Paying respect to the autistic children who lost their lives in Nazi Vienna

Hans Aspergers

I still want to see Vienna

By Baylie Nixon

Content Warning: This entry will discuss some controversial topics regarding the history of autism in WWII, which include the fairly recent news about Hans Asperger’s involvement with Nazi psychiatry.

As the content warning has mentioned, this month’s article will cover some sobering topics, but not without good cause and even uplifting perspectives to balance it out. This month, I’d like to talk about where my love of autistic culture and empowerment meets my insatiable wanderlust: A strong desire to go to Vienna, Austria, to explore our neurology’s roots. I thought I was going to have this dream realized over summer when I went to Europe for a few weeks after graduation, but instead of Vienna, the travel group and I got to enjoy a few days in Salzburg. I have had this fervent desire to go to Vienna since 11th grade (which was in 2010-2011), and despite what was revealed about Hans Asperger in mid to late spring of 2018, my dream of going there has not changed.

To give some background, Hans Asperger was originally lauded as a pioneer of some sorts; the little we knew of him was that he was a Viennese psychiatrist who had some patients he followed throughout their lives. One of them even corrected an error in Newton’s work. The bits and pieces of information we knew of his work other than his most notable “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood,” in German called Autistiche Psychopathen im Kindersalter (note: “Psychopathy” did not have the same meaning and connotations back then), were tailored to appeal to the ethics and progressiveness of the modern day. One of his famous quotes is “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” This quote is probably his most famous, and it paints Hans Asperger as a man far ahead of his time. Sadly, it is highly likely that given the recent information about the true nature of his work, this quote could have been taken widely out of context.

Fast forward to today, the facts about Hans Asperger and the origins of autism are now unveiled of the rose colored glasses. It is revealed he was involved with the horrific Aktion T4 protocol that happened in the Third Reich. Hundreds of disabled and neurodiverse children were sent to their deaths in the name of Nazi eugenics. The place these children were sent was the Spigelgrund Psychiatric Hospital. Hans Asperger was directly responsible for sending some of those children there, and only saw potential in the cherry-picked patients who were able to cooperate with the highly conformist agenda of their society. He wasn’t saving his patients as we previously thought, he was salvaging them. I have gathered all this information from the book called Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna by Edith Sheffer.

After the news about Hans Asperger went somewhat viral, many autistics have decided to never associate with him or his name again and for good reason. I know that I had a grieving process rife with confusion, and honestly a sense of betrayal, when I learned the truth. I used to think of him as a hero, but now he was yet another cog in the Nazi machine. But we have to remember he was a product of his place and time, not that that’s a justification. However, I’m sure if he were in a more forgiving, diverse, and accepting place while doing his research, he would have been the good and progressive person we once believed him to be.

I bet many of you reading this are wondering why I’m not so disheartened by the facts that my desire to travel to Austria’s capital has ceased. I’ll be upfront: The newfound facts actually made my desire to go there even stronger. When we were all ignorant of the truth regarding Hans Asperger, and still idealized him as one of the first pioneers of neurodiversity as he was making his discoveries, I wanted to go to Vienna just for the excitement and fun of being in a place that has this historical connection. But now that I know the gravity of what happened, my reasons for wanting to go to Vienna are deeper and more complex.

With having a knowledge and background of autism’s history, I want to experience and contrast present day Vienna as a woman of the spectrum. When I was in Salzburg over summer, I was hit—no, more like gently covered—with a multitude of emotions. I was first greeted with excitement when I saw the message on my phone that we crossed the border into Austria. That excitement was accompanied by wonder as I peered out the window. When we all got off the bus to go visit the salt mines, time just felt slower. I was taking in everything. But in addition to the excitement and starstruck-ness, I also felt undercurrents of sadness and confusion. I was so happy to be in a place that felt so personal, but I couldn’t ignore the truth. These conflicting emotions led to a sense of guilt. Guilt for feeling happy when I felt I should feel sorrow, and perhaps even anger, instead.

But after exploring Salzburg and mingling with the locals, my emotions felt more stable and the confusion was replaced with curiosity. As a German speaker, I got along very well with the shop owners of Salzburg. Someone selling the popular Austrian chocolate “Mozartkugeln” (chocolate covered marzipan, often flavored with coffee, pistachio, or hazelnut) even gave me some free chocolate as a gift. My time in Europe, and definitely Salzburg, has helped me confirm that Vienna, and with a positive and hopeful attitude at that, is absolutely worth visiting.

What I hope to get out of visiting Vienna is not only a sense of autistic heritage, but a chance to pay respects to the children who lost their lives. There is a memorial in the Spiegelgrund area, where the Steinhof church is also present. I want to mourn and honor the lives of the victims of Spiegelgrund, reconcile with the awful parts of history, but also be in the present and celebrate how far we’ve come; not only for the autistic demographic, but humankind as well. I’ve heard many wonderful things about Vienna today (such as their famous coffee culture!), and that is something I don’t want to miss. Also, on a more positive note, Berlin (yes I know, different country but the point remains) recently held the Jewish Festival of Lights at the Brandenburg Gate for Hanukah; they call their Jewish community “a gift.” If that isn’t progress and redemption, I don’t know what is.

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Baylie NixonMy name is Baylie Nixon, I am 24 years old, and I am currently living with my family while I volunteer for an organization called Living Opportunities and study in post-bacc school. I am on the autism spectrum, diagnosed with Aspergers before the DSM V was published, and have been a strong advocate for autistic inclusion since I was a junior in high school. My activism really took off during senior year of high school when I did my senior project on neurodiversity, and then later in college I was in charge of a neurodiversity club for a year.

I recently graduated from Oregon State University with a BS in Pre-Clinical Lab Science, and I am currently enrolled in further education in order to be certified as a medical technologist. I have lived in Southern Oregon for half my life, while also having lived in Forest Grove to go to Pacific University for a couple years, spending another couple back home at Southern Oregon University, then finally finishing my bachelor’s in Corvallis. I am absolutely in love with the biomedical sciences, and am excited to put my knowledge and passion to good use. I am also an Etsy jeweler, my shop is called “Bao Treasures,” and its logo is a rainbow bird. I have been making jewelry for roughly half my life.

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