion, Frankl
emigrated to the USA, where he joined Leo Kanner at Johns
Hopkins ([21]:122).Footnote 13 Another highly qualified Jewish employee, the
psychologist Anni Weiss (1897–1991), who later married Frankl,
had already left Austria in 1935 ([21]: 122).Footnote 14

Austrian universities were sites of virulent
anti-Jewish agitation at the time (see [30]), which almost certainly
was a factor in their decision to leave. Jewish doctors faced
increasing difficulties in securing university positions, with
some clinics and departments practically closed to Jews
([31]: 312).
With Hamburger’s appointment as chair in 1930, the children’s
clinic became a flagship of anti-Jewish policies long before the
Nazi takeover ([4]:69, 112). Regarding Anni Weiss and Valerie Bruck (1894–1961),
Asperger’s immediate predecessor as head of the Heilpädagogik
ward, hostility towards working women also played a role: The
Austrofascist regime (1933–1938) sought to push women out of the
labor market, a stance shared by Nazi ideologues such as
Hamburger ([16]:181).Footnote 15

After Pirquet’s sudden death in 1929, Hamburger
introduced sweeping changes at the clinic. Pirquet’s former
collaborators, many of them Jewish, were replaced. The political
orientation of Hamburger’s assistants is illustrated by the fact
that of those who attained the highest academic qualification
(), all butone were dismissed in 1945 as Nazis—the exception being Hans
Asperger ([27]:320).Footnote 16 Among Hamburger’s recruits was Erwin Jekelius, who
later became responsible for the deaths of thousands of
psychiatric patients and mentally disabled children. He remained
at the clinic from August 1933 to February 1936, spending part
of this time at the Heilpädagogik ward.Footnote 17 Another result of Hamburger’s influence was a sharp
decline in scientific standards and output ([4]: 87–94, 104,

Hamburger and Jekelius were not the only fervent
Nazis with whom Asperger had close professional contact during
his early career. In 1932, he co-authored a paper with Erwin
Risak (1899–1968), who had been his colleague at the
university’s III. Medical Clinic for a few weeks in 1931
[32].Footnote 18 Under Franz Chvostek junior (1864–1944), this clinic
became known as a hotbed of Pan-German nationalist and Nazi
agitation. Risak became an assistant to Hans Eppinger junior
(1879–1946), director of the I. Medical Clinic, who was later
involved in the Dachau seawater experiments.Footnote 19 Following the Anschluss, Risak became one of the
figureheads of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in the Vienna Medical
Faculty, along with figures such as Hamburger, the anatomist
Eduard Pernkopf (1888–1955), and others ([4]: 129).

Whatever the specific motivations for Hamburger’s
decision to appoint Asperger as the head of the Heilpädagogik
ward in 1935, Asperger’s promotion was aided by the anti-Jewish
and misogynist tendencies then dominating Austria’s social and
political life. Although Asperger did not join the Nazis, due to
his Pan-Germanic,orientation, he shared considerable ideological common ground
with Hamburger and his network, allowing him to blend in without
apparent frictions. When anti-Jewish persecution became state
policy after the Anschluss, 65% of Viennese physicians were
classed as Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws, including 77
pediatricians (70% of the specialists in this field). Tellingly,
in 1938, not one Jewish pediatrician who had attained a
was working in Hamburger’s clinic ([4]: 71–3, 112).Footnote 20

Asperger had the unreserved support of Franz
Hamburger, even if he did not belong to his mentor’s circle of
underground Nazi activists. At a young age, and in an
environment marked by political strife and a difficult labor
market, he rose to Austria’s most prominent position in the
expanding field of Heilpädagogik, which would soon be forced to
find its place within the new order of the Nazi state.

Asperger’s political background before 1938

In order to understand how Asperger positioned
himself vis-à-vis the Nazi regime after March 1938, it is first
necessary to examine his political orientation during his
formative years, when there was still a spectrum of political
options to choose from. This will help explain why Asperger in
1938 found enough common ground with National Socialism to
establish himself as a credible fellow traveler in the eyes of
the party, without directly embracing National Socialism.

In Asperger’s own words, his formative experience
within the polarized political landscape of interwar Austria was
membership in the so-called , a Catholic youth organization focused on
outdoor activities, with roots in the predominantly -nationalist and the German Youth
Movement ([4]:192–3). In 1914, 92% of the Wandervogel chapters (in Germany and
Austria) had no Jewish members, due mostly to formal anti-Jewish
regulations ([33]:92–4).

Founded in 1921, the Austria-based Bund was a
split-off from the Christian-German Student Union (CDSB) but
stressed its affinities with the German Youth Movement as
represented by the “Meißner formula,” which Asperger cited in
1974 as a guiding principle in his life [3].Footnote 21 After World War I, the CDSB had become rife with
aggressive anti-Jewish propaganda, including calls to boycott
Jewish businesses ([33]: 175–81), tendencies which the Bund

The Bund’s intellectual influence was greater than
its approximately 2000 strong membership would suggest
([34]:92).Footnote 22 It defined itself as Christian, Catholic, and
Pan-German, and in sharp opposition to everything perceived as
Marxist-leftist, liberal, or modern, which included
parliamentary democracy.Footnote 23 There was a degree of political diversity, and the
Bund is sometimes classed as a “socially progressive” Catholic
organization because some members supported social reforms in
order to bring workers into the fold of the Church
([35]: 46).
Nevertheless, in its fundamental principles, the Bund stood
close to the fascist and authoritarian currents of the time
([36]: 835). A draft program from 1931 confirmed its opposition to the
democratic state “in its current form” and stated that “the
equivalence between and
state leads necessarily to the ideal of the Greater German
Reich” (cited in [34]: 99).

During the 1930s, important sections of the Bund
were infiltrated by Hitler Youth groups and members of other
Nazi organizations ([34]: 95, 193, [37]). In 1935/1936, press reports estimated
that 20% of Neuland members were (illegal) Nazis ([38]: 70–1). The
authoritative account of its history states that the
“predominant majority in the Bund was oriented towards
Pan-Germanism, supported Austria’s unification with Germany, and
was at best indifferent vis-à-vis National Socialism,” despite
the fact that the official policy was to identify and exclude
Hitler Youth cells within the organization ([36]: 586–7). The most
striking example for the Bund’s infiltration is its leader Anton
Böhm (1904–1998), who joined the NSDAP in 1933 and remained an
“illegal” party member until the Anschluss in 1938, even serving
as an informant to the Austrian Nazis’ intelligence services and
the Gestapo in Munich ([34]: 103, 189–95).Footnote 24 Arguably, the Bund constituted one of Nazism’s most
important intellectual bridgeheads in the powerful Austrian
Catholic milieu during the crucial years leading up to the
Anschluss ([34]:100–1).

In 1933, Böhm published a programmatic comment on
the political situation following the Nazi takeover in Germany,
referring also to the persecution of the Jewish population:
“There can be no doubt that the strong Jewish influence in
Germany has had baleful consequences. Therefore, the anti-Jewish
measures in Germany are justified as acts of national
self-defense” ([39]: 106–7).

Over the following years, the Bund published a
number of articles supporting the anti-Jewish persecutions in
Nazi Germany [40].Footnote 25 The Bund’s official mouthpiece also denounced the
Viennese “Jewish press” as a corrosive influence in Austrian
public life, attacked Jews as an alien element within the
Catholic-German Austrian population, and warned against the
dangers of “racial” and religious intermarriage ([41,42,43]: 20–1, [44]: 215).

While the Bund’s periodical welcomed the German
Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies, its stance towards National
Socialism as a whole was more complex. Although the Bund shared
the Nazis’ contempt for parliamentary democracy and all forms of
cultural and intellectual modernism, as well as their
glorification of the German as the basis for cultural regeneration,
they nevertheless regarded the NSDAP with the same suspicion as
they did all other political parties. Catholicism remained the
central point of reference, and the NSDAP was mainly judged
according to its policies towards the Church. In 1933, Böhm
signaled that the organization would support the Nazis’
“national revolution” in Germany provided that Hitler would
choose to strengthen the anti-capitalist tendencies of his
movement and, more importantly, grant the Catholic Church and
Christianity generally its due place in the German Reich
[45]. In the
following issue, Böhm openly called for the integration of the
Nazis into the Austrian government ([39]: 110).

Within the organization, which was far from
ideologically homogenous, Asperger belonged to a group called
(Wandering Scholars), part of the Bund’s decidedly and right-wing faction. He
was associated with the inner circle of “organic romanticists”
around Michael Pfliegler (1891–1972), a Catholic priest and
founding member of the Bund, and its leader Anton Böhm
([33]: 207–8,342; [34]:63–5).Footnote 26

After the Anschluss, at least some of the Bund’s
former members joined anti-Nazi networks, notably in Innsbruck
and Lower Austria ([35]: 46). Resistance activities, which
included an assembly of 300 youths in Vienna on the night of the
German invasion, were primarily the work of the younger
generation. By contrast, the older generation to which Asperger
belonged tended to seek immediate accommodation with Nazism
([36]: 586–8,
839). This is evident in Asperger’s path after 1938, as he
joined a number of Nazi organizations (although not the NSDAP)
and sought to accommodate himself with the new regime.

Bund Neuland was the most important but not the
only political influence in Asperger’s life. The physicians
within the Bund delegated him to the St. Lukas guild, which
promoted medical ethics along Catholic principles. Regarding
eugenics, its position was ambivalent; it opposed some tenets of
Nazi race hygiene such as forced sterilizations while developing
its own eugenic program within the bounds of Catholicism
106–16).Footnote 27

According to a questionnaire dated 1940, Asperger
was also a member of the (Association of
German Doctors in Austria, Fig. 3).Footnote 28 “German” in this context refers to a Pan-German
orientation, excluding Jewish doctors. The emerged from
a 1904 federation between the anti-Jewish and various
Pan-German medical associations in Austria ([4]: 78). In the 1920s and
again after the Nazi takeover in Germany, the organization
called to limit the number of Jewish students ([47]: 90). A considerable
portion of leading (non-Jewish) Viennese doctors, including the
former head of the pediatric clinic Clemens Pirquet, belonged to
the association—an indication of how widespread anti-Jewish
sentiment was in Viennese medical circles ([4]: 78).

Fig. 3

In this questionnaire from October 1940,
Asperger reported several memberships in
organizations affiliated with the Nazi Party. He
refrained, however, from joining the NSDAP itself
(WStLA,, Personalakt)


Full size image


In the same questionnaire, Asperger mentioned
another membership indicating his affinity to the Pan-German
nationalist wing, despite his Catholic orientation. In 1932, he
joined the (German School Association for the
Southern Border Region), which sought to strengthen German
cultural influence abroad with the help of German-speaking
minorities. Many of the ’s members were close to the Austrian

(Greater German People’s Party), which in 1933 formed an
alliance with the Austrian Nazi Party.Footnote 29

Despite these associations, there is no indication
that Asperger actively sympathized with the Nazi movement prior
to 1938, unlike many of his colleagues. Rather, the evidence
points to an ambivalent attitude. Potential obstacles to his
supporting National Socialism were his religious convictions,
his humanist background, and his elitist, cultivated habitus.
Furthermore, following the ban of the Austrian Nazi Party in
1933, the movement remained attractive only to a core of
ideologically hardened supporters, whereas for mere sympathizers
or opportunists, the risks of adherence far outweighed potential
advantages. Nevertheless, Asperger’s record of organizational
affiliations over the years prior to 1938 suggests that there
was more common ideological ground than has previously been
acknowledged. Asperger’s political socialization in Neuland
likely blinded him to National Socialism’s destructive character
due to an affinity with core ideological elements (see
848–9).Footnote 30 In 1974, Asperger himself put it this way: “[Then]
the National Socialist time arrived, whereupon it was clear from
my previous life that one could well go along with many let’s
say quote unquote ‘national’ things, but not with the inhuman
[ones]” [3].Footnote 31

In post-World War II Austria, “national” as a
political label invariably referred to Pan-Germanism and is to
this day used by right-wing groups as a euphemism to avoid overt
association with (neo-) Nazism. In other words, Asperger in 1974
distanced himself from the (inhumanities) of National
Socialism, but not from its Pan-German program, which in 1938
had led to the annexation of Austria and later to World War II.
Asperger’s ambivalent attitude towards National Socialism was
already palpable in a diary entry from April 1934 (when he spent
some time in Nazi Germany), which evinced both skeptical
distance and a certain fascination: “How a whole people marches
in one direction, fanatical, with narrowed vision, certainly,
but with enthusiasm and dedication, with enormous discipline and
formidable vigor. Only soldiers, soldierly thinking—ethos—German
paganism.”Footnote 32

Political trajectory after the Anschluss in 1938

The established narrative concerning Asperger’s
relationship to National Socialism after 1938 is that Asperger
actively opposed the regime, or at least kept his distance,
under considerable professional and personal risk. In 1993,
Lorna Wing argued that as a devout Catholic, he could not have
been a Nazi ([24]:
330). This argument is misleading, however, given the overlap
discussed above between Catholicism and the extreme right represented
by organizations such as the Bund Neuland.

The strongest claim to the effect that Asperger was
an active opponent of the Nazis and that he risked his life
defending the children in his care is based on an episode
reported in Adam Feinstein’s book on the pioneers of autism
research. Allegedly, the Gestapo twice came to the clinic to
arrest Asperger, either because of his 1938 talk [1] or because he had refused
to “hand [patients] over to officials” ([20]: 17–8). The only known
source for this claim is Asperger himself, who mentioned the
incident in 1962 at his inauguration as the Vienna chair of
pediatrics [48] and
in the above-cited 1974 interview:

It is totally inhuman—as we saw with
dreadful consequences—when people accept the concept of
a worthless life. […] As 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 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 [3].Footnote 33

This is the only recorded instance I could find in
which Asperger publicly mentioned Nazi “euthanasia”—despite the
fact that this was such an incisive event for his field and its
patients.Footnote 34 According to this account, the Gestapo was after
Asperger because he refused to report patients with certain
deficiencies to Vienna’s Public Health Office. It is true that
doctors were increasingly obliged to report patients to the
authorities in defiance of patient/physician confidentiality.
Regarding race hygiene policies, the two most important
instances were the compulsory reporting of patients as mandated
by the sterilization law and of children with mental
deficiencies who were slated for “euthanasia.”Footnote 35 Based on the available evidence, it is impossible to
determine whether Asperger in some cases abstained from
reporting children who met the criteria for child “euthanasia.”
However, it is documented that he personally referred a number
of children to the Spiegelgrund “euthanasia” facility
(“Limits of ‘educability’:
Asperger and the Spiegelgrund ‘euthanasia’
facility” and “Asperger’s diagnoses compared to those at
Spiegelgrund” sections).

Other facts speak against Asperger’s self-portrayal
as a man persecuted by the Gestapo for his resistance to Nazi
race hygiene, who had to flee into military service to avoid
further problems. On several occasions, he published approving
comments on race hygiene measures such as forced sterilizations
(see [49]: 353; for
further examples, see the “‘The best
service to our ’:
Asperger and Nazi race hygiene” section), and
as is discussed further below, the Nazi hierarchy saw him as
someone willing to go along with race hygiene policies. In July
1940, the deputy Gauleiter of Vienna wrote to Asperger’s
superior and protector Franz Hamburger that the party had “no
objections whatsoever” against his assistant.Footnote 36 The Vienna Gestapo, when asked for a political
assessment of Asperger, answered in November 1940 that they had
nothing on him.Footnote 37 This contradicts claims that Asperger’s early
publications after the Anschluss, including those most
frequently cited as proof for his public opposition to Nazi
policies, were perceived by the regime as expressions of
political opposition.

Initially, before Asperger had a chance to prove
his willingness to adjust to the new political order, the NSDAP
was unsure about his loyalty. Immediately following the
Anschluss, a preliminary investigation was initiated to decide
whether the “Decree for the Reorganization of the Austrian
Professional Civil Service” of 31 May 1938, which stipulated the
dismissal of Jewish and politically undesirable officials
([50]: 235),
applied to Asperger. In June 1939, the official charged with
implementing the decree, Otto Wächter (1901–1949), decided to
close the file because Asperger was ‘politically acceptable’
from the National Socialist standpoint.Footnote 38 According to the Vienna NSDAP Personnel Office,
Asperger was “unobjectionable with respect to his character and
politics.” His Catholic orientation was considered a minus, but
this was mitigated by the fact that he had not been actively
involved with the Christian Social Party or the Austrofascist
regime. Crucially, the assessment concluded that Asperger “was
in conformity with the National Socialist racial and
sterilization laws” (Fig. 4).Footnote 39

Fig. 4

Despite Asperger’s Catholic orientation,
the Nazi Party authorities considered Asperger to
be “politically irreproachable” and as someone who
“was in conformity with the National Socialist
racial and sterilization laws” (WStLA,, Personalakt)


Full size image


This investigation in all likelihood constituted
the basis for Asperger’s claim, made 24 years later, that he had
faced persecution by the Gestapo. Hamburger was certainly in a
position to decisively influence the outcome of such a
procedure, by vouching for his protégé’s willingness to
cooperate with the regime—a less dramatic but much more
plausible version than the alleged arrest, for which no
documentary evidence exists. This explanation also correlates
with Asperger’s 1974 account that Hamburger saved him “from the
Gestapo” rather than “from being arrested by the Gestapo,” as he
put it in 1962. If the latter story were true, it would be
difficult to explain why Asperger (to the best of my knowledge)
did not publicly mention it until 17 years after the war,
although it would have benefitted both him and
Hamburger.Footnote 40 In all, this investigation is the only documented
instance of political trouble for Asperger; the sources
otherwise reflect a spotless record of political accommodation
with National Socialism.

In this context, a crucial question concerns
Asperger’s role in a truly heroic episode involving the
pediatrician Josef Feldner (1887–1973), who over many years
volunteered on the Heilpädagogik ward. In September 1942, he
took in Hansi Busztin (1925–1996), a Jewish patient of his, and
hid him until the end of the war. Unusually, Busztin lived a
relatively open life, with regular visits to the public library
and the opera; he estimated that around 100 people knew about
him, many of whom provided support [51]. In a memoir written in
the 1980s, Busztin referred to “a group of opponents of National
Socialism” on the Heilpädagogik ward, “nearly all of whom knew”
about him and “helped his later adoptive father in various
situations.”Footnote 41 Did Asperger belong to this circle of supporters?
Busztin does not mention Asperger—and, interestingly, Asperger
did not mention the episode even in instances where he was
trying to establish his anti-Nazi credentials [348] or in his 1975 obituary
for Feldner [52].
Remarks published by Asperger in 1962 on the occasion of
Feldner’s 75th birthday suggest, however, that he at least knew
about Feldner’s activities, but did not play an active role in

It is clear that such a spirit had to be
diametrically opposed to National Socialism. He acted
accordingly. What he said and did during those years
often made his friends’ hair stand on end. There are
episodes—confrontations with the Gestapo, the hiding
over years of a Jewish student whose family had been
exterminated—which could have been taken from an
adventure novel [53].

This episode could help explain why Asperger
joined the military in March 1943.Footnote 42 In the 1974 interview already mentioned, he claimed
to have volunteered to escape reprisals from the Gestapo because
he had refused to cooperate with Nazi race hygiene policies
[3]. While this
is contradicted by the favorable assessments he continued to
receive from Nazi officials (for example during the vetting for
his Habilitation), the cited evidence and the timeline of events
suggest a direct connection—namely, that he wanted to get away
from the Vienna clinic in case Busztin were discovered.

One of the main arguments for Asperger’s
ostensible distance to National Socialism is the fact that he
never joined the NSDAP.Footnote 43 Given the high proportion of party members among
non-Jewish physicians, this is certainly significant. This does
not mean, however, that Asperger kept a principled distance from
the NSDAP apparatus. In fact, he sought membership in several
organizations affiliated with the NSDAP. According to a 1940
questionnaire, Asperger joined the (German Labor Front, DAF)
in April 1938, the (National
Socialist People’s Welfare Organization, NSV) in May 1938, and
(as a candidate; see below) the
(National Socialist German Physicians’ League, NSDÄB) in June
1938. He also mentioned that he had committed himself to working
for the Hitler Youth.Footnote 44

The DAF and the NSV were mass organizations often
used to demonstrate loyalty to the regime while avoiding the
ideological commitment of NSDAP or SS membership. The NSDÄB was
a different matter, however. It saw itself as the ideological
spearhead of the Nazi Party within the medical profession, as an
advisor to the NSDAP “in all questions regarding public health
and race biology” and as a recruitment pool for medical
positions in the party apparatus. While full membership was
restricted to NSDAP members, other health professionals who
supported the goals of the NSDÄB could obtain the status of
candidates, as did Asperger [54].Footnote 45

These memberships should be seen against the
backdrop of the heavy Nazi influence at the clinic (see
[4]: 120–1).
Most likely, Asperger took these decisions in order to protect
and further his career. By foregoing NSDAP membership, he chose
a middle path between keeping his distance to the regime and
outright alignment.

It is important to note that Asperger had all the
political protection he needed through his mentor Franz
Hamburger. Given the hierarchical structure of Austrian
universities and the strong position of clinic chiefs, Hamburger
was in a position to make or break Asperger’s career even under
less complicated political circumstances. The political capital
Asperger enjoyed thanks to Hamburger’s unwavering patronage was
much stronger than anything he could have achieved on his own.
Hamburger was one of the NSDAP’s figureheads within the Vienna
medical school and had considerable clout within the Nazi
medical establishment both in Vienna and—thanks to his position
as president of the German Association of Pediatrics—in Germany
generally ([4]: 129,
134). After the Anschluss, when the ban on the NSDAP was lifted,
Hamburger could openly declare his allegiance to Adolf Hitler
([4]: 126). In a
programmatic speech in 1939 (“National Socialism and Medicine,”)
he revealed how central Nazi ideology was to his approach to
medicine: “A teacher of obstetrics, a teacher of pediatrics,
internal medicine, or neurology has to be a true National
Socialist. He has to be completely permeated with the
foundations of National Socialist life and health leadership”
([55]: 142).
Asperger, without being a convinced National Socialist, clearly
managed in Hamburger’s view to conform somehow to this highly
ideological model of a physician.

As mentioned above, NSDAP functionaries on several
occasions wrote confidential assessments of Asperger’s political
orientation. Although they are the best sources available
regarding Asperger’s attitude towards National Socialism and his
standing in the eyes of the regime, these documents have not
previously been examined. In all, they demonstrate how after an
initial phase of distrust the party authorities came to see
Asperger in an increasingly positive light. On 4 January 1939,
for example, Asperger’s (Local Party Group Leader) put
the following on record: “no merits for the [Nazi] movement,”
“attitude towards the NSDAP before the Anschluss indifferent,”
“does not participate in public political life,” and “political
orientation of the family Christian-Social”. It was noted
positively that he had not taken any stance against the Nazi
takeover in Austria. The (District Party Leader) added to the
same document: “his readiness to engage is only partially
existent, because as a former Christian-Social he is quite
indifferent.”Footnote 46

Less than 2 years later, Asperger’s political
evaluations had changed in tone, even if his past affiliation
with the Christian-Social camp was still held against him. One
of several similar documents from his NSDAP personnel file reads
as follows:

In response to your enquiry from 25
October 1940 I declare that Dr. Asperger is a faithful
Catholic, but without supporting the political
tendencies of Catholicism. Although he was a member of
the Catholic association ‘Neuland’, he had no common
interests with the politicians of the [former Austrian]
system. Regarding questions of the racial and
sterilization laws he conforms to National Socialist
ideas. With respect to his character and in political
terms he is considered unobjectionable.Footnote 47

Another high-ranking Nazi official’s evaluation
from roughly the same time is similar in tone:

Dr. Asperger hails from Catholic circles
and his orientation during the period of the [previous
Austrian] system was strictly Catholic. He was a member
of the Catholic organization ‘Neuland’ and of the
physicians’ association ‘Lukas Guild’. He has never
taken active steps of any kind against National
Socialists, although it would have been easy for him to
procure incriminating evidence at the Pediatric Clinic,
which was staffed exclusively with Nazi physicians. In
terms of his character, Dr. A. receives favorable
descriptions.Footnote 48

Due to his political past, the party hierarchy
treated Asperger with a certain reservation. This changed over
time, however, as he was increasingly regarded as politically
reliable, and no obstacles to his career resulted. This
development culminated in Asperger obtaining his Habilitation in
1943, the academic qualification necessary to become a lecturer
(and, eventually, a professor). According to the Nazi doctrine,
medicine should be based both on science and the ideology of
National Socialism. Therefore, Asperger had to both submit a
postdoctoral thesis (his work on “autistic psychopaths”) and
pass political vetting by the
(National Socialist German Lecturers League)—which raised no
objections (Fig. 5).Footnote 49 Additionally, since he had not obtained the title of
specialist) in pediatrics, the NSDAP (Physicians’ Leader) of Vienna,
Otto Planner-Plann (1893–1975), had to certify that he had the
necessary qualifications. This is another indicator that
Asperger enjoyed the trust of the highest ranks of the Nazi
medical establishment in Vienna.Footnote 50

Fig. 5

In April 1943, the Vienna chapter of the
NSDAP’s (National Socialist German
Lecturers’ League) approved Asperger’s application
to receive his postdoctoral Habilitation. (UAW,
MED PA 17, Asperger)


Full size image


After the Anschluss, Asperger tried to prove his
loyalty to the new regime in various ways. In public lectures
(which were later published), he argued in favor of his
discipline’s mission within the Nazi state and declared his
allegiance to the tenets of Nazi medicine (see the “‘The best service to our ’: Asperger and Nazi race
hygiene” section). Indeed, Asperger went so
far in these attempts that his collaborator, Josef Feldner, had
to reign him in lest he risk his credibility: “Your lecture: the
introduction is good as it is (maybe just a little bit too Nazi
for your reputation). E.g., I would drop the thanks to the
Führer. … I write what I have in mind, forcing myself to blow
Hitler’s horn a little. Maybe you can make something of
it.”Footnote 51 Asperger’s case files also demonstrate how he tried
to prove his loyalty. Beginning in 1938, he took to signing his
diagnostic reports with “Heil Hitler”—a merely symbolic, but
revealing gesture.Footnote 52

Asperger’s Jewish patients

The question of Jewish patients on Asperger’s ward
has not been raised in the literature so far, despite the fact
that their fate is relevant for a number of reasons. How they
were diagnosed and what decisions about their future were taken
at the clinic had an important impact on their chances of
survival. The files on the Jewish children also provide insights
regarding Asperger’s actions under National Socialism and on his
general attitude towards Jews.

Jewish children were proportionately
under-represented among the ward’s patients even before they
were successively excluded from public medical institutions
after 1938. Perhaps the strong Nazi influence that pervaded the
clinic after Hamburger’s takeover in 1930 deterred Jewish
parents from seeking the clinic’s services—although the case
records of Jewish children from the decade before the Anschluss
(16 in total), except for isolated instances of stereotyping,
show no evidence of anti-Jewish bias.Footnote 53

At the time of the Nazi takeover in Austria, two
13-year-old Jewish boys, Alfred S. and Walter Brucker, were
patients at the ward. Alfred’s file contains no evidence that he
was treated in any way differently from the other children.
Admitted because of a scuffle at school, Asperger diagnosed the
boy as an “autistic psychopath” on 22 March 1938. He found
Alfred’s intellectual capabilities “above average in some
respects” and recommended placing him with Jewish foster parents
rather than returning him to his non-Jewish foster mother (whom
Alfred liked). At the time, approximately 8000 children had been
entrusted to foster families by Vienna’s youth welfare services.
A number of these children—like Alfred—were Jews living with
non-Jewish families. When the Nazis took over the city
administration, this came to be regarded as a problem, and
Jewish foster children were separated from their caretakers and
segregated in Jewish orphanages, which for many became death
traps during the Holocaust. Whatever his specific motivation
might have been, in recommending Alfred’s placement specifically
with Jewish foster parents, Asperger anticipated the Nazis’
official policy of segregation which took shape in the following
years ([56]: 90,
101).Footnote 54 At a time when Jews were subjected to humiliation
and violence in the streets and anti-Semitism became official
policy, the decision to highlight the boy’s Jewish
background—for which no medical or pedagogical reasons were
given—seems questionable. A safer alternative would have been to
avoid any reference to Alfred’s biological family, although in
retrospect, it is impossible to say whether this would have made
a difference. The diagnostic report itself is rather benevolent
in tone; Asperger considered Alfred capable of functioning among
adults, who would feel less provoked by his behavior than
children. Ultimately, Asperger’s recommendation was not
followed, and Alfred was transferred to a Jewish orphanage. His
fate is unknown.Footnote 55

Walter Brucker was admitted to the clinic on 14
March 1938, the day following the Anschluss, because of extreme
agitation. His record allows a rare insight into daily life on
Asperger’s ward during these critical days. On 15 March, amidst
cheering youngsters, Walter had to listen to a triumphant speech
by Hitler. Despite the fact that as a Jew Walter had every
reason to panic, his fearful reaction was held against him. The
entry of that day (not in Asperger’s handwriting) stated that
Walter “is much more disagreeable than three weeks ago, when he
was [last] here. During Hitler’s speech, he put his head into
his hands on the table and stared into a void. He was very
agitated; when a child broke out in cheers he opened his eyes
wide and turned pale.” Asperger’s diagnosis all but ignored the
boy’s precarious situation and framed his mental troubles as
follows: “severe psychopathy, with a particular sensitivity and
paranoid irritability.” Asperger thus pathologized and
de-politicized the boy’s reactions to the anti-Jewish
persecution then pervading the city; based on the same logic, in
a formulation that was perhaps meant as an act of generosity, he
stressed that Walter could not be held fully responsible for his
sometimes aggressive reactions. In his diagnosis, Asperger
omitted the fact that Walter was Jewish and that his life was
under threat from the Nazi regime. Although this is in line with
Asperger’s general tendency to attribute mental troubles to
“constitution” rather than environmental factors, in this
particular case, it is possible that he was also trying not to
highlight the boy’s Jewish background (in contrast to his
actions in Alfred’s case). As it turns out, Walter indeed had
every reason to be fearful. He died on 26 February 1945 as a
slave laborer of “Projekt Riese,” the construction in Lower
Silesia of underground facilities that included Hitler’s new
headquarters [57].

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As far as the written record is concerned, there
is no indication that Asperger was guided by personal animosity
towards Jews, but there is a notable absence of empathy for
their plight under Nazi rule.Footnote 56 The report he wrote in November 1940 on 11-year-old
Ivo P. supports this interpretation. He stressed that the boy
was “not constitutionally dissocial,” and that he had good
potential, provided that he would be held under permanent
supervision in an institutional setting. Almost as an
afterthought, he added: “The only problem is that the boy is a
of the first
degree” (Nazi jargon meaning that he had one Jewish parent)—a
piece of information that under the circumstances was extremely
dangerous for the boy.Footnote 57

Racial stereotyping became—not surprisingly—more
frequent following the Anschluss. Marie Klein, admitted as a
9-year-old in late 1939, was described by one of Asperger’s
assistants as a “normally developed, slightly underweight girl
of Jewish appearance.” Asperger himself remarked that her manner
of speaking stood “in contrast to her quite Jewish character”
and noted on the cover sheet of her record that she was a
“Mischling.” According to her file, Marie had never caused any
trouble until she and her mother—who was a Catholic of Jewish
descent—were forced out of their apartment in August
1938.Footnote 58 They had to move to an asylum run by the Catholic
relief organization “Caritas Socialis” for Catholics of Jewish
descent and children classified as “non-Aryan.”Footnote 59 From then on, Marie began to suffer from violent
fits, which led to her admittance first to the psychiatric
clinic and then to Asperger’s ward. When she spoke of the
violent abuse she had suffered at the asylum, this was taken as
an indication of her dishonesty rather than an explanation for
the changes in her behavior.Footnote 60 Two years after her transfer from the Heilpädagogik
ward to a children’s home in February 1940, Marie Klein was
deported to the Wlodawa ghetto, 11 km north of the Sobibor
extermination camp. The precise time of her death is unknown,
but in summer 1942, there was an “Aktion” specifically targeting
Jewish children between 10 and 14 years of age (Marie would have
been 12 by then), who were separated from their parents and
killed in the gas chambers at Sobibor [5859].

Lizzy Hofbauer, a 12-year-old Jewish girl, was
admitted in 1939 because of severe mental troubles: “Two days
before admittance she acted as if insane, talked of anti-Jewish
persecution, was in great fear, asked herself is she was
confused or insane. She thought a Jewish acquaintance had died
from hanging, but could be convinced that this was not true.”
Asperger interpreted these signs of distress as symptoms of
schizophrenia and wrote the following: “For her age and race
conspicuously retarded sexual development.”Footnote 61 These comments suggest that Asperger had at least
partly internalized the sexualized anti-Jewish stereotypes
circulating at the time.

This leads to the broader question whether
Asperger held anti-Semitic views. Apart from the case files
quoted above, there is scant direct evidence. On the one hand,
hostility towards Jews and their alleged corrupting influence
was a common ideological denominator of the groups Asperger
associated with. Until the end of his life, as far as his public
statements are concerned, he never distanced himself from the
racialized anti-Semitism that pervaded Austrian and German
political life during the twentieth century nor did he comment
on the destruction this had brought down on the Jews of Europe
during the Holocaust.Footnote 62 On the other hand, Asperger worked closely with
Jewish colleagues such as Anni Weiss and Georg Frankl before the
Anschluss—a relationship that due to the tightly knit community
at the Heilpädagogik ward went beyond the purely professional
and was renewed after the war ([10]: 102–4, 109). Like many aspects of
Asperger’s life, his relationship to Jews was fraught with
ambivalence—and further complicated by the fact that his early
career profited from the removal of so many Jewish colleagues,
including those he called his friends.

“The best service to our ”: Asperger and Nazi race hygiene

Although Asperger published at least a dozen
papers during the Nazi period, the existing (especially
English-language) literature focuses almost exclusively on two
of these: “The Mentally Abnormal Child” from 1938 and “The
Autistic Psychopaths in Childhood” from 1944 [12]. In the following, I will
broaden this narrow scope and present an analysis based on the
full range of Asperger’s published statements on politics, race
hygiene, and the role of Heilpädagogik in society. I will show
that Asperger on several occasions supported tenets of Nazi race
hygiene and medicine, contributing to their

Among Asperger’s Nazi-era publications, the 1938
paper stands out for several reasons. Published 5 years before
Leo Kanner’s famous 1943 article on autism, it contains the
first account in the scientific literature of “autistic
psychopathy” as a not previously described syndrome. As the
written version of a lecture held less than 7 months after the
Anschluss, it also reveals how Asperger positioned himself
vis-à-vis the new rulers as someone who could be trusted to
adapt to the new political situation. Crucially, Asperger opened
with an endorsement of National Socialism’s anti-individualistic
and totalitarian approach to medicine and health:

We stand in the midst of a massive
reorganization of our intellectual and spiritual life,
which has seized all areas of this life—not least in
medicine. The central idea of the new Reich—that the
whole is more than its parts, and that the is more important than
the individual—had to bring about fundamental changes in
our whole attitude, since this regards the nation’s most
precious asset, its health ([1]:1314).

Before the initiation of “euthanasia” killings in
1939, the most serious consequence of these ideas was the Law
for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring of July
1933, under which 220,000 individuals had already been forcibly
sterilized in Germany by the beginning of 1938 ([60]: 233).Footnote 63 Asperger’s audience of physicians were well aware of
these policies, which had been widely debated in medical
circles, so they must have understood what he meant by the
following exhortation to cooperate with the regime’s
sterilization policies:

You know by what means one strives to
prevent the transmission of diseased hereditary
material—many cases that belong here are hereditary
disorders—and to promote hereditary health. We
physicians have to take on the tasks that accrue to us
in this area with full responsibility ([1]:1314).

Asperger repeated this motive of “responsible
cooperation” with Nazi race hygiene in later writings. We will
see shortly what these tasks entailed and how he handled them in
the context of his own work. In his lecture, he went on to
specify how the sterilization law should be implemented with
regard to those children who had “features opposed in nearly
every way” to the high-functioning autistic type described for
the first time in the paper:

These children are intellectually below
average (including to the degree of
feeble-mindedness)—whereby with intelligence we mean
abstract intelligence—whereas practical reason, in short
everything that has to do with instinct, including the
practical usefulness and the values of character, are
much better developed in relative terms. These cases are
important—or at least they will be as soon as the Law
for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring
comes into force here. If the physician has to take a
decision in such a case, he will not be allowed to do so
based solely on a questionnaire or the intelligence
quotient. Rather, he will base it primarily on his
knowledge of the child’s personality, taking into
account all of the child’s skills in addition to
abstract intelligence ([1]:1317).

This passage has been quoted as evidence that
Asperger tried to publicly protect his patients from forced
sterilizations ([8]:
464; more cautiously [9]: 206–7). This call for restraint is all
the more significant given the pending investigation into
Asperger’s political reliability (closed in June 1939, see
above). Why did these comments then not hurt his standing in the
eyes of the Nazi hierarchy, which came to the conclusion that he
was in conformity with Nazi race hygiene policies?

It should be noted that calling for a “holistic”
approach to children’s personalities was not unusual as such—it
was in fact characteristic of the approach at the Heilpädagogik
ward since Lazar’s days. In the ideological context of
post-Anschluss Vienna, putting (“soul” or “character”) and “practical
intelligence” over “abstract intelligence,” far from being out
of line, corresponded with the Nazis’ overall disdain for
analytical thought, which they connoted as “Jewish.” Indeed, the
official legal commentary on the sterilization law defined
“feeble-mindedness” along similar lines ([61]: 119). The notion of

(“probation in life”), which the sterilization courts applied in
cases with unclear heredity, also underlines how race hygiene
policy was guided by a “holistic” approach to intelligence
([62]: 124). In
1940, practical skills and “performance” became the decisive
criteria in decisions on race hygiene measures.Footnote 64

It is important to note that Asperger focused on
skills, where others were primarily concerned with defects.
Overall, however, assessing “hereditary value” according to a
range of criteria rather than intelligence alone could cut both
ways for the patients; those classified as “autistic
psychopaths” may well have scored better on intelligence alone.
While Asperger’s 1938 speech should not be misconstrued as a
fundamental critique of race hygiene, it is an example of how he
managed to formulate certain concerns without violating the
boundaries of the politically acceptable.

Another of Asperger’s publications (from 1939)
captured in a nutshell the central tenets of Nazi medicine,
including its typically euphemistic language, as in “restrictive

In the new Germany, we physicians have
assumed an abundance of new responsibilities in addition
to our old ones. To the task of helping the individual
patient is added the great obligation to promote the
health of the ,
which is more than the welfare of the individual. I do
not need to elaborate on the enormous dedicated work
being performed in terms of positive, supporting
measures. But we all know that we also have to carry out
restrictive measures. Just as the physician often has to
make painful incisions during the treatment of
individuals, we also have to perform incisions on the
national body [], out of a sense of great
responsibility: We must ensure that the diseased who
would transmit their diseases to remote generations, to
the detriment of the individual and of the , are stopped from
transmitting their diseased hereditary material

The potential impact of the Nazi race hygiene
paradigm on Asperger’s work was to a large extent determined by
the role inheritance was thought to play in the transmission of
personality traits and mental disorders. In this regard,
Asperger stressed the benefits of optimal environmental
conditions (such as those present at his clinic) even when
hereditary makeup (what he referred to as “constitution”) was

Therefore we are called more than others
to contribute decisively to what is probably the most
important area of research on human heredity, namely the
questions concerning the inheritance of mental traits
and mental abnormalities. We must also lead the way in
the practical tasks of eugenics, especially with regards
to the problems relating to the Law for the Prevention
of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring—and not just the
physicians, but also the special school teachers we work
with. But we also have […] opportunities few others have
to study the decisive question: ‘What influence do
optimal environmental conditions have on hereditarily
burdened individuals, what can “education in spite of
inheritance” achieve, is pedagogic work with individuals
outside the norm worth the trouble?’ ([49]:353)

Although many race hygienists were more dogmatic
in terms of a one-sided genetic determinism, Nazi ideology was
not monolithic. Asperger’s flexible approach was not only
compatible with hardline measures such as forced sterilizations
(as this passage illustrates), it was also in line with other
powerful currents such as the Hitler Youth’s paradigm of
pedagogy and leadership or the mainstream of Nazified
Heilpädagogik ([64]: 161–6, 178–92).Footnote 65

In his 1944 paper on autism, Asperger reiterated
his belief that an individual’s possibilities of mental
development were primarily determined by their genetic makeup;
thus, Heilpädagogik could only hope to achieve improvements
within these predetermined parameters: “It has been firmly
established that psychopathological states are anchored in the
human constitution and are therefore inheritable; yet it has
also been established that it is vain to hope to find a clear,
simple mechanism of inheritance” ([2]: 135). While this view has stood the test
of time with regard to specific disorders such as autism, it was
seriously misguided in other cases, for example, when Asperger
diagnosed children as young as five in terms reminiscent of
Lambroso’s “born prostitutes” or “born criminals.” In cases of
sexual abuse, he often tended to blame the victims, based on the
notion of constitutionally determined patterns of behavior which
supposedly encouraged (or “seduced”) the perpetrators.Footnote 66

A key element in the established narrative of
Asperger as a principled opponent of Nazi policies derives from
his repeated appeals to treat troubled children with the utmost
dedication to help them overcome their challenges ([20]: 17, [21]: 127–9). A number of
Asperger’s publications indeed convey an attitude of sympathy
towards his patients, and on several occasions, he pleaded for
tolerance and attention towards them. One of the most
significant passages in this regard is contained in his 1944
paper on autism:

We think that such individuals have their
own place in the organism of the social community, which
they fully occupy, some of them maybe in ways nobody
else could. […] Such individuals show more than others
what capacities for development and adaptation even
abnormal personalities dispose of. Often, in the course
of development, possibilities for social integration
arise which one would not have expected before. […] This
fact determines our attitude and our value judgment
towards difficult individuals of this and other kinds
and gives us the right and the obligation to stand up
for them with the whole force of our personality

This is in line with his 1938 speech, in which he
also expressed his determination to side with his

But let me discuss this problem today not
from the standpoint of the as a totality—in this case one
would have to primarily focus on the Law for the
Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring—but from
the standpoint of the abnormal children. How much can we
accomplish for these children shall be the question

Again the question is whether this approach put
Asperger at odds with the regime or even made him vulnerable to
reprisals, which is a central claim in the narrative of his
resistance to the Nazis. The evidence, however, does not support
this. Indeed, the fact alone that Asperger’s statements
continued to be published in journals controlled by Nazi
loyalists shows that they were not perceived as critical of the
regime. Furthermore, Asperger’s career advanced unhindered
during this period. Repeatedly vetted for promotion, he received
positive assessments regarding his political reliability, as
discussed in the “Political trajectory
after the Anschluss in 1938” section.

Most importantly, it is a misunderstanding that
therapeutic support for “abnormal” children had no place in the
Nazi state, determined as it was to exterminate mentally
disabled individuals. Due to increasing labor shortages, it
became a political and military imperative to rehabilitate as
many potential workers as possible, even those considered of
inferior hereditary quality. In the context of “euthanasia,” the
extermination of “incurable” patients—after attempts to improve
their condition had failed—coincided with an increased interest
in “active therapy.” The dichotomy of murder and therapy is
exemplified in the introduction of electroconvulsive therapy,
which was promoted by “T4,” the organization responsible for the
gassing of tens of thousands of patients, to reduce the residual
group of “incurable” patients [65].Footnote 67 In this light, Asperger’s pleas to spare no effort
in educating and guiding “difficult” children were not
necessarily a challenge to Nazi pedagogy and race hygiene;
rather, this was easily compatible with the Nazi state’s aim to
control, discipline, and organize children and youths deemed
“worthy” of belonging to the (“people’s community”). This
was stressed by Asperger himself, who repeatedly insisted on the
productive role Heilpädagogik could play within the new Nazi
order, including in his 1938 speech:

And if we help them [the abnormal
children] with all our dedication, we also render the
best service to our ; not only by avoiding that they
burden the with their dissocial
and criminal acts, but also by trying to ensure that
they fulfill their duties as productive individuals in
the living organism of the ([1]:1314).

Indeed, even the most virulent Nazis among
Asperger’s colleagues endorsed therapy for those seen as
potential assets to the state. This includes Asperger’s mentor
Franz Hamburger and also applies to Erwin Jekelius, a youth
psychiatrist trained at Hamburger’s clinic, who in 1940 became
the main organizer of the “T4” killing operation in Vienna. He
made sure that local authorities and hospitals cooperated and
that the operation ran smoothly. From June 1940 to the end of
1941, Jekelius directed the child killing facility Am
Spiegelgrund, where hundreds of disabled children were
murdered.Footnote 68

Jekelius had received part of his training at the
Therapeutic Pedagogy Ward under Asperger’s direction, where he
was employed from August 1933 to February 1936 ([10]: 102, 118). The two men
maintained professional contacts during the Nazi period. In
1941, when Jekelius became the first chairman of the newly
established Viennese Association for Therapeutic Pedagogy,
Asperger represented the Pediatric Clinic along with Hamburger
([4]: 172–3). At
Vienna’s Main Health Office, where Jekelius directed a unit in
charge of “the mentally ill, psychopaths, and addicts”—a
position that he used as a cover for his activities for
“T4”—Asperger on 1 October 1940 began to work (part-time) as a
medical specialist and evaluator of children with mental
“irregularities” (). One document in Asperger’s
personnel file suggests that in this capacity, he was attached
to Jekelius’ unit, while others place him in a different unit of
the same department, a discrepancy possibly due to disruptions
in the city administration during this period.Footnote 69 In any case, the fact that Asperger was named as a
member of Jekelius’ staff suggests that he obtained the position
on Jekelius’ recommendation or at least with his consent. Due to
a lack of sources, the exact nature of Asperger’s work for the
city in this context (and of his collaboration with Jekelius)
remains unclear—with the crucial exception of the screening of
more than 200 children in a mental institution in Gugging near
Vienna, many of whom were sent to die at Jekelius’ Spiegelgrund
institution (see the “Limits of
‘educability’: Asperger and the Spiegelgrund ‘euthanasia’
facility” section).

Erwin Jekelius represents Nazi medicine in its
most inhumane extremes: a fanatical Nazi and a murderer
responsible for the deaths of thousands of patients. Had
Asperger deviated from the party line, Jekelius would certainly
have reined him in. Instead, this is what Jekelius had to say
about Asperger and his therapeutic approach:

At this opportunity, I would like to
remind you of the substantial lecture on therapeutic
pedagogy which our Dr. Asperger gave last year in this
same place. He explained in a vivid and convincing way
that especially in the Third Reich, with an abundance of
new tasks and a lack of manpower, one cannot relinquish
those who ‘stand at the margin’. He mentioned impressive
examples of former patients at the Heilpädagogik ward
who proved themselves brilliantly on the internal and
external front during the great struggle for the final
liberation of our German people. And more than one
former ‘problem child’ who today bears the Iron Cross
for valiant behavior before the enemy would probably
have gone to the dogs had one not taught him according
to therapeutic pedagogic principles how to defeat the
inner enemy ([66]:386).

To be sure, when their writings are set side by
side, there is an enormous divide between the two men in tone.
This is also apparent in the following passage, in which
Jekelius states what should be done with children not deemed
treatable with Heilpädagogik: “The idiot is sent to an asylum,
and the anti-social to a concentration camp for minors”
385).Footnote 70 This is far harsher language than Asperger ever
used, who instead emphasized empathy for “abnormal” children.
But as Jekelius’ approving nod to Asperger indicates, even he
agreed on the role of Heilpädagogik in rehabilitating troubled
children in order to turn them into productive members of the
German body politic.

This utilitarian approach, broadly accepted as the
raison d’être of Heilpädagogik, is a leitmotif throughout
Asperger’s writings during the Nazi period and beyond:

I wanted to emphasize this from the
beginning, when I talk today about our Aesculapian
obligation specifically towards the psychologically
abnormal individual, as I see this obligation. […] The
question is: is the task of caring for intellectually or
personally abnormal individuals worth our full
commitment? […] The mentioned facts show us well enough
that we often have to be very careful with the
disdainful verdict of ‘inferior value’ and potential
consequences that might follow from it. […] But if we
care for these people—and be it with painful commitment
and willing to make sacrifices—we will be able to take
at least part of them to a point where they will not be
a burden and danger to the national community, but its
productive members ([63]:944).

In the 1941 paper referred to by Jekelius,
Asperger defined the relationship between his own professional
credo and the Nazi state’s pedagogic program in even more
explicit terms:

Our time has brought revolutionary changes
in the field of education: Whereas in earlier times a
number of philosophical, political, and religious
orientations stipulated their pedagogic goals and
consequently were in competition with each other, today
National Socialism has established its pedagogic goal
and demands that it be the only valid one. As much as
this development is to be approved, we nevertheless have
to stress: This one goal, the integration into the
National Socialist state, can only be achieved with
these children by using different means. […] From
innumerable reports and visits, also from letters from
the front, from soldiers’ visits we know how many of our
former children, including very difficult cases,
entirely fulfill their duties in their professions, in
the armed forces, and in the [Nazi] party, not a few
among them in eminent positions. This is how we know
that the success of our work is worth the effort
[67].Footnote 71

This paper was originally presented in September
1940 at a prominent pediatric conference in Vienna. Asperger was
one of only three speakers from Vienna. The keynote speaker was
Reich Health Leader Leonardo Conti (1900–1945).Footnote 72 While this helps explain Asperger’s references to
the war effort and the party, it also demonstrates that he was
deemed trustworthy enough to represent his field in such a
prominent forum and that the positions he adopted were by no
means considered unacceptable or even controversial by the Nazi
hierarchy. On the same occasion, Werner Villinger (1887–1961),
the founding father of youth psychiatry in Nazi Germany and an
expert evaluator for the “T4” killing campaign, expressed the
dichotomy between “education” and “elimination”: “Only where
this [successful educational attempts] proves to be impossible,
a weeding out needs to take place, with permanent internment in
a work colony of sorts” ([68]: 1161).Footnote 73 The complex and sometimes contradictory attitude
towards children with disabilities or other challenges is
underlined by the fact that the Hitler Youth had special
formations for the blind and the deaf ([64]: 166–75). Overall, as we
have seen, it was not in dispute that Heilpädagogik had an
important role to play in helping alleviate the acute shortage
of manpower that threatened Nazi Germany’s war effort.

The decisive question that remained was what
should happen to the residual group of children whose
disabilities were so impairing that efforts towards
rehabilitation could not be justified under the utilitarian
approach dominant at the time, and also professed by Asperger.
While Jekelius explicitly mentioned “concentration camps” (for
the rebellious) and “asylums” as a last resort (omitting the
extermination of disabled children then taking place under his
direction), Asperger chose to remain silent on this matter. This
has critical implications, not least with regard to the
relatively small subset of his patients whom he labeled as
“autistic psychopaths.”Footnote 74 Some authors argue that Asperger put the spotlight
on children at what is often called the “high-functioning” end
of the spectrum, interpreting this as a tactic to protect all
children with autistic traits from race hygiene measures (e.g.,
[21]: 129,
216). This argument is problematic for several reasons.

First, the idea that Asperger tried to protect
autistic children from Nazi race hygiene cannot be easily
reconciled with the fact that he dedicated a section of his 1944
paper to the hereditary basis of the condition, insisting that
“any explanation based on exogenous factors is absurd”. While
this position anticipated later advances in autism research, the
question arises whether under the circumstances it was prudent
to put such an emphasis on heredity. Had protecting his autistic
patients been his primary goal, he could have taken a more
flexible position, one less likely to draw the attention of race
hygienists to his patients ([2]: 128–32).

Second, his prognoses for the “autistic
psychopaths” were far from universally optimistic. In his 1938
paper “The Mentally Abnormal Child,” he presented two boys. One
boy was “intelligent far beyond his age” but suffered from
mental and physical “oversensitivities” (no link to autism). The
other represented the first case of an “autistic psychopath” in
medical literature. Like the first boy, he exhibited “a contrast
between pathological and in some ways valuable traits,” but as
Asperger insisted, he suffered from a “profound disorder of the
personality.” In this article, Asperger did not highlight the
potential of “autistic psychopaths” but rather contrasted them
unfavorably with other, less impaired patients. Even if the boy
Asperger chose as an example of “autistic psychopathy” clearly
belonged to the “high-functioning” group, Asperger emphasized
that the condition varied greatly in terms of “social prognosis”
and “worthiness.” While he deemed some of the “autistic
psychopaths” capable of “great intellectual achievements,” in
other cases, “autistic originality” was deemed “bizarre,
eccentric, and useless”, with “fluid transitions towards
schizophrenia” whose “main characteristic is also autism, the
loss of any contact with the surroundings” [1]. The four boys featuring
in his better known 1944 paper also varied considerably
regarding the degree of their impairments, belying the notion
that he focused on the most promising cases in order to present
“autistic psychopathy” in a mostly favorable light. Fritz had
(for his age) outstanding abilities in mathematics, but was
incapable of attending regular school, having passed the first
three school years by homeschooling. Harro’s autistic symptoms
were less severe, but despite his good intellectual potential,
he also had great difficulties concentrating and learning in the
traditional school setting. The best hope for “autistic
psychopaths,” according to Asperger, was to find a way to
compensate for the lack of “instinctive social adaptation” via
the intellect. The problem was, however, that the “autistic
character” also occurred in the “intellectually lesser able, and
even in the severely feeble-minded” ([2]: 85–103). In the case of
Ernst, Asperger expressed “doubt whether he was particularly
smart or feeble-minded” (he struggled to keep up even in special
school). But, as Asperger insisted, there were “numerous clearly
feeble-minded children who also exhibited the unmistakable
features of the autistic psychopath” ([2]: 108). These latter cases,
according to Asperger, were often very similar to conditions
caused by organic brain damage such as birth trauma. He
illustrated this with the fourth case in his study, Hellmuth,
whom he described not as an “autistic psychopath” but as an
“autistic automaton” ([2]: 110–1).

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One could argue that even though Asperger
mentioned children with impairments so severe as to exclude them
from any useful place in society, he nevertheless embellished
the overall picture of “autistic psychopathy” as far as his
scholarly standards would allow him. Indeed, he insisted that
only a small number of “autistic psychopaths,” those
additionally burdened with a “clear mental inferiority,” were
incapable of at least some degree of social integration.
Nevertheless, the argument that Asperger focused on the
better-functioning cases in order to protect all of his patients
(presumably, by deflecting attention from the less
well-functioning) is questionable given that Asperger by no
means withheld from his readers the severe impairments of some
of the boys.

Third, there is a fundamental flaw in the
assumption that highlighting the potential of some of his
patients would benefit all of them. The children at the lower
end of the spectrum did not benefit from the potential ascribed
to those on the higher end, even if they shared the overall
diagnosis of “autistic psychopathy.” Their fate did not depend
on the diagnostic label but on the individual assessment of
their skills or disabilities. If anything, the utilitarian
argument of “social worth” employed by Asperger (and by many of
his colleagues) increased the danger to those children who could
not fulfill these expectations. Focusing on the higher
functioning children did nothing to lift the boat for all of
them; those on the lower end still risked being left to drown.
Often, Heilpädagogik’s function in this context was to decide
where to draw the line.

The preference for children who could be expected
to respond positively to pedagogical intervention and the
exclusion of the “hopeless” was a feature of Heilpädagogik from
its inception in early twentieth-century Austria. It is
important to keep in mind that the mission of Asperger’s
Heilpädagogik ward was primarily to deal with “difficult”
children who caused problems that their caregivers were unable
to confront without professional help.Footnote 75 Children with severe mental disabilities were
considered to fall outside the remit of Heilpädagogik since they
promised no tangible progress. At the 1935 founding meeting of
the Austrian Society of Heilpädagogik, Theodor Heller
(1869–1938), one of its most influential figures, stated:
“Curative pedagogy, however, will only attend to the educable
elements and must hardly burden itself with the care for
idiots.” The “uneducable” should be cared for in special
institutions on humanitarian grounds, by contrast to the
rationally and economically justified efforts of Heilpädagogik
for the “educable” ([69]: 8–9).Footnote 76 During the Nazi period, (uneducability) became the
key criterion in the child “euthanasia” program [70].

Highlighting the potential of some patients should
not then be mistaken for the defense of all children with
disabilities. Rather, it served to point out the usefulness of
Heilpädagogik to society. Also, Asperger did not adopt this
strategy in reaction to the Nazi takeover in Austria. A 1937
paper (with the same title he would use in 1938) already used
similar arguments in support of Heilpädagogik’s mission
[71]. It is not
hard to see why in the post-Anschluss climate Asperger felt it
necessary to explain what he and his discipline had to offer to
the new political regime, by stressing his allegiance to the
fundamental principles of National Socialism and by adapting
earlier arguments of Heilpädagogik’s utilitarian mission to the
new political realities.

Overall, Asperger’s pleas to devote the best
possible care to “abnormal” children did not place him outside
the mainstream of Heilpädagogik and the nascent discipline of
youth psychiatry under National Socialism. The papers presented
to the first conference of the newly founded German Society for
Child Psychiatry and Heilpädagogik, held in Vienna in September
1940, also reveal that Asperger’s positions clearly aligned with
the opinions considered legitimate at such a representative
forum. Although some of the speakers emphasized Heilpädagogik’s
role in implementing mechanisms of race hygienic selection, the
positive aspects of helping children reach their potential
(within the limits set by their inherited constitution) also had
a prominent place. If Asperger’s writings on his patients stood
out because of their warmer tone, nothing, however, of what he
said was out of line with the officially sanctioned discourse
([72]; for
details, see also [73]).Footnote 77

The adaptation of the Viennese brand of
Heilpädagogik to the new political order and its race hygiene
paradigm was facilitated by the fact that, since 1930, Hamburger
had purged the influence of currents such as psychoanalysis and
established the predominance of a purely biologistic paradigm
based on the importance of inherited “constitutional” defects
75]. Asperger,
who had begun his career under Hamburger, shared many of these
views, including a staunch opposition to psychoanalysis

Heilpädagogik, then, was not only compatible with
the Nazi state’s goal of building a national community (while
excluding “unworthy” and “racially alien” elements); there was
even an increased demand for experts willing to draw the line
between those who could be expected to become useful members of
this community and those who should be cast aside ([73]: 184). This increased
demand, together with the exclusion of Jewish doctors,Footnote 78 led to additional career opportunities for Asperger,
for example, his appointment as an expert witness in May 1938 to
the Vienna Juvenile Court.Footnote 79 As mentioned, in October 1940, he additionally
acquired a part-time position at the Public Health Office as the
city’s medical specialist for “abnormal children,” a function
related to Vienna’s special school system.Footnote 80 In this capacity, he routinely wrote expert opinions
which are hard to reconcile with his 1974 claim not to have
reported patients to this office [3]. According to Hamburger, Asperger’s expert
opinions were regarded as the “highest authority” not only by
the youth welfare office and the youth court but also by the
National Socialist Welfare Organization (NSV).Footnote 81

Public health offices in Nazi Germany
systematically collected information for a “hereditary index”
() of the whole
population, designed to direct race hygiene measures against
those deemed of inferior hereditary quality.Footnote 82 Staff at the Spiegelgrund “euthanasia” facility
routinely reported patients in this context.Footnote 83 The records from Asperger’s ward, by contrast,
contain only a small number of such documents.Footnote 84 This would indicate that Asperger was indeed
reluctant to report his patients for the “hereditary
index”—provided that the records have not been purged of
incriminating documents, which cannot be ruled out, since they
were kept at the clinic where Asperger was director from 1946 to
1949 and again from 1962 until his retirement in 1977
[77]. In some
cases, however, he demonstrably cooperated in such matters. At
least seven patient files from his ward contain correspondence
with the Public Health Office’s Department for Hereditary and
Racial Care (), in four cases signed by Asperger
personally. There is no indication as to why the department
responsible for the “hereditary index” was involved in these
cases but not in so many other similar ones.Footnote 85

A sample of 30 patients admitted both to
Asperger’s ward and to Spiegelgrund allows for a comparison of
how children were diagnosed at the two institutions. In the next
section, we will see what this comparison reveals about
Asperger’s diagnostic approach, not least with regard to his
often-claimed “pedagogical optimism” (details on the sample are
also offered there). Regarding references to heredity and race
hygiene, the result is the following: In 14 of the 30 cases, the
files contain reports suggesting a hereditary factor in the
child’s condition. In two of these cases, both Asperger and the
Spiegelgrund staff suggested a hereditary etiology. In two other
cases, Asperger included a reference to heredity in his report,
but the Spiegelgrund staff did not. In ten of the cases,
however, only the Spiegelgrund doctors referred to heredity. In
the four cases in which Asperger referred to a hereditary
factor, he did so by using the term “degenerative” (for example
ascribing to the children a “degenerative constitution” or
“degenerative personality”), without however suggesting any
eugenic measures such as sterilization.Footnote 86 The doctors at Spiegelgrund were clearly more
inclined to refer to heredity, either directly as an alleged
etiological factor or indirectly by including negative
information on the child’s (kin).

Neither the Spiegelgrund files nor the case
records from Asperger’s own ward contain evidence that he ever
reported one of his patients to the Public Health Office for the
purpose of sterilization.Footnote 87

These findings support Asperger’s claim of
non-cooperation with the sterilization program, though here,
too, we must allow for the possibility of files having been
purged. This raises the question whether this non-cooperation by
omission should be considered a form of resistance. It is
important to note that the sterilization program in Nazi Austria
was never implemented on a scale comparable to Nazi Germany
between 1934 and 1939 and that children were not its primary
targets. In Vienna, the Hereditary Health Court decreed a total
of 1515 sterilization cases. Although in one case a child as
young as 13 was ordered to be sterilized, 83% of victims were
older than 20 ([78]: 97, 144).Footnote 88 Failure to comply with the sterilization law was
widespread at the time, and there are no indications that this
carried personal risks such as persecution by the Gestapo
([78]: 115). In
1942, the Public Health Office complained to the director of the
general hospital (to which Hamburger’s pediatric clinic
belonged) that the hospital’s clinics often failed to report
patients with hereditary conditions ([78]: 116). Also, for those
of Asperger’s patients who were admitted to the clinic, this
responsibility fell on Hamburger as the director, shielding
Asperger from—in any event unlikely—consequences.Footnote 89

Crucially, only one of the surviving patient
records from Asperger’s ward contains an explicit reference to
the sterilization law; the documents are in accordance with
Asperger’s publicly stated position on sterilization, calling
for ‘responsible implementation.’ In 1940, Asperger wrote a
diagnostic opinion on Therese B., a 16-year-old former patient
whose father wanted to have her sterilized because of alleged
promiscuity. Asperger diagnosed her with psychopathy and “traits
of nymphomania,” but pointed out that strictly speaking, she did
not fall within the purview of the sterilization law, since her
behavior had in all likelihood been caused by an earlier
encephalitis, and not by a hereditary defect.Footnote 90

More problematic is a report on a 15-year-old
deaf-mute boy which Asperger addressed to the Health Office’s
Department of Hereditary and Racial Care in March 1942. Under
the category “kin,” Asperger listed various cases of
deaf-muteness among Ernst’s relatives.Footnote 91 Although Asperger did not explicitly refer to
sterilization, the information provided meant that the addressee
would have to initiate a sterilization procedure on the grounds
that the condition appeared to be hereditary.Footnote 92 Asperger could have omitted this information without
any risk, but in this case (as in those he referred to
Spiegelgrund, analyzed in the next section), it seems that he
was willing to cooperate as long as he did not have to take
direct responsibility for the consequences.

There is one case in which documents suggest that
Asperger may have helped shield a patient from possible
persecution. In the fall of 1939, he examined Aurel I., the
14-year-old son of a civil servant, who showed “behavioral
peculiarities.” In his report, Asperger wrote that the boy would
suffer mental and physical damage if placed among a group of
children, which resulted in his exemption from school. His
family then moved him to the countryside, where he spent the war
in the care of relatives. In a 1962 letter, his sister credited
Asperger with having saved Aurel from “castration” and possibly
worse.Footnote 93 Asperger wrote his report just days before the
sterilization law was introduced in Austria, an event that was
widely publicized [79]. In 2009, a Cologne art dealer (who had
bought Aurel’s estate of drawings and papers) wrote to
Asperger’s daughter speculating that Aurel, who after the war
was diagnosed with schizophrenia, might have shown autistic
traits when examined by Asperger.Footnote 94 Ultimately, it is impossible to say with certainty
what happened in 1939, and to what extent the dramatic elements
of the story are a product of the years that passed before the
quoted letters were written.

What emerges from the available sources is that
Asperger’s approach to the forced sterilization program was
ambivalent. On the one hand, as mentioned, he publicly signaled
his fundamental agreement with the policy while calling for its
cautious and “responsible” implementation—which is consistent
with his overall strategy to demonstrate his willingness to
cooperate with the regime without taking hardline positions on
race hygiene. At the same time, based on his ward’s patient
records, it appears that he abstained from reporting children
for sterilization—a stance that does not seem to have put him at
odds with the Nazi authorities, given the circumscribed
implementation of the sterilization law in Austria. By the time
the first procedures under the sterilization law were carried
out in Austria in the fall of 1940, the prevention of
“hereditarily diseased offspring” could rely on another, more
radical method; with the establishment of Am Spiegelgrund in
July 1940, the child “euthanasia” program had a dedicated
killing facility in Vienna. Even if the vast majority of
Asperger’s patients did not suffer from the degree of mental
disability that the program was designed to eradicate, a number
of them were killed at Spiegelgrund. His role in this context is
the topic of the next section.

Limits of “educability”: Asperger and the Spiegelgrund
“euthanasia” facility

In his wartime publications, Asperger appears as
someone who declared his willingness to cooperate with the Nazi
state, propagated—albeit less enthusiastically than
others—elements of Nazi race hygiene, and tried to argue that
his discipline had an important role to play within the new
political order. His main argument was the ability of
Heilpädagogik to turn troubled, difficult, or “abnormal”
children into useful members of society. His professed
pedagogical optimism reached its limits, however, in children
with greater degrees of mental disability. Although in his ward
he usually dealt with more promising cases, in the course of his
manifold activities as an expert for “abnormal” children, he was
also confronted with children for whom the Nazi state had little
more in mind than discreet medicalized extermination. In this
regard, as we will see, his record was mixed.

Am Spiegelgrund was founded in July 1940 on the
premises of Vienna’s Steinhof psychiatric hospital, after
approximately 3200 patients had already been sent to the T4
killing facility in Hartheim [80]. The new facility was headed by Erwin
Jekelius, Asperger’s former colleague at the university clinic.
During Jekelius’ tenure at Spiegelgrund, the facility became a
collecting point for children who did not conform to the
regime’s criteria of “hereditary worthiness” and “racial
purity.” From 1940 to 1945, nearly 800 children perished at the
institution; many of them murdered by poisoning and other
methods [81].

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:

Fig. 6

Herta Schreiber at the Spiegelgrund
“euthanasia” clinic, where she died 3 months after
admission (photo has been cropped) (WStLA,, Nervenklinik für Kinder,
Krankengeschichte Herta Schreiber)


Full size image


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.Footnote 95 (Fig. 7)

Fig. 7

Hans Asperger recommended Herta’s
transferal to Spiegelgrund because she “must be an
unbearable burden to her mother,” 27 June 1941


Full size image


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 unacceptable combination in the eyes of
the euthanasia “experts” (Fig. 8). On 2 September, a day after her third
birthday, 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.Footnote 96

Fig. 8

On 8 August 1941, Erwin Jekelius
reported Herta to the Reich Committee for the
Scientific Registration of Serious Hereditary and
Congenital Illnesses, the secret organization
responsible for the child “euthanasia” program


Full size image


A note in Herta’s Spiegelgrund file indicates that
her mother not only knew what fate awaited her child at the
facility but that she accepted or even expected it:

Mother asks to be notified if the
condition of the child should get worse. The husband
should not be informed, he would be too upset. She says
in tears that she can see for herself that the child is
mentally not well. If she cannot be helped, it would be
better if she died. She would not have anything in this
world, she would only be ridiculed by others. As the
mother of so many other children she would not want that
for her, so it would be better if she died.Footnote 97 (Fig. 9)

Fig. 9

A note in Herta’s Spiegelgrund file
suggests her mother was aware that her daughter
would be killed at the clinic (WStLA)


Full size image


In the context of Nazi-ruled Vienna, it seems that
Herta’s mother, with a husband at war and six children to take
care of—one of them with a severe mental disability—had reached
a point where the possibility of having that responsibility
taken off her shoulders would seem like a relief, even if it
meant knowingly surrendering her daughter to death. In a society
permeated by contempt for “unworthy life,” the social stigma of
mental disability must have been acute—and the fear of ridicule
is indeed the main argument in the quoted document. From Herta’s
religious denomination (theistic), it can be inferred that
the family had left the Catholic Church under the influence of
the Nazis’ opposition to organized religion, a practice that was
usually followed only by a radical minority of Nazi sympathizers
([82]: 281–3).
To this, we have to add a lack of institutional support since
more and more homes for disabled children were dissolved and
rededicated as institutions for the “healthy” and “valuable”

What took place between Herta’s mother and
Asperger before the latter decided to transfer Herta to
Spiegelgrund? Did they openly discuss the possibility of
“euthanasia”? If so, did she turn to Asperger with her mind
already made up, or was it he who offered this as a “solution”
to her? Or did he decide independently what he thought best,
based on the information she provided? From the available
documents, we cannot know with certainty. All we have to go by
is Asperger’s short note on Herta in which he calls for her
“permanent placement” at Spiegelgrund—whether this was a
conscious euphemism for murder or not, it is clear that he did
not expect Herta to return.

This case is revealing not least with respect to
Asperger’s therapeutic credo. As previously mentioned, he
repeatedly called for giving people with mental anomalies the
best available care in order to develop their potential as far
as possible. However, he never addressed the question of what
should happen in cases without hope of improvement. The children
Asperger advocated for were those who promised some future
benefit to society. We must not confuse them with the group
(uneducable), which was targeted for murder in the child
“euthanasia” program. In Herta Schreiber’s case, Asperger did
not expect any future improvement, rendering further efforts
futile. His diagnosis (albeit with a question mark) was
“post-encephalitic status.” In 1944, he published an article on
this topic, in which he wrote: “All the work done at our ward is
carried forward by a strong pedagogic optimism […]. But in the
case of these post-encephalitic personalities, we too have to
say that one in most cases has to largely capitulate”
116).Footnote 98 The transfer of Herta Schreiber to the Spiegelgrund
facility looks like such a capitulation.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that another girl who
was recommended for transferal to Spiegelgrund by Asperger
suffered from similar symptoms, also attributed to an earlier
infection. According to Asperger’s evaluation, the case of
5-year-old Elisabeth Schreiber (no apparent relation to Herta)
bears other similarities as well:

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.Footnote 99 (Fig. 10)

Fig. 10

In the case of Elisabeth Schreiber,
Asperger also recommended transferal to
Spiegelgrund (WStLA,, Nervenklinik
für Kinder, Krankengeschichte Elisabeth


Full size image


According to Asperger’s notes, it seems that
Elisabeth’s mother was also unable or unwilling to take care of
her, but there was no explicit reference to the possibility of
her death. What can be said with a degree of certainty is that
she sought institutional care for her daughter and that Asperger
recommended transferal to the killing facility. However,
Elisabeth was not immediately transferred to Spiegelgrund,
probably because there was no bed available. Instead, she was
sent to another institution for children with mental defects,
where she stayed for a few months. In March 1942, she was
transferred to Spiegelgrund. One of the nurses wrote that she
was friendly and affectionate but that she spoke only one word:
“Mama.” She died of pneumonia—like Herta and so many other
children at Spiegelgrund—on 30 September 1942, shortly before
her sixth birthday.Footnote 100

Was Asperger aware that Elisabeth would have
almost no chance of survival at Spiegelgrund, that he was
sending Herta to her death? Is it possible that he meant
“permanent placement” just in its literal meaning, or do we have
to consider it a euphemism for murder (comparable to “special
treatment,” “final solution,” or less obliquely, “euthanasia”)?
Significantly, the extermination of the mentally ill was never
explicitly referred to in written documents, at least not
outside the smallest circles of the initiated. For example,
Hitler’s 1939 “authorization” providing cover for the
extermination of 70,000 people in gas chambers only mentioned
the intention to “accord a merciful death” in individual,
carefully selected cases ([84]: 114). In documents not protected as
state secrets, it would have been a grave breach to even mention
the possibility of killing patients. Asperger’s expression, used
in reference to a secret killing facility, could hardly be
understood as anything other than a recommendation for
“euthanasia”—provided that he knew what was going on

While the “euthanasia” killings at Spiegelgrund
(as elsewhere) were officially a secret, and parents were
routinely deceived about the true nature of the institution and
the fate awaiting their children, rumors nevertheless abounded,
and Asperger was in an exceptional position to know the truth.
After his arrest in 1945, Ernst Illing (1904–1946), Jekelius’
successor as Spiegelgrund’s director, gave the following

I point out that my clinic [Spiegelgrund]
was always overcrowded, since other clinics […],
including the University Pediatric Clinic,
transferred—or wanted to transfer—such hopeless cases,
evidently because they believed that in my clinic
euthanasia was possible on account of the mentioned
circular, while they were not allowed to practice
euthanasia. I am absolutely convinced that the directors
of the mentioned institutions were aware of euthanasia
and the mentioned circulars.Footnote 101

Illing had every reason to diminish his own
responsibility, but there is further evidence for the close ties
between Spiegelgrund and the university clinic. As mentioned
before, Spiegelgrund’s founding director Jekelius had trained
under Hamburger and Asperger; Jekelius and Asperger were
colleagues at the Vienna Public Health Office, and all three men
played a leading role in the establishment of the Viennese
Association for Heilpädagogik in 1941, part of a broader attempt
to strengthen curative pedagogy’s profile in Nazi Germany as a
medical discipline in accordance with race hygiene
([4]: 172–3). In
line with Illing’s testimony, children were routinely sent from
the pediatric clinic to Spiegelgrund ([13]: 203). A number of them
were subjected to tuberculosis vaccine experiments by Asperger’s
colleague Elmar Türk. After the experiments, the children were
sent to Spiegelgrund, where they were murdered so that the
vaccine results could be compared with the pathological
findings. Staff at the pediatric clinic were not only aware of
what happened at Spiegelgrund but exploited the research
opportunities created by the murders [85].

Furthermore, knowledge of the mass murders
euphemized as “euthanasia” was not limited to insiders; it was
in fact widespread among the Viennese population. During the
so-called “T4” killing campaign, patients’ relatives staged
public protests in front of the Steinhof psychiatric hospital in
Vienna. They could not prevent approximately 3200 Steinhof
patients from being transported to the gas chamber at Hartheim,
but they took a courageous stance against the regime’s campaign
of murder.Footnote 102 Rumors were so widespread that the Viennese edition
of the —the Nazi Party’s daily newspaper—was
compelled to deny the killings. The article mentioned lethal
injections and even gas chambers, which shows how specific the
public’s knowledge was ([86]: 7). Anny Wödl, a Viennese nurse, had no
doubt that the transfer of her son Alfred to Spiegelgrund,
enforced in early 1941 despite her resolute resistance, would
mean his death ([87]: 298). Even abroad, the killings at
Spiegelgrund became known. In the fall of 1941, the Royal Air
Force dropped leaflets mentioning both the Steinhof hospital and
Jekelius’ name in connection with the systematic murder of
patients.Footnote 103

In light of this evidence, it seems extremely
implausible that Asperger—a longtime colleague of Erwin Jekelius
and a well-connected player in his professional field—was
unaware of the activities at Spiegelgrund. When he reflected on
the Nazi period in 1974, Asperger did not mention the child
“euthanasia” program directly but claimed that he had from the
outset refused to accept the Nazis’ concept of “unworthy life”
or to participate in race hygiene measures, implicitly
acknowledging that he was aware of its ramifications

In the cases of Herta and Elisabeth, were there
alternatives to sending them to Spiegelgrund? Could he have
saved their lives? Under the circumstances, and given the
parents’ lack of support, ensuring the long-term survival of the
two children would certainly have been difficult. Facilities for
children with severe disabilities continued to exist (both
public and religious), but they were under pressure to hand over
those among their patients deemed “unworthy” of support.
Nevertheless, Asperger was under no obligation to send children
directly to the killing facility, even if they suffered from
severe disabilities. He could, without any risk to himself, have
transferred them elsewhere, and in a number of other cases, he
did just that.

Among the children who died at Spiegelgrund, there
were at least four others apart from Herta and Elisabeth who had
previously been examined by Asperger, two of them while the
Spiegelgrund “euthanasia” facility was already in operation.
Their conditions were so severe that the “euthanasia” apparatus
ultimately caught up with them, although Asperger initially had
them transferred to other institutions.Footnote 104 Why did he send Herta and Elisabeth to Spiegelgrund,
but not Richard and Ulrike? While Asperger’s diagnostic report
on Richard (who was diagnosed at Spiegelgrund with “mongolism”)
is not included in the surviving records, Ulrike’s file contains
a report in which Asperger described her as “mentally extremely
retarded, severely autistic,” and as a “severe burden” at home.
Over the course of a year, he had observed a process of
“cerebral decay” which led him to recommend a home for mentally
disabled children.Footnote 105 There is insufficient evidence to determine with
certainty why he decided one way or the other, although in the
cases of Herta and (less clearly) Elisabeth, the attitude of the
parents may have played a role. The evidence in these two cases
suggests that at least under the given circumstances he accepted
the killing of disabled children as a last resort. This needs to
be kept in mind when assessing Asperger’s role in a wave of
transferals to Spiegelgrund which resulted in the deaths of a
considerable number of children.

In November 1941, the authorities in Niederdonau
(the province surrounding Vienna) noticed that patients in the
children’s ward at the Gugging psychiatric hospital were not
attending school, despite not having been excused.Footnote 106 An expert committee was consequently convened to
evaluate the children with regard to their “educability.”
Children evaluated as “educable neither in a special school nor
within a psychiatric institution” were to be “delivered to the
operation of Dr. Jekelius as soon as possible.”Footnote 107 This formulation implies that the recipients of the
document would know who Dr. Jekelius was and that the children
deemed “uneducable” by the committee should be killed.

Due to overlapping jurisdictions (the Gugging
hospital was on Viennese territory and property of the city, but
leased to the Niederdonau administration), the committee
consisted of seven members from both provinces. Asperger was
asked to join in his role as medical advisor for Vienna’s
special school system. He was the only expert on Heilpädagogik
on the panel and the only clinician with scientific credentials
(the only other physician was the director of the Gugging mental
institution, the psychiatrist Josef Schicker, 1879–1949).

After 106 children had been transported in March
and May 1941 to the killing center in Hartheim, at the end of
that year, 220 patients remained on the ward. In the
commission’s report, dated 16 February 1942, all children of
school age were classified into various categories, with 35 (9
girls and 26 boys) labeled as “uneducable” and “unemployable,”
the keywords for “euthanasia.” The report does not include their
names, rendering it impossible to establish with certainty what
happened to them individually.Footnote 108 However, there is evidence for a number of later
transferals from Gugging to Spiegelgrund with fatal
outcomes.Footnote 109

On 20 May 1942, 3 months after the commission
convened in Gugging, nine boys were transferred to Spiegelgrund.
All of them were dead within a few months. By the end of that
year, another 20 children (9 girls and 11 boys) followed, only
to meet the same fate. During 1943, 12 children (8 boys and 4
girls) were taken to Spiegelgrund, none of whom
survived.Footnote 110 The death rate of 100% indicates that these children
were sent to Spiegelgrund to die. The time-lapse between the
commission’s visit and some of the transferals is most likely
due to the fact that Spiegelgrund was routinely running over
capacity; it is also possible that in some cases, further
observation was considered necessary.

READ:  Declarative Sentence (statement) | Grammar

The commission relied on suggestions prepared by
Schicker but examined the children individually and took a
decision in each case. Among a group of 50 children whom the
director deemed unfit for school and wanted to keep in Gugging,
the committee found 18 who in their opinion warranted further
pedagogical efforts. However, regarding the 35 children placed
in the lowest category by Schicker, the commission confirmed his
verdict in every case: “The school-age children who are
uneducable, incapable of any development or occupation
[] were examined and it
was determined that in none of these cases noteworthy education
results could be expected.”Footnote 111 By changing the diagnosis for 18 children of the
first group, the commission improved their chances of being sent
to a special school rather than remaining at the mental
hospital, which means that they faced a lesser risk of being
selected for killing. Even so, 20 children of the original 50
ended up as “euthanasia” victims at Spiegelgrund, in addition to
the 35 children whose classification as hopeless cases slated
for “euthanasia” had been confirmed by the panel. In all, 59 of
158 children evaluated by the commission died at Spiegelgrund
before the end of the war, a death rate of 37.3%.Footnote 112

Was the commission in a position to save at least
some of the children had they wanted to? Due to the limited
sources available, this question cannot be answered
conclusively. What can be shown, however, is that at least in
some cases their families wanted to take them into their care
but were not permitted to do so by the authorities. Engelbert
Deimbacher was a patient at the children’s ward when the
commission visited. He was deaf-mute from his birth in 1929. His
case file mentions hydrocephaly and severe mental disability.
Although he could not attend school, there was hope he might be
able to improve his physical abilities to perform simple tasks.
He was described as lively and sociable. Engelbert’s file
contains three letters from his father asking him to be released
into his care, the last of which was received on 15 February
1942, 3 days before the commission’s visit. The requests were
denied on all three occasions, the last under the pretext that
further examinations were necessary. On 20 May 1942, Engelbert
was transferred to Spiegelgrund, where he died on 8
November.Footnote 113 In the case of Georgine Schwab (born 1934), her
grandmother repeatedly pleaded for her release, again to no
avail.Footnote 114 The files contain numerous similar examples, proving
that these children were neither unwanted nor unloved.Footnote 115

In this case, it seems that Asperger was a
well-functioning cog in a deadly machine. Even if the ultimate
responsibility for the deaths of these children fell on
Schicker, Gugging’s director, who signed off on the transferals,
and on the Spiegelgrund staff, the episode shows that the
authorities trusted Asperger to lend his expertise to the
selection of children for elimination.

Asperger’s diagnoses compared to those at

In his publications, Asperger projected an image
of himself as benevolent, optimistic, and affectionate towards
the children in his care—a characterization echoed in the
biographical literature. While there is little doubt that he was
passionate about his work and genuinely cared about many of his
patients, in the context of this paper, we must ask whether this
positive attitude extended to those children who did not offer
hopes of future development or who defied attempts to educate or
discipline them. Based on the narrative promoted by
Asperger himself and others who took his cue, one would expect
to find considerable differences between his reports on troubled
children and those written by colleagues committed to the idea
of “unworthy” lives and their exclusion from the body

The records of 46 children who were examined both
by Asperger at his Heilpädagogik Ward and at Spiegelgrund allow
this to be put to the test; of these 46 children, 6 died at the
“euthanasia” facility; their cases, including those of Herta and
Elisabeth Schreiber, are discussed above. The following analysis
focuses on the remaining 40 children (12 girls, 28 boys), who
survived Spiegelgrund and were later transferred to other
institutions or discharged.Footnote 116 In ten of these cases, Asperger explicitly called
for transferal to Spiegelgrund, and in four, he recommended an
“institution under curative pedagogic leadership,” which also
points to the Spiegelgrund.Footnote 117 Although other instances—especially the Youth
Welfare Administration—were also involved in determining what
would happen to the children, Asperger was the leading expert in
the field, and his diagnostic reports and recommendations were
often decisive.

Unlike with Herta and Elisabeth Schreiber, in the
14 cases in question, there is no indication that Asperger
expected the children he recommended for transferal to
Spiegelgrund (explicitly or by suggestion) to be killed there.
Although the Spiegelgrund facility was established to implement
the child “euthanasia” program, it also carried out long-term
observation of children with developmental or other problems,
housed infants with less severe disabilities, and also served as
a disciplinary facility for the youth welfare system
[81]. The
conditions of these 14 children appear not to have been so
severe as to make them targets for extermination, although
sending them to Spiegelgrund nevertheless put them at
considerable risk. According to the survivors’ testimony,
children were routinely subjected to violence, including
medicalized forms of torture, and the older ones lived in fear
of being killed.Footnote 118

The sample of 40 Spiegelgrund survivors previously
examined by Asperger includes 30 cases with sufficient
documentation to allow a comparison between Asperger’s
evaluations and those of his colleagues who were directly
involved in the murder of disabled children (the cases excluded
from the direct comparison due to insufficient documentation
include Friedrich K., who fit the profile of “autistic
psychopathy”Footnote 119). Is there any evidence in these files that Asperger
attempted to draw a positive picture of the children in order to
minimize the risk they faced from the Nazis’ race hygiene
policies? To be sure, the direct comparison raises certain
problems: The assessments varied in length and depth, they did
not adhere to common diagnostic standards, and sometimes
considerable time passed between them so that the children’s
conditions could have evolved in the meantime, for better or for
worse. Despite these limitations, the files represent a unique
opportunity to assess Asperger’s work as a diagnostician within
the institutional and methodological context of his time and
place. Spiegelgrund, established not only for child “euthanasia”
but also for dealing with “difficult” or “asocial” children,
epitomizes the implementation of race hygiene in pediatrics,
youth psychiatry, and youth welfare. The senior staff at
Spiegelgrund (who were the authors or signatories of the medical
reports analyzed here) were committed Nazis and race hygienists.
Against this background, any systematic bias Asperger might have
had in favor of his patients would have to be visible in this
sample. And yet, out of these 30 cases, there are only 2 in
which Asperger appears to judge the children less harshly than
his peers at Spiegelgrund. In 16 or just over half of the cases,
Asperger and the diagnosticians at Spiegelgrund came to
comparable conclusions. In the remaining 12, Asperger took a
more negative and in some instances an outright disparaging view
of his patients.

Gerald St. is the second boy in the sample who
besides the aforementioned Friedrich K. was described, among
other labels, as “autistic.” Asperger saw him in July 1941, when
he was 28 months old. He diagnosed him with “intellectual
retardation” and a “disturbed personality,” and more
specifically with a “restriction of personal contact, abrupt
impulses, increased and inadequate affects, and stereotypical
movements.” In the context of a “normal children’s community,”
he considered the boy an “unbearable burden” and therefore
recommended either private care or transferal to
Spiegelgrund.Footnote 120 Gerald was admitted to Spiegelgrund 8 months later,
via two other institutions. The first psychological assessment
at Spiegelgrund came to similar conclusions: “intellectually
retarded, especially with regard to language,” “impulsiveness,”
and “tendency to tantrums.” “It is very difficult to establish
contact, the child just talks in a spontaneous and autistic
manner.” The overall diagnosis was “neuropathy.”Footnote 121 A year later, Heinrich Gross (1915–2005), one of the
most notorious Austrian “euthanasia” perpetrators, came to a
much more optimistic result and recommended Gerald’s release
into the care of his grandparents as Gerald, although still
behind in his overall development, had caught up regarding his
mental abilities. Gross now described the boy as emotionally
responsive, cheerful, and excitable.Footnote 122 This is an example of Asperger’s reputed
“pedagogical optimism” ringing hollow in the face of what he
actually wrote in his patients’ files.

Gerald was initially described in similar terms by
Asperger and at Spiegelgrund. Leo A., by contrast, is a typical
example of the 12 out of 30 cases in which Asperger appears
harsher than his peers. Born in April 1936 to a single mother,
Leo was placed in foster care immediately after his birth. At
age four, Leo was an intelligent but difficult child. He
suffered from fits of rage and was accused of cruelty towards
animals. In November 1940, he was sent to Asperger’s ward for
observation and diagnosis. In his assessment, Asperger qualified
Leo as a “very difficult, psychopathic boy of a kind which is
not frequent among small children.” Although he was “in some
respects intellectually ahead of his age,” Asperger pointed out
the boy’s “heightened impulsiveness” and his “acts of malice
carried out with great skill.” Asperger’s recommendation
contains an expression he often used to characterize his ideal
style of education: What the boy needed was the “very sovereign
guidance” (sehr überlegene Führung) that only an institution
following the principles of Heilpädagogik (such as Spiegelgrund)
could provide.Footnote 123 Leo was sent to Spiegelgrund 4 months later, after a
stay with his aunt. After 4 months of observation, Erwin
Jekelius and Heinrich Gross signed their own assessments: Leo
was “very well developed in every respect and very intelligent.”
He was found to be solitary and withdrawn in the company of
other children and easily irritated, but he caused no
difficulties. While not very helpful towards other children, no
signs of a lack of empathy () had been observed. Jekelius’ and
Gross’ recommendation was to return the boy to his father since
they thought that the difficulties leading to his
hospitalization had been caused by his environment in foster
care. Asperger’s diagnosis of “psychopathy”—with its implication
of a constitutional, potentially lifelong condition—had no merit
in the eyes of his former collaborator Jekelius.Footnote 124

In this as in other cases, Asperger’s belief in
the etiological preponderance of innate constitutional factors
(or, alternatively, organic brain damage) led him to negative
verdicts on his patients, which could easily turn into
self-fulfilling prophecies.

Asperger’s report on another 4-year-old, Karl E.
(like Leo a foster child), is similarly harsh and devoid of any
discernible positive bias when measured against the diagnoses
produced at Spiegelgrund. Asperger characterized him as “a
psychopathic infant who causes considerable pedagogic
difficulties: marked irritability […], a tendency towards
negativistic reactions and acts of malice, demanding character.”
He recommended transferal to a closed institution as the only
viable possibility for the boy, conceding that in this case, the
boy had potential thanks to his intelligence.Footnote 125 After several months of observation at Spiegelgrund,
Jekelius concluded that “contrary to the assessment at the
pediatric clinic, the diagnosis of psychopathy could not be
confirmed.” The boy’s behavior was not outside the normal range:
He was “very intelligent” and “solved with ease” the questions
and puzzles put to him by the psychologist.Footnote 126

The case of 16-year-old Johann K. illustrates
Asperger’s tendency to downplay the importance of the children’s
circumstances (including instances of mistreatment and abuse)
and to explain difficulties they may have experienced (or caused
to caregivers) with alleged constitutional deficiencies.
Asperger called Johann a “semi-imbecile,” although he conceded
that his achievements at school were not that bad considering he
had missed years of school because of bone tuberculosis.
Asperger saw the main problem in the boy’s “severe irritability
and lack of inhibition in every respect (severe aggressions,
sexual over-excitability, prodigality, laziness).” Provided that
he was placed under “very sovereign, inexorable guidance,”
Asperger thought it possible that Johann could be used for
unskilled labor. Left with his parents or grandparents, Asperger
considered the boy a “danger to his environment” who would
without a doubt end up “in total neglect.” He recommended
removing the boy from his family and referring him to a closed
institution.Footnote 127 For unknown reasons, Johann was not sent to the
institution recommended by Asperger, but to Spiegelgrund. Ernst
Illing, Jekelius’ successor, concurred with Asperger that the
boy’s intellectual development was lacking. By contrast to
Asperger, Illing pointed to an alleged “hereditary burden” based
on his mother’s moral conduct and raised the possibility of
sterilization. And yet, Illing’s assessment of Johann’s
character remained more optimistic than Asperger’s: In his view,
the main problem had been a lack of “pedagogic encouragement”;
despite his difficult childhood, the boy suffered from “no major
abnormalities,” apart from a lack of initiative that Illing
attributed to his lengthy hospital stays. He also saw no need
for institutional care, recommending instead placement with a
foster family in one of the “rural suburbs of Vienna.”Footnote 128

Another example of Asperger’s tendency to downplay
the consequences of neglect or abuse are his comments on two
sisters of 7 and 5 years, whom he saw in February 1941 because
their mother had difficulties with them. He wrote that Charlotte
(the younger one) was “more severely degenerative than her
sister,” “intellectually clearly retarded,” and “always ready
for serious mischief,” The mother, whom he characterized as “not
very intelligent and mentally slightly strange,” was in his view
not able to cope with the two girls, requiring their immediate
placement in a closed institution.Footnote 129 Illing’s conclusion on Charlotte, by contrast,
stressed that she had spent the first years of her life in
institutions and in foster families and that her mother had
severely neglected her when she took custody. Where Asperger had
seen signs of “degeneration,” Illing squarely attributed
Charlotte’s difficulties (and her slight “mental retardation”)
to the neglect she had experienced, although he also pointed to
alleged hereditary deficiencies in her family.Footnote 130

As mentioned, of these 30 cases, there are only 2
in which Asperger appears to have taken a more positive position
than his peers at Spiegelgrund: In November 1938, he saw
6-year-old Johann T., whom he described as “an erethic,
feeble-minded boy who recognizes no danger and who, unless
constantly supervised, due to his restless drivenness endangers
himself and his surroundings.” Asperger recommended
institutionalization at the Biedermannsdorf reformatory near
Vienna (Spiegelgrund had not been established yet).Footnote 131 At Biedermannsdorf, as in similar institutions,
children were routinely subjected to emotional, physical, and
sexual violence from their peers and from staff [88]. It is hardly surprising
then that Johann did not make much progress over the next years.
In May 1941, Jekelius diagnosed the boy as “uneducable” and an
“imbecile” and demanded his transferal to Spiegelgrund. Despite
the dangerous diagnosis, Johann survived the “euthanasia”
facility, though his later fate remains unknown.Footnote 132 Asperger’s diagnosis in this case appears more
lenient and optimistic, but it is possible that Johann’s state
deteriorated during the 30 months between the two diagnoses,
especially in light of the adverse conditions at

The second case is similarly inconclusive. In
October 1940, Asperger saw the 16-year-old Hildegard P. because
her promiscuous lifestyle had aroused the authority’s
suspicions. Despite describing her in unflattering terms (“not
many inhibitions in sexual regards,”) he recommended releasing
Hildegard into the care of her mother but placing her under
close surveillance by the National Socialist Welfare
Organization (NSV).Footnote 133 Seven weeks later, Jekelius decided to
institutionalize Hildegard on the grounds of her “sexual
depravation.” Although there are many examples in which Asperger
had no qualms committing girls to closed institutions on similar
grounds, in this case, he showed more leniency. For Hildegard,
it meant the difference between freedom and confinement to a
reformatory.Footnote 134

The cases analyzed here demonstrate that Asperger
did not refrain from diagnoses such as “feeble-mindedness,”
which could entail serious dangers in the context of a youth
welfare system dominated by an eliminatory ideology towards the
weakest members of society. In one regard, however, Asperger did
show a certain restraint. As outlined in a previous section,
while the Spiegelgrund staff routinely included information on
the patients’ and their families’ “hereditary qualities” and
sometimes even raised the possibility of (forcible)
sterilization, Asperger in most cases avoided such

Apart from this qualification, the sample yields
no evidence that Asperger proved more benevolent towards his
patients than his peers at Spiegelgrund when labeling children
with diagnoses that could have an enormous impact on their
future—quite the opposite. Like many of his colleagues, Asperger
had a marked tendency to separate children from their
families—which he often considered dysfunctional—and to commit
them to closed institutions. Of course, many children were
exposed to violence or neglect at home, and institutional
education in principle could have been a means of protecting
them. All too often, however, it seems that Asperger preferred
the pedagogical environment of a hierarchical institution over
the home provided by parents he considered neurotic, incapable,
or merely too “weak” in dealing with their child. In practice,
though perhaps despite his best intentions, this meant that he
regularly sent minors to institutions ripe with abuse and
violence [89].

In 1941, Asperger sent a 15-year-old boy to a
“labor education camp for work-shy youth” in Bavaria because he
hoped that strict discipline and forced labor would help
alleviate his severe hypochondriac symptoms.Footnote 135 Although this case is in some respects unusual, it
illustrates how authoritarian Asperger’s approach could be. The
case records kept by his clinic are full of examples revealing
how he considered strict discipline and “sovereign guidance”
(, a
signature phrase in his written reports) the answer to many of
his patients’ (and their caregivers’) troubles.Footnote 136

Asperger in the post-war years

This is not the place to give a full account of
Asperger’s post-war career, which spanned more than three
decades, therefore I will limit myself to a few points that are
relevant in the context of this paper. Little is known about
Asperger’s life during the final 2 years of the war, which he
spent in the Wehrmacht. After 9 months of training and service
in Vienna and Brünn/Brno, he was sent to Croatia in December
1943 with the 392nd Infantry Division, deployed for “protection”
of the occupied territories in Yugoslavia and the fight against
“partisans.”Footnote 137 The German forces’ tactics against irregular troops
in Yugoslavia included mass killings of civilians as hostages or
in reprisals, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths
([90]: 161).
Asperger briefly mentioned his war experiences in his 1974

[…] I was in the war, I was deployed in
Croatia in the anti-partisan war… I would not like to
miss any of these experiences. It is good that a man
knows how he behaves in mortal danger, with the bullets
whistling. It is also a proving ground. And a ground
where one has to care for others. It is also a great
gift from destiny that I never had to gun anybody down
[3].Footnote 138

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Asperger
returned to the Vienna University Pediatric Clinic. The
Heilpädagogik ward had sustained severe damage from a bomb
attack which also killed Viktorine Zak, Asperger’s closest
assistant [3]. On 1
September 1945, Asperger applied for the confirmation of the
Habilitation he had obtained in 1943—all such degrees awarded
during the Nazi period were made void upon liberation, pending
an inquiry into the candidate’s political background. As
mentioned, in 1938, Asperger had joined the National Socialist
Welfare Organization (NSV) and the German Labor Front (DAF) and
had applied for membership in the National Socialist German
Physicians’ League (NSDÄB).Footnote 139 In contrast to party formations such as the SS or
Hitler Youth, these were considered “affiliated organizations”
of the Nazi Party, and not part of the NSDAP itself. This
distinction allowed Asperger to emerge with a clean slate under
the Austrian implementation of denazification since he had never
joined the NSDAP. He avoided the career interruptions that many
of his colleagues faced and retained his position as the head of
the Heilpädagogik ward.Footnote 140 Additionally, from July 1946 to May 1949, he served
as provisional director of the pediatric clinic. In 1957, he
moved to Innsbruck, where he headed the local university
pediatric clinic until 1962 when he was formally appointed as
Chair of the Vienna Pediatric Clinic, the most prestigious
position in Austrian pediatrics.Footnote 141

With respect to Austria’s Nazi past, judging from
his writings, Asperger formed part of the wall of silence
established during the first years after the war. He made a rare
reference to the Nazi period in his 1977 retirement speech from
the Vienna clinic, vaguely referring to the Germans’ “arrogance,
hubris, [and] cruel iniquities” which had “inexorably led to
war” and to “terrible suffering.” As in his 1974 interview
[3], he painted
the war in terms of his personal experiences as an existential
learning opportunity ([4]: 196, [91]: 217). According to some, Asperger in
1938 risked his life to speak out against the threat that race
hygiene ideology posed to the children in his care. In 1977,
while explicitly addressing the war in a speech summarizing his
intellectual legacy, he did not care to mention National
Socialism, its millions of victims, or even the hundreds of
children, some of them his patients, who had been killed
practically under his eyes.

Although later in his career he represented
pediatrics as a whole, Heilpädagogik remained his central
concern. At least in Austria, he dominated the field for
decades, curtailed only by competition from the emerging
discipline of youth psychiatry.Footnote 142 Judging from his writings after 1945, the central
tenets of his thinking and his pedagogical approach remained
relatively unchanged. On a conceptual level, he saw his main
opponents in the representatives of psychoanalysis and related
theories focusing on dynamic psychological processes and
childhood experiences ([76]: 2–3, 272, and numerous other passages).
In principle, he also distanced himself from the genetic
determinism typical of Nazi race hygiene, at least to the extent
necessary to claim a space for his own discipline and its
therapeutic options ([76]: 55). Yet despite his often-stressed
“pedagogic optimism,” he believed that his patients were a
“selection of children with endogenous constitutional damages”
([76]: 79). It
is hardly surprising, then, that he would refer to his work as a
heroic and often hopeless fight against the terrible odds of
constitutional deficiencies of all kinds ([76]: 272–5). A typical
example of his approach is a 1952 paper on the “Psychopathology
of Young Criminals,” in which he named three groups of children
with constitutional or organic defects as particularly prone to
committing crimes: the so-called “unstable” (or “disorganized”)
type, those with encephalitis-induced brain damage, and the
“autistic, with disturbed instincts, especially those with
normal or above-average intelligence” ([92]: 31).

Despite his emphasis on heredity and constitution,
he mostly avoided explicit references to eugenics, which due to
its association with Nazi crimes had become discredited in
mainstream scientific discourse, at least in Austria and
Germany. In one passage of his textbook, he criticized the term
“unworthy of living” and stressed the need to dedicate the best
schools and the best teachers to the education of the mentally
disabled ([76]:
93). However, in a book with very few references overall, he
also quoted Otmar von Verschuer (1896–1969), one of the leading
race hygienists in Nazi Germany with ties to Josef Mengele
94], and
Johannes Lange (1891–1938), a contributor to the Nazis’ “Bible”
of race hygiene [95]), using their twin research to bolster his
views on the importance of heredity ([76]: 53–4, 140, 144, 207,
274). In his handbook on Heilpädagogik, Asperger also included
the following passage on the eugenic dangers of

Multiple studies, above all in Germany,
have shown that these families procreate in numbers
clearly above the average, especially in the cities.
[They] live without inhibitions, and rely without
scruples on public welfare to raise or help raise their
children. It is clear that this fact presents a very
serious eugenic problem, a solution to which is far
off—all the more, since the eugenic policies of the
recent past have turned out to be unacceptable from a
human standpoint ([76]:88).Footnote 143

While eugenics appeared only of peripheral concern
to Asperger, the idea of an inherited “general inferiority of
the nervous system” as a common etiological basis for most
childhood disorders was of central importance to him
([76]: III,
1–3, 53–61, 272). In a number of passages, this is linked to the
concept of “degenerative stigmas”—small bodily anomalies, which
were supposed to indicate the “degenerative constitution” of
some of his patients ([76]: 84, 85, with a reference to Lombroso,
86–7, 125, 142, 194).

One troubling consequence arising from this
approach is how Asperger regarded the sexual abuse of children.
He was convinced that victims of sexual abuse shared a common
constitutional disposition and certain character traits such as
“shamelessness,” leading them to “attract” such experiences,
while children with “natural defensive forces” should be able to
“reject” them ([96]: 27).Footnote 144 If a child suffered from trauma as a result of abuse
or rape, Asperger again took this as a sign of an inherent
constitutional weakness, since a “healthy personality” should be
able to “outgrow” even “brutal acts of sexual violation” without
suffering any damage in terms of psychological development
([96]: 24,
[76]: 58–60,
197, 262–3). In his textbook, the only examples offered on this
subject are cases in which the abuse was presented as a
fabrication of the child, reinforcing the impression that the
victims were always to blame—either because they were
phantasizing, if not outright lying, or because they had
“provoked” the deeds due to their constitutional predisposition
([76]: 233,
250–6).Footnote 145

The case of 15-year-old Edith H. illustrates the
continuity of Asperger’s thinking on sexual abuse from the Nazi
to the post-war period. Edith was admitted to the Heilpädagogik
ward in April 1941 because she had been sexually abused by a
40-year-old man. In his report, Asperger called her
“under-developed with regard to intellect and character.” He
deplored that she lacked “moral sense” and did not show any
remorse about what had happened. He recommended placing her in
permanent welfare care (), not just because of her
“severe sexual depravation” but also because of the moral danger
she allegedly posed to her environment. A few months later, in
accordance with Asperger’s recommendation, the court ordered her
forced admittance to Spiegelgrund. During her stay, according to
the physician Helene Jokl and Spiegelgrund’s director Erwin
Jekelius, she was friendly, helpful, and comradely, but also
lazy and susceptible to both positive and negative influences.
In contrast to Asperger, they considered her intelligence
average, but echoed his opinion on Edith’s “sexual depravity.”
They recommended sending her to Theresienfeld, a reformatory for
girls.Footnote 146

In a similar vein, Asperger rejected the
possibility that constitutionally healthy children could suffer
from war-related trauma. Any observable symptoms were again
either due to some inborn constitutional defect or arose from
the desire to gain material advantages, such as pensions
([76]: 141,
194).Footnote 147 The case of Max G. is an example of the impact this
narrow focus on a child’s alleged “constitution” could have on
their lives. In 1938, when Max was 6 years old, his family was
torn apart by the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies. His Jewish father
was forced into a divorce and spent 5 years in a concentration
camp. With his mother, Max then moved to Znojmo, a town annexed
from Czechoslovakia after the 1938 Munich Agreement, from where
he was expelled along with the German-speaking population in
1945. At 14 years old, he was living in war-torn Vienna with his
father. In August 1946, Asperger wrote an expert opinion for the
Juvenile Criminal Court on Max, who was accused of a series of
thefts. Not a single word in his assessment referred to the fate
of the boy’s father or to the fact that as a “half-Jew” he had
himself been under threat of persecution for half his life.
While other documents in the file stressed that the boy had
finished school with good grades despite his difficult
situation, Asperger described him as “intellectually clearly
deficient.” Based on the boy’s apparent “overfamiliarity” and
“unreliability,” he diagnosed him as an “epileptoid psychopath,”
a condition he described as the opposite of “autistic
psychopathy” with respect to social behavior. In November 1946,
after Max was fired from an apprenticeship that was seen as his
last chance to prove his worth, based on Asperger’s diagnosis
and recommendation, the boy was sent to the Eggenburg
reformatory.Footnote 148

As in other countries, the Austrian public has
over the last years been confronted with a wave of revelations
on the violence, abuse, and neglect pervading institutions set
up to protect children from precisely such conditions
97,98,99,100,101,102,103]. The same is true for
children with disabilities, who were often kept in asylum-type
institutions where they were denied rehabilitation or therapy
and exposed to severe hospitalism [104105].Footnote 149 In this context, a critical assessment of Asperger’s
brand of Heilpädagogik with its “pronounced dominance of
restrictive pedagogical concepts” ([74]: 613) is overdue.
Specifically, what needs to be investigated is how the ideas he
promoted of “hereditary constitutions” as the root of most
mental troubles, his bias against victims of sexual and other
abuse, his unwavering belief in the benefits of closed
educational institutions, and his emphasis on the authority of
the “genius educator”—the ideal of a towering father-figure that
he had created for himself—impacted the lives of thousands of
children who were often stigmatized with the label of
“constitutional defectiveness” on scientifically dubious grounds
and institutionalized.

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