“An impassioned indictment, one that glows with the heat of a prosecution motivated by an ethical imperative.” —Lisa Appignanesi, New York Review of Books
In the first comprehensive history of the links between autism and Nazism, prize-winning historian Edith Sheffer uncovers how a diagnosis common today emerged from the atrocities of the Third Reich. As the Nazi regime slaughtered millions across Europe during World War Two, it sorted people according to race, religion, behavior, and physical condition. Nazi psychiatrists targeted children with different kinds of minds—especially those thought to lack social skills—claiming the Reich had no place for them. Hans Asperger and his colleagues endeavored to mold certain “autistic” children into productive citizens, while transferring others to Spiegelgrund, one of the Reich’s deadliest child killing centers. In this unflinching history, Sheffer exposes Asperger’s complicity in the murderous policies of the Third Reich.
Historian Sheffer (Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain) examines the confounding legacy of Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, who worked with autistic children during the 1930s and '40s, unveiling a figure who initially offered benevolent support to some autistic children, but then death to others. In 1937, Asperger advocated a nonjudgmental approach toward children's differences; a year later, following the Nazi annexation of Austria, he publicly recommended "the overhaul of medicine according to guiding principles of National Socialism" with its emphases on group assimilation and physical perfection as determinants of whether people deserved to live or die and introduced his concept of "autistic psychopathy," which forms the basis of the present-day diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Asperger was likely involved in sending 44 children to the Vienna Municipal Youth Welfare Institution at Spiegelgrund, where at least 789 children died, inhumane neglect and brutal punishments were daily rituals, and euthanasia was considered a treatment. "Evil just a part of life" there, one survivor later wrote; "it was everyday life, and nobody questioned it." At the end of the war, Asperger was cleared of wrongdoing and even described his war service as somewhat heroic; he continued an illustrious career in child psychiatry. This is a revelatory, haunting biography of a gifted practitioner who chose to fall in line with the Nazi regime and the far-reaching consequences of that choice, for his own patients and for those still using and being labeled with the diagnostic concepts he originated.