Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna
by Edith Sheffer
WW Norton, 2018
Diagnoses of autism in the US in the last quarter-century have dramatically increased in both number and subtlety, as both psychiatrists and the general public have grown more knowledgeable and sensitive to detecting and understanding what autism is and how it manifests itself. Although the term autism was first introduced in 1911 by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, the whole medical concept took root in the modern culture in 1981 when a psychiatrist named Lorna Wing threw a spotlight on the work of Austrian doctor Hans Asperger and his 1944 thesis about autistic behaviors in children.
Historian Edith Sheffer's intensely fascinating new book, Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, turns the focus onto Hans Asperger himself in a clearly landmark English-language biography. Sheffer prodigiously researches the shape of Asperger's mind and career as it appears in historical records. The typical thumbnail overview of Asperger – a view initially crafted by the man himself – is that of an unwilling ally of the Nazi regime, a devout Catholic who never became a Nazi Party member and did what he could, including risking arrest or death, to protect autistic children from the macabre and deadly Nazi fixation with eugenics, racial purity, and euthanasia.
Sheffer brings to this typical picture exactly the kind of calm deliberation that does it the most justice; she's aware throughout of the personal variables involved. “Given the endless and unthinking decisions of everyday life, it can be misleading to classify people too neatly, including those whose actions might appear to be clear-cut on the surface,” she writes. “There were too many facets to living under Nazism.”
The book sketches in Asperger's life in swift, evocative installments that bring him rapidly to the ideological crucible of his life, when the Nazis invade Austria in 1938 and Asperger's work with autistic children becomes in essence nationalized. Asperger had long maintained that an autistic child was “like an alien, oblivious to the surrounding noise and movement, and inaccessible in his preoccupation” – a characterization his Nazi superiors clearly shared, with the typical Nazi hatred for all things alien.
Sheffer does a quietly excellent job of capturing the criminal schizophrenia that infused the thinking of Asperger's Nazi peers and Asperger himself. “Asperger's generous rhetoric was in line with that of his colleagues in Nazi psychiatry – even those directly involved in disabled children,” she writes. “Asperger's murderous mentor, Franz Hamburger, stressed the importance of championing disabled youths 'even if we believe optimism is not warranted.'” But the championing was hollow; these children, the most vulnerable of Nazi victims, were murdered by the hundreds in death-facilities like Austria's notorious children's “clinic” Spiegelgrund.
Despite the broad sweep of Sheffer's narrative, the question of Asperger's Children must necessarily come down to the man himself. And the portrait here is damning: Asperger received praise and promotions from his Nazi superiors; he willingly contoured his research to suit the plainly murderous intent of those superiors; as Sheffer writes, he was too directly involved to be innocent:
While Asperger may well have endeavored to protect some children who could face death, it is nevertheless documented that he recommended the transfer of others to Spiegelgrund, dozens of whom were killed. Asperger may well also have felt, as he said, he was in a “truly dangerous situation,” and pressured into participation in the euthanasia program. Anyone in his milieu, with colleagues like his, would have felt pressured. That said, Asperger chose his milieu and colleagues. He had numerous, volitional ties to the euthanasia program, and it pervaded his professional world.
The miasmic parting impression is cautionary. “Asperger's” is mentioned in casual conversation by hundreds of people every day in 2018, and Sheffer's book attentively and unflinchingly reminds readers of the complex and largely forgotten darkness attached to the term. It's unnerving, necessary reading.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com