I mentioned in a previuos post that I would look into the allegations that Hans Asberger had been a Nazi sympathizer. I found some shocking accusations, but I also discovered that it wasn’t at all as simple as the accusers claimed.
The first document I read was a question someone had asked on Quora. The question was how autistic people had been treated in Nazi Germany. Most of the answers addressed the question, but an answer from 21st December 2016 focused on Hans Asberger. Maria referred to the article The Doctor and the Nazis, and the book In a Different Key as evidence. I haven’t read the book, but the same authors wrote the article I referred to, adapted from the book. Both the authors and Maria seem to conclude that this book provides irrefutable evidence that Hans Asberger was a Nazi. There must be something I am not seeing or understanding, because it’s not that apparent to me. My first reaction was that Maria was awfully sure of herself, but after doing some research it turned out there were more nuances to this story.
The question about a possible Nazi past came up in 1993 when the people working on the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) had to decide whether or not to honour Asberger by giving the new diagnose his name. A group of experts led by Fred Volkmar at Yale Child Study Center went through the evidence and debated for a long time. This seems to have been a thorough investigation, sadly more thorough than many real Nazis had to go through.
Erik Schopler was a psychologist based at the University of North Carolina, and director of TEACCH. He was a strong opponent and didn’t think Asberger had contributed to our understanding of autism. According to the article in Tablet, Schopler’s criticism of Asberger in the 1990’s was noticeably personal. He even used the publications he oversaw, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, to drop illusive remarks about Asberger’s alleged Nazi past.
The authors of this book and article may have had a fair amount of emotions invested in their conclusion as well. This is from the article where they write about Eric Schopler:
Instead of evidence, he had instinct, which perhaps came from being a Jew who had lived part of his life in Germany. Perhaps this instinctive suspicion also explains the nearly complete silence concerning Asberger on the part of one of his most famous contemporaries- Johns Hopkins child psychiatrist Leo Kanner.
I am not surprised that he was silent because they were competitors, and as far as I know Hans Asberger, unlike Leo Kanner, didn’t support the refrigerator mother theory. On the contrary, he seems to have had a more positive view. I recommend that you read the articles I have linked to after this post, the entire posts. They offer more information, and feel free to correct me if I have misunderstood this strong evidence.
I don’t feel that I have to make Hans Asberger to be a good man, but from what I have been able to find out he probably wasn’t worse than the rest. Allow me speculate for a while. Austria liked the portray themselves as victims after the war, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the Austrians for the most part welcomed the Nazi regime. Many of Asberger’s colleagues would have become members of the Nazi party, while Jews were arrested if they didn’t leave the country in time. Austria had just passed eugenics laws that targeted impaired children. Do you think there is a possibility that Asberger emphasized the most promising children when he talked to the authorities? I haven’t read his research myself, but those that have see a man that cared about the children he studied. In other words, it sounds like he may have done what he had to to be left alone.
I also think about the bigger picture. The eugenics laws were not that controversial at the time. My own country, Norway passed a law in 1934 that allowed hospitals to sterilize mentally ill, mentally handicapped and travellers, and this law was applicable for 40 years. The eugenics movement had considerable support in Europe and the USA before the war. Lobotomy was also an accepted treatment in mental hospitals, but apart from the cruelty and the fact that it wasn’t necessary, no one talked about the high mortality rate (18 of the first 35 patients in Norway died on the operating table).
I also think about the many true Nazi scientists that helped the USA after the war. Werner von Braun, Hitler’s rocket scientist, was one of hundreds of German scientists, engineers and technicians that developed the Apollo program. The USA and Britain were in charge of the denazification of Germany, but it was very arbitrary. They made the decision to narrow the field down and members of the Nazi Party that had been born after 1919 were exempted on the grounds that they had been brainwashed. An incredible 90 percent of the cases were also judged to be in a less serious category, and they even accepted statements from other people. That led to neighbours giving each other alibies, and suddenly Germany had become a country of victims that had opposed Hitler.
I am also reminded of Oskar Schindler, who unlike Asbeger, was a member of the Nazi Party. He was also a spy collecting information for the Nazis, and he later profited from the war. He is remembered for what he did later when he saved some Jews. It still puzzles me that we don’t forgive, or even accept Asberger’s work, because he may have done and said something that some people find uncomfortable. I can’t help wondering whether we are being completely fair. Why is it so important to discredit Hans Asberger? Why was everybody willing to leave Asberger alone until Lorna Wing and Uta Frith pulled him out of obscurity? I would have to accept the evidence if it was overwhelming, but I am still not convinced it is.
One final thought. I want the best people to research autism. I don’t need teddy bears that will give me a warm and fuzzy feelings inside. While I was doing research for this post I came across a post in Psychology Today. In Was the Father of Asberger an accomplice to Murder John Elder Robsion writes about how he was struck by Asberger’s insight when he was reading Asberger’s papers, but he also noticed the tone of writing, which he thought was cold, hard and unsympathetic. That’s a conclusion I assume he came to after being told that Asberger had a Nazi past. That kind of knowledge changes everything. It could simply be that Asberger had the classic autism features himself, which he certainly had in childhood.
It would be bad if these accusations against Asberger were true, but what do you think would happen if we rejected all unethical research? Big pharma for one still hasn’t figured out how to do ethical research, and if you google unethical studies you get some pretty awful modern examples, and then there is the military. Do you really think we are just doing wonderful things? Maybe we need to decide who we wish to believe, and let that be the path we choose in the future. I think that’s what the author of Neurotribes: The Leacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People who Think Differently did. Steve Silberman has chosen to give Asberger the benefit of the doubt. According to Silberman Asberger emphasized the test subjects’ talents, not their defects. If that is true he clearly saw something in these children the Nazis didn’t.
I mentioned heroes in My unique line. I believe I can put Hans Asberger down as a hero. Maybe not a perfect one, but I think he did us a favour. To some people there may always be some lingering doubt, but are we really applying the same standard to ourselves?
The Docto rand the Nazis
Was Doctor Asberger a Nazi?
Did Hans Asberger save children from the Nazis-or sell them out?