Naziism (Still) Influences Modern Psychology

How the diagnosis of “Asperger’s” is related to Naziism

I’ve been reading quite an eclectic mix of books lately and have a few different concepts floating around in my mind. They intertwine and yet in some ways, they are opposing ideas.

Firstly, there continues a modern debate over parenting styles. In their more extreme iterations, authoritarian proponents believe children should be “seen and not heard”, should be “put in their place”, and would benefit from a “good smack” every now and again.

On the positive parenting side, these parents are accused of being too permissive, of trying to be “buddies” with their kids rather than being the adult in the relationship, and of coddling or spoiling their children.

I wasn’t even set out to read histories of the various approaches to child-rearing, but I got a glimpse of it in some of the books I’ve read recently.

One of these books spans across the 1920s through the 1960s, mostly covering the 1930s-1940s, and explores how psychiatry was shaped by Naziism in World War Two (WWII).

Unfortunately, we still have people who think the best way to teach children is through tough love, intimidation, and brute force. Despite 77 years having passed since the end of WWII, much of the Nazi influence on early psychiatry remains today.

Ahead by a century

Nearly a century ago — before the Nazis entered the scene — professionals in the fields of childcare, nursing, psychology, and psychiatry were expressing ideas that many of us are still trying to convey today.

Lyrics by Tragically Hip — (image created by author)

For example, in 1928 and 1932, a nurse named Viktorine Zak published articles describing how she and her colleagues worked with children.

“Rather than issuing blanket labels for behaviour, practitioners would describe children as individuals… nether quantified nor pathologized children, and never talked smugly of curing. The aim was to experience the child’s thought process empathically.”

— Viktorine Zak

Around that same time (90 years ago!), doctors Erwin Lazar and Valerie Bruck were reported to treat children with assistance and recovery, rather than atonement and punishment.

In 1932, a physician named Dr. Georg Frankl also warned his colleagues against making snap judgements about patients, urging them to get to know children before applying labels that would follow them their entire lives — possibly making their lives much shorter as a result.

“As one gets to know the children better, they prove human beings with feelings and desires and hopes and pain. What looks like malice is often nothing more than weakness.” 

— Dr. Georg Frankl

In 1934, Dr. Frankl also insisted he and his colleagues show understanding toward their patients, rather than assuming the children’s difficulties were caused by their own willfulness.

“One should not see malice in children with social difficulties, their challenges had nothing to do with character or morals…one should not project negative qualities onto those who appear indifferent or apathetic, such as impertinence or defiance.”

— Dr. Georg Frankl

*TW* sensitive content ahead — (Image created by author)

Enter the Nazis

In addition to targeting Jewish people, people of colour, and visibly disabled people, the Nazi party also engaged in what Edith Sheffer characterizes as psychiatric genocide.

During the Nazi regime, many psychiatrists evaluated and assessed people for mental fitness. Doctors in these programs condemned children whom they determined would be a “drain” on the state.

During this same period, Dr. Hans Asperger was working on developing his own diagnosis. There is ample evidence that other doctors identified similar autistic traits across individuals well before Dr. Asperger, yet he rarely cited their work.

Regardless of where credit (I’d prefer the word blame in this case) belongs, Asperger’s unfortunate legacy continued until 2013, when the DSM-V was released. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) finally removed Asperger’s as a diagnosis after almost 20 years (1994–2013).

Why I do not use the term “Asperger’s”

During the second world war, Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Asperger created the diagnosis “Asperger’s” to identify autistic children he deemed intelligent. They were almost always white boys, as Asperger had concluded, “the autistic personality is an extreme variant of male intelligence”.

He used the Asperger’s label to separate “bright” kids from children he believed had what he called “autistic psychopathy”. In large part, this was to differentiate between children Dr. Asperger deemed capable of “remediation” and contributing to their community, thus being of social value to the Third Reich (yes, the German Nazis).

Asperger utilized a eugenicist hierarchy, delineating a range in “levels of ability” and social worth, denying the humanity of autistic children he viewed as “more impaired”, referring to their “lack of productive value” to society.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like the functioning labels still in use by many today?

In the 1940s, Asperger was collaborating with at least three top perpetrators of child-killing in Vienna and was fully aware of the euthanasia program.

Know better, do better

I had known a bit about Dr. Asperger’s sordid history, but I learned significantly more detailed information from two books in particular. Last year, I read NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman.

This past week I read a book called Asperger’s Children, written by a historian named Edith Sheffer. It is an extremely well-researched book, but of course, the content was very upsetting and difficult to read.

So, why on earth would I want to read and learn about such upsetting information, and then choose to share it with you?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

— George Santayana

Some seem to think of the scientific fields as free of bias, and free from political influence. Truthfully, I once thought so too — when I was a young, naïve student of psychology.

Awareness and knowledge are the first steps necessary to avoid repeating history.

Most people, including many psychologists and psychiatrists, don’t have a full understanding of the history of this terminology. Many people still use the label “Asperger’s” instead of autism as a way of differentiating a person from “those other Autistics”.

It’s elitism and ableism riding on the coattails of eugenics. Calling someone an aspie is a “polite” way of saying they’re the smart and quirky kind of Autistic and therefore better than those real autistics.

It’s elitism and ableism riding on the coattails of eugenics.

As Edith Sheffer explains in her book, diagnoses can be shaped by social and political forces — forces that can be difficult to perceive, and even more difficult to combat.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Czech, H. (2018). Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna. Molecular Autism 9, 1–43.

Dluzak, Samantha. (2019). The Forgotten Pioneers: The Life and Work of Anni Weiss and Georg Frankl.

Frankl, G. (1932). The Sphere of Medical Curative Education.

Frankl, G. (1934). Befehlen und Gehorchen: Eine heilpädagogische Studie. Zeitschrift für Kinderforschung, 463–479.

Michaels, J. J. (1935). The heilpedagogical station of the Children’s Clinic at the University of Vienna. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 5(3), 266–275.

Muratori, F., Calderoni, S. & Bizzari, V. (2021). George Frankl: an undervalued voice in the history of autism. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 30, 1273–1280.

Sheffer, E. (2018). Asperger’s Children: The origins of autism in nazi Vienna. W. W. Norton & Co.

Silberman, S. (2016). NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. Penguin Random House.

Spieler, Josef. (1943). “Freiwillige Schweiger und sprachscheue Kinder,” ZfK 49, 39–43.

Zak, V. (1928). The development of Clinical Curative Education in Vienna. The International Council of Nurses.

Zak, V. (1932). The Curative Education Department Under Lazar. The International Council of Nurses.

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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