Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

Michele Pridmore-Brown:

In Nazi Germany paediatric psychiatrists served as consultants to youth groups, welfare offices and schools. It was the form their ‘national service’ took. They tracked subjects through childhood, shaped what was considered normal behaviour, and identified and codified what was not. Ernst Illing claimed that he could make a call about a child at the age of three or four – he could spot what he called ‘Gemüt poverty’. Gemüt meant ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, but also gestured to a person’s capacity for tribal belonging: for feeling and emoting spirit, as in national or school spirit; and for social competence. None of these meanings was new, but how ‘Gemüt’ came to matter was. Gemüt-poverty was a medico-spiritual diagnosis that could send children to their death at a place like Spiegelgrund, a children’s killing centre in the outskirts of the Vienna Woods, part of the Steinhof mental hospital. Illing was the medical director of Spiegelgrund from 1942 till 1945. One of his predecessors was Erwin Jekelius, who claimed to have an aptitude for spotting teenagers with poor Gemüt. And he was a close associate of Hans Asperger, who developed a new label for classifying children, ‘autistic psychopathy’, which he couched in terms of poor or absent Gemüt (‘a qualitative otherness, a disharmony of feeling’), diagnosing them with ‘unfeeling malice’.

Asperger’s work was rediscovered in the English-speaking world in the 1990s, and ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ made its way into contemporary diagnostic manuals as well as colloquial ways of talking about each other. Autism is now believed to involve structural and functional abnormalities in a key brain circuit, which impede the experiencing of pleasure from social interaction; but that is a reading embedded in the fashionable sciences of our own time, brain imaging and neuroscience. Another fashionable science, genomics, has yielded new understanding about causes. ‘Refrigerator mothers’ used to be implicated; now the pesticide DDT is among the culprits.