May 24, 2024

‘Asperger syndrome’ now has a different meaning

The renowned physician may have been a Nazi collaborator

Experience shows that the practice of naming diseases and syndromes after physicians may carry an ethical burden. In recent years a number of eminent Germans have been uncovered as Nazis or Nazi sympathisers. Reiter's syndrome, for example, is named after Hans Reiter (1881- 1969) who was tried at Nuremberg and found guilty of conducting typhoid experiments that killed hundreds of prisoners in concentration camps. Friedrich Wegener (1907-1990), whose name persists in Wegener's granulomatosis, was involved in selecting Jews from the Lodz ghetto for extermination at Auschwitz.

And now the finger has pointed at Hans Asperger, the Austrian paediatrician who first described a form of autism. For many years, Asperger was regarded as a doctor who defended “misfits” from the Nazis at great personal risk.

However, an historical essay in the journal BMC Molecular Autism accuses Asperger of collaborating with Nazi doctors in some of their worst excesses. Asperger never joined the Nazi party and as an active Catholic his loyalty to the regime was initially suspect. However, after the 1938 Anschluss, he gradually became more involved in some of the Nazi programs and was eventually viewed as “politically irreproachable”. He appears to have helped select victims for a child-euthanasia program as a member of a commission which screened youngsters with mental disabilities. He embraced Hitler’s ideas on race hygiene and eugenics. One of his speeches given shortly after the Anschluss, for example, is a clear endorsement of Nazi ideology: 

The central idea of the new Reich—that the whole is more than its parts, and that the Volk 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.

There is no smoking gun in the evidence marshalled against Asperger to convict him of crimes like the atrocities of Auschwitz, but he was comfortable with Nazi policies. The essay is a portrait of a talented doctor, like many of his contemporaries, who “managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities.” Perhaps this gives a radically new meaning to “Asperger syndrome”. 

Should the condition be renamed? Some say Yes. “We should stop saying ‘Asperger’,” says historian Edith Sheffer. “It’s one way to honour the children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it.”

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