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Angela Tilby: The dark side to Hans Asperger

08 June 2018


IT WAS in the early 1990s that I first remember hearing about Asperger syndrome. The term described a form of autism in which social handicaps were often accompanied by high intellectual or artistic ability. I have known people who have found being diagnosed with “Asperger’s” an immense relief, explaining why they had always felt “different”, while at the same time being able to navigate the world reasonably successfully.

The term has become doubly controversial in recent months because of the publication of new research into Hans Asperger (1906-80), the Viennese paediatrician who gave his name to the condition, carried out by Dr Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna.

Asperger became interested in a group of boys who were socially withdrawn and incapable of normal interactions but who nevertheless displayed particular interests or talents that they pursued obsessively. He described these boys as “little professors”, and set out to show how they were able to find success in their chosen fields.

On the basis of his research, he wrote: “We are convinced that autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community.” He had a personal interest in this condition: descriptions of his childhood suggest that he could have had traits of the syndrome himself. After the war, he became Professor of Paediatrics at Vienna University.

But Dr Czech’s new research study, “Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and ‘race hygiene’ in Nazi-era Vienna”, published in the journal Molecular Autism in April, suggests a dark side to Asperger’s work. His statement that autistic children could grow up to have a place in society conceals the probability that he agreed with the Nazi programme of eugenics and was involved in selecting disabled children to be secretly euthanised.

The clinician’s job, as he said in 1940, was to “take a fine sieve and economise . . . with human souls”. Useful talent could outweigh disability. Asperger, in other words, accepted the eugenicist view that individual human beings were of value only if they fitted in to society’s purpose. Misfits should be eradicated.

Of course, this is not an unusual view in recent human history. It has often accompanied ideologies of racial, religious, or political purity, whether that is inspired by a perverse appeal to evolutionary theory or by a sacred text. Yesterday’s Nazis are today’s jihadists. It explains why totalitarian regimes of both the Left and the Right pay less than lip service to the idea of human rights: they believe that those who are incapable of “correct” living have no place among the living.

It has been suggested that the syndrome identified by Asperger should be renamed and his contribution scrubbed out of paediatric history. This would be to edit history in favour of our own version of correctness. Truth, here, is complicated and deeply troubling, but Asperger probably saved some lives that others might well have condemned.

Eradicating his name merely replicates his error, because what we forget we are condemned to repeat.

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