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

Michele Pridmore-Brown writes:

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’.

(LRB 21 March 2019)

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