It is important that we understand our past to protect future societies from making similar tragic errors. The German T4 euthanasia program is nearly hidden within history, an event that few people want to talk about and fewer want to acknowledge how we are repeating history.
Nonetheless, research uncovering the involvement of Hans Asperger, who became known for his research related to Autism Spectrum, identifies that he was also involved in killing approximately 5000 people with disabilities as an active participant in the German T4 euthanasia program.
Studies by Albert Bandura, a psychologist who developed the social cognitive theory known as Moral Disengagement, answers the question – How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves? Moral Disengagement theory helps to explain how people like Hans Asperger can be a respected scientist and yet responsible for killing people with disabilities as part of the German T4 euthanasia program.
A recent article by Swedish researcher Fabian Stahle, examines Moral Disengagement and the Mechanisms Propelling the Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide movement.
Several years ago I published an article by historian Götz Aly titled: The Victims of Nazi Euthanasia Have Been Forgotten. Götz states in his article that people didn’t talk about the family members who were euthanasia victims because they were people with disabilities. Thus the silence surrounding the euthanasia victims helped to keep information about the euthanasia program hidden.
The Atlantic Magazine published an article (April 25, 2018) by John Donvan examining – How Asperger’s involvement in the German euthanasia program remained unknown. The Atlantic article suggests that Asperger’s euthanasia past remained unknown because Asperger remained relatively unknown until after his death and because the language barrier kept his involvement in killing unknown. According to the Atlantic:
The new, novella-length study by the medical historian Herwig Czech answers many of the questions that have dogged Asperger for decades, except for one: why it took so long for the story to come out in full.
Two things have protected Asperger’s reputation up till now. The first was a geographical and language barrier. Asperger, who lived between 1906 and 1980, never published in English, and spent almost no part of his professional life outside of Austria. This mundane fact proved critical. Starting at the conclusion of World War I—when scientists from Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom shut out their German and Austrian peers from Western European conferences, journals, and the like—the German language began to lose its position as a lingua franca of science and research. …Moreover, following World War II, there was a taint to virtually all Nazi-era medical scholarship, owing to the disgusting and well-documented ethical breaches associated with some of the research conducted. This unquestionably dampened international discussion of Asperger’s ground-breaking 1944 paper, in which he wrote about four intellectually capable but socially struggling Austrian boys and for the first time described the syndrome that he called “autistic psychopathy.”
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For the next four decades, that paper went virtually unnoticed and was minimally cited in the main centers researching autism, which were located in Britain and the United States. It was only in 1981 that the influential British psychiatrist Lorna Wing drew attention to it. Wing was just then beginning to develop the now familiar concept of the autism spectrum, and saw Asperger’s account of autistic psychopathy as an important demonstration of autistic traits in a wider range of individuals than previously documented. Historically, the autism label had been used more narrowly, applied to individuals profoundly challenged in areas like learning, communication, or self-care. For the sake of discussion around the Austrian’s work, she also urged adoption of a less jarring name for it: Asperger’s syndrome.
Donvan indicates that several earlier researchers had concerns about Asperger, but without proof Asperger’s murderous past remained hidden.
Based on comments by his daughter, a “good” mystic developed about Asperger suggesting that he was a Nazi resister. Donvan credits historian Herwig Czech for uncovering the truth about Asperger. Donvan writes:
I got a call from Jeremiah Riemer, the freelance translator I’d asked to check the English translation I was using to quote Asperger’s writing in German. Riemer asked me if I’d ever heard of Herwig Czech—the historian whose work has just appeared in Molecular Autism. It seems my friend, frankly suspicious of the hero narrative (which he said had a great deal to do with being a Jew well acquainted with the history of postwar patterns of Austrian denial of responsibility), had googled around in German, and come across an interview Czech gave to an Austrian newspaper raising questions. I had never heard of Czech, but we were to become well acquainted over the next two years, as he gradually shared with my coauthor and me most of the details that he has now made public in full.
I don’t claim to be a historian but unlike Donvan, I think that an investigation needs to be done into the research that Asperger published. Considering the inhumane treatment of people with Autism and other disabilities, it is likely that the four Austrian boys that were featured in his 1944 research article were not treated humanely. Also, did the four Austrian boys die by euthanasia? I don’t know, but I ask the question based on the fact that much of the human research done at this time in history was condemned based on the way the research was done and how the research “subjects” were treated.
A good outcome from identifying Asperger’s involvement in the German euthanasia program is that, once again, it gives the world the opportunity to examine the outcome of giving physicians the right in law to kill.
Lest we forget.