It is striking that in today’s society the killing of handicapped individuals is condoned and that reverberations of euthanasia as so-called “mercy killings” can be used to justify such measures. In the history of autism Asperger rose to fame for having published a thesis describing the phenotype that bears his name. On the other hand Asperger’s role in the killing of dozens of handicapped children is less publicized. According to the historian Czech, in a work published in English, “Asperger kept a certain distance from the Nazi movement, which may account for the fact that his involvement in children’s euthanasia remains practically unknown to this day. In 1942, as part of a seven member commission, Asperger examined 220 inmates of the Gugging hospital’s children’s facility. Of these, 35 were sent to the Spiegelgrund at the behest of the commission; all 35 children died within a short period of time” (Czech, 2014).
Even for those who knew about Asperger’s involvement in these and maybe other killings, e.g., Steve Silberman when writing Neurotribes, they condone his role in these murders. In a recent interview Silberman states, “The most important lesson is not that brutal regimes like the Third Reich enable evil men to do evil, but that they are able to compel even well-intentioned people to do monstrous things” (n.pr/1NlHQ0r). In disingenuous fashion Mr. Silberman provides counter evidence to Asperger’s Nazi involvement by claiming that the Gestapo came twice to arrest him. This account was based on Asperger’s own assertions. As stated in one of my previous blogs, and later corroborated in Donvan and Zucker’s new book, this was a common way for many people in the postwar era to distance themselves from the Nazis.
This feeling of justifying euthanasia because of the prevailing moral ambiguity of the time should be condemned. Just because everybody was doing it, does not absolve a criminal of his/hers murderous actions. For those that lost everything, including their loved ones, murder is murder.
During World War II euthanasia of handicapped individuals was more prevalent in Austria than in Germany. This may have been due to the fact that many of the patients in Austria were subjected to medical experimentation while they were alive or even after death (e.g., organ harvesting). Many of the physicians within such facilities used individuals as guinea pigs in lethal experiments (injecting them with virulent microscopic organisms like the one causing tuberculosis) while others investigated the use of medical technology to kill large numbers of individuals. Some inmates at these extermination facilities received a drug overdose, others were electrocuted, and those less fortunate were slowly starved to death. A significant portion of those murdered were children suffering from “idiocy” and/or diverse “deformities”.
Let’s be clear that inmates at these facilities were subjected to medical torture, including injections with apomorphine (providing hours of nausea and vomiting), painful injections of sulfur, physical isolation, and cold baths. After death, the children’s brains and other organs were collected for further research. The body parts were then widely circulated among academic centers in Austria. One particular aim of research in academic institutions of Austria was that of a movement trying to “establish child psychiatry, psychology, and therapeutic pedagogy as independent academic disciplines. Therapeutic pedagogy is an interesting case in point because efforts to establish this new discipline united euthanasia activists from the Spiegelgrund, such as Erwin Jekelius and Heinrich Gross, with staff from the University Pediatric Clinic, such as Franz Hamburger or the much better known Hans Asperger, who was able to greatly advance his career during the war” (Czech, 2014).
It is unfortunate that the history of autism is tainted with euthanasia. However, it appears that Asperger was not the only culprit in this sordid history. Andreas Rett, famous for his research in neurodevelopmental disorders and for describing Rett’s syndrome, had a Nazi past. Many of the specimens he reported upon were based on euthanasia victims from Austrian institutions. Rett and Asperger kept rising through the institutional ranks both during and after the War without any indictment for their role in Nazi euthanasia or for the exploitation of their organs. Contrariwise many of their victim’s organs remain in jars without hope for a proper burial. Where is the justice?
Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the gracious Eric Kandel who won a Nobel Prize for his work on memory. Kandel’s family was forced to emigrate away from Austria leaving behind all of their belongings. In his book “In Search of Memory” Kandel writes the following:
“Yet despite their active participation in the Holocaust the Austrians claimed to be victims of Hitler’s aggression- Otto von Hapsburg the pretender to the Austrian throne. Managed to convince the Allies that Austria was the first free nation to fall victim to Hitler’s war. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were willing to accept this argument in 1943, before the war ended, because von Hapsburg thought it would stimulate Austria’s public resistance to the Nazis as the war ground to a halt. In later years both allied maintained the myth to ensure that Austria would remain neutral in the Cold War.”
“Because it was not held accountable for its actions between 1938 and 1945, Austria never underwent the should-searching and cleansing that Germany did after the war. Austria readily accepted the mantle of injured innocence, and this attitude characterized many of Austria’s actions after the war, including its treatment of Jewish financial claims. The country’s initial uncompromising stand against paying reparations to the Jews was based on the premise that Austria had itself been a victim of aggression.”
“Equally disturbing was the fact that many of the non-Jewish members of the faculty of medicine who remained in Vienna during the war were Nazis, yet they retained their academic appointments afterwards. Furthermore, some who were initially forced to leave the faculty because they had committed crimes against humanity were later reinstated.”
“To give but one example, Richard Pernkopf, dean of the faculty of medicine from 1938 to1943 and rector of the University of Vienna from 1943 to 1945, was a Nazi even before Hitler entered Austria. Pernkopf had been a “supporting” member of the National Socialist party since 1952 and an official member since 1933. Three weeks after Austria joined with Germany he was appointed dean; he appeared in Nazi uniform before the medical faculty, from which he had dismissed all Jewish physicians, and gave the “Heil Hitler” salute.”
“After the war, Pernkopf was imprisoned in Salzburg by Allied forces but he was released a few years later, his status having been changed from that of war criminal to a lesser category. Perhaps most shocking he was allowed to finish his book Atlas of Anatomy, a work thought to be based on dissections of the bodies of people who had been killed in Austria concentration camps.”
At present, some members of the Neurodiversity movement cite nonsensically that autism is part of the normal variability of the human genome. They cite gifts within their members but refuse to acknowledge those that are more severely impaired and in dire need of medical attention. Silberman himself incorrectly claims that many severe handicaps are part of the human spectrum involved in aging. His book, Neurotribes, trivializes the plight of those more severely affected and who can’t benefit from just having better accommodations.
After the War, Austria had an active role in re-writing history by destroying all documents related to atrocities committed at their institutions. Do not let Steve Silberman and other neurodiversity proponents rewrite history and erase the plight of severely affected autistic individuals.
For those interested in further readings on Neurotribes, please refer to the following blogs:
Neurotribe or diatribe?: bit.ly/1psMJ45
Steve Silberman and his tribe of Nazi sympathizers: bit.ly/1npmaLq
Neurotribes: How the Cookie Crumbles? bit.ly/1RI9asz
Czech H. Abusive medical practices on “euthanasia” victims in Austria during and after World War II. In S. Rubenfeld and S. Benedict (eds.) Human Subjects Research after the Holocaust, Springer International Publishing, Chapter 9, pages 109-125, 2014.
Kandel E. In Search of Memory. Norton and Company: New York, 2006.