Nazi child euthanasia and Hans Asperger
Charles Darwin published his ‘survival of the fittest’ theory in his Origin of Species in 1859, and applied it to human beings in his Descent of Man in 1871. His cousin, Francis Galton, expanded this in his Hereditary Genius of 1869 by proposing that the proportion of the ‘fittest’ in any population could and should be increased by arranged marriages of suitably gifted people. He coined the term ‘eugenics’ (from Greek εὐγενής eugenes 'well-born' from εὖ eu, 'good, well' and γένος genos, 'race, stock, kin') for this concept in 1883.
By the 1930s, Darwinism had become enormously popular in Germany, largely through the writings and doctored images of Ernst Haeckel, and Adolf Hitler enthusiastically began applying its precepts in a program of population purification. Beginning in 1934, the first phase of this was the forced sterilization of the ‘unfit’ (those diagnosed as feeble-minded, or with schizophrenia, epilepsy, blindness, etc.)—“up to 400,000” all told.1,2 Then from 1939 Hitler superseded this by approving a much more effective population purgation, namely the killing of those considered to be ‘unworthy’ of existence. The first victims were not chosen on the basis of Jewishness, but were the ‘evolutionarily unfit’ Germans of any ancestry.
Chronologically, the Nazi’s first organized killings were of children, and this later expanded into the genocide of the Holocaust. The purpose was twofold:
- To prevent those with hereditary defects and diseases passing them on to future offspring.
- To reduce the burden on the strong and healthy (the German Volk) in having to support their incapacitated kinsmen, deemed ‘useless eaters’ (unnütze Esser) by the Nazis.
This was Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ by the outright elimination of the unfit, euphemistically known as ‘social Darwinism’ in the West, but called ‘child euthanasia’ (German: Kinder-Euthanasie) by the Nazis. It involved the systematic murder of mentally and physically disabled children and young people in at least 30 killing stations, “misleadingly labelled Kinderfachabteilungen (‘special children’s wards’),”3 within existing medical facilities in four different countries.4
One reason for this name “was to mislead parents of children with a disability into believing that excellent care was made available to their children in this way.”3 However, in the wards, the children “were killed by physicians or nurses, and their parents notified of the ‘sudden unexpected’ death of their child. … Some children died of overdoses of barbiturates or narcotics, others of starvation, neglect, exposure to unsanitary conditions or cold temperatures, or the withholding of medical treatment.”3
This WW2 child euthanasia in Vienna made news headlines in Western countries in 2018 with the release of the findings of two researchers who inculpate the involvement of Dr Hans Asperger, after whom the medical condition Asperger’s syndrome is named.
The researchers are:
- Herwig Czech, a historian at the Medical University of Vienna, who has spent eight years exploring the Austrian archives for Asperger’s Nazi-era texts, personnel files, and medical records of his patients (including those from Am Spiegelgrund—see shortly). In a comprehensive 2018 article in the journal Molecular Autism,5 Czech analyzed these records for the first time.
- Dr Edith Sheffer, Ph.D., is a historian of Germany and Central Europe, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her 2018 book is the product of seven years research and builds on Czech’s study; it is entitled Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Germany.6
Who was Hans Asperger?
Johann ‘Hans’ Friedrich Karl Asperger (1906–1980) was an Austrian pediatrician, medical theorist, and professor, who studied mental disorders in children. After graduating in medicine at the University of Vienna in 1931, he joined this University’s Children’s Clinic (part of the city’s general hospital), and in 1932 began working in the Clinic’s Heilpädagogik (therapeutics education) ward. In 1934, he was appointed head of this ward. A co-worker was Dr Erwin Jekelius, a Nazi enthusiast who would become one of the most prominent WW2 identities in child and adult euthanasia in Vienna. He was the director of the killing centre of Am Spiegelgrund Clinic in Steinhof Hospital from 1940 to 1942.
Austria became part of Greater Germany by the Anschluss or Annexation of 12 March 1938, and Asperger thereupon joined several organizations affiliated with the Nazi Party,7 but avoided joining the NSDAP itself.8 This distinction allowed him to emerge with a clean slate from the post-war Austrian denazification process. However, Czech writes:
“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 favour of his discipline’s mission within the Nazi state and declared his allegiance to the tenets of Nazi medicine. … Beginning in 1938, he took to signing his diagnostic reports with ‘Heil Hitler’—a merely symbolic, but revealing gesture.”9
In 1944, Asperger’s landmark paper “Autistic Psychopathy of Childhood” (previously submitted to the University of Vienna in 1942 as his postdoctoral thesis) was published.10 This described the behaviour of four boys (out of many he studied) who all exhibited social isolation through a lack of empathy, inability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, and clumsy movements, but each had such an intense absorption in his own special interest that Asperger called them ‘little professors’. He named this condition ‘autistic psychopathy’.
English psychiatrist Lorna Wing (1928–2014) introduced Asperger’s research to the English-speaking medical fraternity in 1981. She translated his term ‘autistic psychopathy’ as ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ (AS), this being a neutral term to avoid “misunderstanding because of the popular tendency to equate psychopathy with sociopathic behaviour”.11 For what AS involves, see box.
However, researcher Edith Sheffer writes: “Asperger had not used a neutral term. Psychopathy in German psychiatry had long connoted social deviance and recalcitrance—which were embedded in his Nazi-era diagnosis. So when Asperger’s work went mainstream, it was cleansed of its historical context.”12
Then in 1991, German psychologist Uta Frith13 translated Hans Asperger’s original paper (ref. 10) into English.14 According to Sheffer: “Frith did not include Asperger’s Preface to his thesis, which engaged with Nazi child psychiatrists and situated the diagnosis within the intellectual framework of the Third Reich.”12
Killings at Am Spiegelgrund Clinic at Steinhof hospital
Am Spiegelgrund was a children’s psychiatric clinic founded in July 1940 at the Steinhof psychiatric hospital in Vienna. Dr Erwin Jekelius was the first Medical Director of this clinic until 1942,15 and as such was responsible for the deaths that occurred there under his direction. All told, from 1940 to 1945, 789 children were killed here, making it the Reich’s second largest child killing facility.
Hundreds of children’s brains were harvested during the program, stored in the cellar of the Spiegelgrund Clinic, and then used for medical research in Vienna’s laboratories and as the basis for various physicians’ publications for decades after the war. Then, in 2002, the remains of Spielgelgrund’s victims were finally buried and memorialized.
Public knowledge of the killings
Despite the Nazi propaganda—telling the parents that the deaths were unexpected, or calling them ‘euthanasia’ in official reports, knowledge of the mass child murders was widespread, and not only among the Viennese population. The British Broadcasting Service (BBC) reported on events at Steinhof in the summer of 1941.
And on 23 September 1941, a Royal Air Force mission dropped leaflets instead of bombs on Vienna as part of a British propaganda campaign. These dubbed Jekelius “The gentleman with the Syringe”, and the text warned Viennese readers: “Jekelius haunts the corridors of Steinhof in a white doctor’s coat with his syringe. He does not bring new life to the ill, but death.”16
Specific involvement of Asperger
Czech gives the names of two girls, 2-year-old Herta Schrieber who had been ill with encephalitis and 5-year-old Elizabeth Schrieber (no apparent relation to Herta, but also with encephalitis effects), whose mothers were unable or unwilling to take care of them. Asperger examined them both in 1941 and recommended that they be sent to Spiegelgrund. Both died of pneumonia, the most common cause of death at Spiegelgrund, which was routinely induced by barbiturates; Herta after 2 months, Elizabeth after 6 months.17
In 1941, Asperger was asked to be the medical advisor on a seven-member commission to assess the ‘educability’ of children at the Gugging psychiatric hospital in Vienna. He was the only expert on Heilpädagogik (therapeutics education) on the panel and the only clinician with scientific credentials. Those labelled ‘uneducable’ or ‘unemployable’ (key words for euthanasia candidates) were to be “delivered to the operation of Dr Jekelius as soon as possible”.18 Czech comments: “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.”18
As the war progressed, “it became a political and military imperative to rehabilitate as many potential workers as possible, even those considered of inferior hereditary quality”,19 so this also happened at Spiegelgrund. However, those who could not be made useful were eliminated. According to Czech: Just from Gugging, “59 of 158 children evaluated by the commission died at Spiegelgrund before the end of the war, a death rate of 37.3%.”20 And Czech summarises: “In this case, it seems that Asperger was a well functioning cog in a deadly machine.”20
Relevance for us
There is of course nothing unique about all this. Today, especially in developed countries whose education system has been dominated by evolutionary thinking for decades, there is a huge push to legalize the killing of unwanted babies. This is not only in the womb by abortion, for social reasons, for which many countries have already extended legal permission, but increasingly post-birth as well. All this has led Christians to pray to God for Him to overrule in the affairs of parliaments as never before. See ‘Bioethicists’ obsessed with killing babies—why?
Asperger syndrome (AS), also known just as Asperger's, is a developmental disorder characterized by a pattern of symptoms that vary with age and ability, rather than by a single symptom. These include difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication (such as eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gesture), plus physical clumsiness, along with restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour, and intense preoccupation with a narrow subject or interest.
It is a mild form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—what Prof. Uta Frith calls “a dash of autism”. Children with AS may have a sophisticated vocabulary at a young age, but have difficulty in communicating. They tend to have verbose spoken language, sometimes incoherent to others, with oddities of loudness, pitch, intonation and rhythm. Thus, individuals with AS may have a high intellectual capacity, while suffering from a lower social capacity. They see, hear, and feel the world differently to other people, and may be unable to read social cues or body language from people around them. They usually want to fit in and interact with others, but often don’t know how to do it.
There is no known ‘cure’—children with AS grow up to become adults with AS. Treatment involves behavioural therapy, i.e. it is aimed at improving such things as poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness/coordination. Unlike children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who lack an ability to focus, children with AS focus obsessively on specific and often unusual topics. This is why many people with the disorder are able to become experts on niche topics. Hence with the right support and encouragement, people with AS can lead full and independent lives.
It is three to four times more common in boys than in girls. Signs usually begin from two or three years old and typically last for a person's entire life. It is mostly a ‘hidden disability’, i.e. you can’t tell if someone has AS from their outward appearance.
In 1992, Asperger’s syndrome became a distinct diagnosis when it was included in the 10th edition of the World Health Organization’s diagnostic manual, International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). In 1994, it was added to the 4th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s publication Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4) as Asperger’s Disorder. In this (DSM-4), Asperger’s was a separate disorder from the one other main category recognised, namely autism.
In 2013, the 5th edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), officially eliminated several by-then-familiar autism spectrum diagnostic categories. These included Asperger’s Disorder (AD), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), all of which were folded into the single umbrella term, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This was for medical reasons, not political, i.e., there are now different levels of severity, rather than different diagnoses.21
This elimination of Asperger’s from DSM-5 was controversial medically, and other authorities argued for its retention because its inclusion in DSM-4 resulted in a dramatic increase in its recognition both in children and adults. Many patients and families were also “shocked that such an identity-defining diagnosis as AS ceased to exist overnight”.22 Note: As of 2018, Asperger’s Syndrome remains as a classification in WHO’s ICD-10.
References and notes
- Before Hitler, the USA led the world in enforced sterilizations. In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world, and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the compulsory sterilization of patients in U.S. state mental institutions. Return to text.
- Sheffer, E., Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, Norton, New York, 2018, p. 94. Return to text.
- Kaelber, L., Child Murder in Nazi Germany: The Memory of Nazi Medical Crimes and Commemoration of “Children’s Euthanasia” Victims at two Facilities, Societies 2012, 2(3):157–194, Sept. 2012. Return to text.
- One of these was in the Czech Republic, two were in Austria, four were in Poland, and about two dozen were in Germany. For cities, see Kaelber L., Kinderfachabteilungen (“Special Children’s Wards”): Sites of Nazi “Children’s ‘Euthanasia’” Crimes and Their Commemoration in Europe, www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/children. Return to text.
- Czech, H., Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, Molecular Autism 9(29):1–43, 19 April 2018. Return to text.
- Sheffer, E., ref. 2. Return to text.
- Namely the German Labour Front (DAF), the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization (NSV), and the National Socialist Physicians’ League (NSDAB), “which was not a straightforward doctor’s professional association, but a lead ‘fighting organization’ of the Nazi Party that sought to coordinate physicians according to party principles and was involved in the persecution of Jewish doctors” (ref. 6, p. 81). He had previously joined the Association of German Doctors in Austria (Verein Deutscher Ärzte in Österreich) in 1934, “which promoted German nationalist objectives” (ref. 2, p. 46). Return to text.
- The National Socialist German Workers' Party (German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, abbreviation NSDAP), commonly referred to in English as the Nazi Party. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 11. Return to text.
- Asperger, H., Die 'Autistischen Psychopathen' im Kindesalter (‘Autistic Psychopathy’ in Childhood), Archiv fur Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 117(1):76–136, 1944. Return to text.
- Wing, L., Asperger’s syndrome: a clinical account, Psychological Medicine 11(1):115–129, 1981. Return to text.
- Sheffer, E., ref. 2, p. 242. Return to text.
- German development psychologist Uta Frith is Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. She describes individuals with Asperger’s as “having a dash of autism”. Return to text.
- Asperger H. (ref. 10); trans. and annot. Frith U  (1991). “‘Autistic psychopathy’ in childhood”, in Frith U: Autism and Asperger syndrome, Cambridge University Press, pp. 37–92. Return to text.
- Jekelius was drafted into the Wehrmacht and in 1942 was sent to the Russian Front, where he “was captured by Soviet forces, sentenced in Moscow to 25 years’ incarceration, and died of bladder cancer in prison labour in 1952” (ref. 2, p. 226). Return to text.
- The leaflet ref. is “Luftpost 19, dropped by the RAF on 23 Sept. 1941”. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, pp. 20–21 & 22–23. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 24. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 15. Return to text.
- Ref. 5, p. 24 & 25. Return to text.
- Haopé, F. Why fold Asperger syndrome into autism spectrum disorder in DSM-5? Return to text.
- Barahona-Corréa, J. and Filipe, C., A Concise History of Asperger Syndrome: The Short Reign of a Troublesome Diagnosis, Frontiers in Psychology 6:2024, 2015. Return to text.