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Hardcover Book Details
  • 05/2018
  • 9780393609646
  • 320 pages
  • $27.95
Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Adult; History & Military; (Market)

Hans Asperger, the pioneer of autism and Asperger syndrome in Nazi Vienna, has been celebrated for his compassionate defense of children with disabilities. But in this groundbreaking book, prize-winning historian Edith Sheffer exposes that Asperger was not only involved in the racial policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, he was complicit in the murder of children. As the Nazi regime slaughtered millions across Europe during WWII, it sorted people according to race, religion, behavior, and physical condition for either treatment or elimination. Nazi psychiatrists targeted children with different kinds of minds―especially those thought to lack social skills―claiming the Reich had no place for them. Asperger and his colleagues endeavored to mold certain “autistic” children into productive citizens, while transferring others they deemed untreatable to Spiegelgrund, one of the Reich’s deadliest child-killing centers. In the first comprehensive history of the links between autism and Nazism, Sheffer uncovers how a diagnosis common today emerged from the atrocities of the Third Reich. With vivid storytelling and wide-ranging research, Asperger’s Children will move readers to rethink how societies assess, label, and treat those diagnosed with disabilities.
Kirkus Reviews

The reputation of child psychiatrist Hans Asperger (1906-1980) comes under close scrutiny in this chilling and well-documented account of how the political and social values of Nazi psychiatry determined the fates of supposedly inferior children.

Sheffer (Modern European History/Stanford Univ.; Burned Bridge: How East and West Germany Made the Iron Curtain, 2011) reveals how the Nazi regime categorized children and examines Asperger’s role in its killing system. In its first conference in 1940 in Vienna, the German Society for Child Psychiatry and Curative Education established the doctrine of eugenicist selection and “the grandiose experiment of Nazi child psychiatry as a distinct field.” Experts would differentiate between children who were valuable to society and who, in the words of Paul Schröder, “the Reich’s ‘father’ of child psychiatry,” were “mostly worthless and ineducable.” Asperger, present at the convention, endorsed this doctrine and became director of the Curative Education Clinic at the University of Vienna Hospital, where, as a medical consultant for the Nazi administration, he assessed children. On numerous occasions—likely hundreds of times—he recommended transfer to Spiegelgrund, the clinic in Vienna where “inferior” children were killed under the state’s euthanasia program. Sheffer’s research demonstrates how Asperger’s diagnoses emerged from the values of the Nazi regime, and her account is filled with revealing notes from Asperger’s clinic and disturbing stories of the experiences of children who survived Spiegelgrund. The author examines Asperger’s writings and his career after the war, when he claimed that he was a resister of Nazism. She reports that he has been viewed in various ways: as “a resister who rescued children, as a determined perpetrator, or as a passive follower.” Her own conclusion—that he was a conscious participant—is persuasive.

A compelling picture of the evils of the Nazi regime and of the perversion of Nazi psychiatry.

Publishers Weekly

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 [was] 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. (May)

The National Book Review

In her original, compelling new book, Stanford University history professor Sheffer establishes a link between autism and Nazism and provides a new way to understand the Third Reich, and the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Impeccably researched through medical notes and contemporaneous accounts, Sheffer’s book focuses on pediatrician Hans Asperger, once championed for his work with children lacking social skills, who absorbed the Nazi regime’s obsession with purity and perfection. Psychiatry and “sociability” became categories of persecution, and Sheffer, in well-documented detail, relates how Asperger sent “inferior children” to a Vienna clinic where the treatment was euthanasia.

NPR Interview with Edith Sheffer: Doctor Behind Asperger's Syndrome Subject To N

In the book "Asperger's Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna," Edith Sheffer writes about the doctor who first diagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. Sheffer tells NPR's Michel Martin how Hans Asperger's Nazi ties were hidden for years.

The Nazi History Behind ‘Asperger’

My son’s school, David Starr Jordan Middle School, is being renamed. A seventh grader exposed the honoree, Stanford University’s first president, as a prominent eugenicist of the early 20th century who championed sterilization of the “unfit.”

This sort of debate is happening all over the country, as communities fight over whether to tear down Confederate monuments and whether Andrew Jackson deserves to remain on the $20 bill. How do we decide whom to honor and whom to disavow?

There are some straightforward cases: Hitler Squares were renamed after World War II; Lenin statues were hauled away after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But other, less famous monsters of the past continue to define our landscape and language.

I have spent the past seven years researching the Nazi past of Dr. Hans Asperger. Asperger is credited with shaping our ideas of autism and Asperger syndrome, diagnoses given to people believed to have limited social skills and narrow interests.

The Problem with Asperger's

Millions of people are identified with Asperger’s syndrome, as a diagnosis, an identity and even an adjective. Asperger’s name has permeated our culture—yet I believe we should no longer invoke it. 

Naming medical diagnoses after individuals is an honor, meant to recognize those who discover conditions and to commend their work. While there is a move toward descriptive diagnostic labels in medicine, certain eponyms have entered our everyday language and will likely endure. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, for example.

Hans Asperger, however, neither described Asperger syndrome as we understand it today nor merits commendation. I have spent seven years researching his past in Nazi Vienna, uncovering his complicity in the Nazi regime and its “euthanasia” program that murdered children considered to be disabled. Contrary to Asperger’s reputation as a resister in the Third Reich, he approved the transfer of dozens of children to Vienna's killing center, Spiegelgrund, where they perished. He publicly spoke—and published—about the need to send the most “difficult cases” to Spiegelgrund. He was also close colleagues with top euthanasia figures in Vienna, including Erwin Jekelius, the director of Spiegelgrund, who was engaged to Hitler’s sister.


Hardcover Book Details
  • 05/2018
  • 9780393609646
  • 320 pages
  • $27.95