Edith Sheffer’s ‘Asperger’s Children’ Reveals ‘The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna’

Edith Sheffer updates the record on the famed Austrian physician to chilling effect

As a pioneer of autistic psychopathy, Hans Asperger has a benevolent image as a “champion of neuro-diversity,” writes historian Edith Sheffer. His diagnoses gave a name to behaviors that had previously tainted and excluded young children. Rather than dismiss them, Asperger “sympathized with their challenges, advocated their potential, and celebrated their uniqueness.’

But what Sheffer argues in Asperger’s Children:  The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna – a challenging biography of Asperger and history of child welfare in inter-war Vienna – is that this is just one side of him. Enmeshed in the Nazi regime, “Asperger’s diagnosis of autistic psychopathy emerged from the values and institutions of the Third Reich,” while files reveal he “participated in Vienna’s child killing system,” sending dozens of children to their deaths.

Born in 1906 and raised in a Lower Austrian village, Asperger was never a member of the Nazi Party but possessed “solid far-right-wing credentials, holding memberships in several anti-liberal, anti-socialist, anti-modern, and anti-Semitic organizations.” These include Bund Neuland, “an extreme nationalist Catholic youth association with anti-Semitic leanings,” and the Saint Lucas Guild, “an organization that promoted Catholic eugenic through lectures and courses within Vienna’s medical community.”

By the 1920s, Vienna had become “a crucible of ideas, where an abundance of educators, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psycho-analysts brought different theories to bear in schools, courts, clinics, and a burgeoning  welfare system” built  by  the  city’s  radical  social  democratic  government. The progressive welfare system of Red Vienna would be bastardized to become eugenicist and highly interventionist under Nazism to destructive ends. Asperger, Sheffer asserts, had no qualms moving from one system to the other.


Sheffer levels two main charges.  The first is that Asperger’s ideas concerning autistic psychopathy were constructed upon the foundations of Nazi child psychiatry.  In the Third Reich, children could be diagnosed as gemütsarm, lacking in the fundamental capacity to form deep bonds with other people, or Gemüt.

Asperger “framed his work with the idea of Nazi child psychiatrists,” Sheffer says, introducing Gemüt as the “most important side” of a person’s character. The second and more damning indictment is that Asperger was a cog in the Nazi killing machine. At Vienna’s University Children’s Hospital, Asperger transferred so-called difficult cases, the “irredeemable” children, to Spiegelgrund.  It was here at the children’s clinic – part of the vast Steinhof psychiatric institution on Baumgartner Höhe – that children were experimented upon and ultimately put to death, as part of the Nazis’ Aktion T4 program. (Erroneously, as Sheffer wisely points out, this is often called the Nazi’s euthanasia program, even though there was little evidence of mercy in what took place there.)

Asperger would have known about his colleagues’ human experiments. At the Children’s Hospital, “he walked past babies in his daily life who were injected, infected, and starved.” Nonetheless, he “publicly encouraged his colleagues” to send kids to Spiegelgrund and “on numerous occasions” did so himself.  Asperger “appears to have been involved in the transfer of at least 44 children to Spiegelgrund.”  Due to incomplete records, the total number may be far higher. Sheffer’s book makes for difficult reading and poses wrenching questions about collaboration during the Nazi regime. At times assertive, on other occasions Sheffer hedges. “Rather than inhabiting a world of black and white,” she argues, “most individuals in the Reich operated in shades of gray.”

Nazism was all-encompassing and contact with it inescapable.  In navigating daily choices, Vienna’s residents might “conform, resist, and even commit harm all in the same afternoon.” It can be “misleading to classify people too neatly, including those whose actions might appear to be clear-cut on  the  surface.” Asperger “was a minor figure in the Nazi child euthanasia program” – but a figure nonetheless, working “within a system of mass killing as a conscious participant.” What Sheffer has unearthed, particularly in terms of Asperger’s complicity in the murder of vulnerable children, is an important correction to the record, placing Asperger in far darker surrounds.

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