Life unworthy of life

“Their life is absolutely pointless … They are a terrible, heavy burden upon their relatives and society as a whole. Their death would not create even the smallest gap – except perhaps in the feelings of their mothers or loyal nurses.”

~ Alfred Hoche & Karl Binding, proponents of eugenics and authors of The Liberation and Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, published in 1920

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the science known as eugenics rose in popularity in Europe and America. It aimed to improve the human population by controlled breeding in order to increase the occurrence of desirable genetic characteristics.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were big fans of eugenics and took its principles a step further than just controlled breeding. Aside from the well-known atrocities committed against Jews and enemies of the Reich during World War II, the Nazis also forcibly sterilized 400,000 people against their will and murdered 5,000 “disabled” children in their attempt to rid the world of undesirables.

Children at Am Spiegelgrund, Vienna, 1940s

One of the many clinics where children were euthanized was the Am Spielgelgrund clinic in Vienna, Austria. Most of the children were diagnosed with schizophrenia, feeble-mindedness, or epilepsy, which coincidentally were the three most likely diagnoses that autistic children would receive before autism became an accepted condition.

Other children were brought to the clinic if they exhibited delinquent behavior, were born out of wedlock, came from impoverished homes or poor upbringing, were born to parents who were alcoholics or criminals, or simply for having any trait deemed undesirable. Some were euthanized by gas poisoning or a lethal injection of carbolic acid or barbiturates. Others were starved to death or died from pneumonia after being forcibly exposed to the elements. Still others underwent experimental procedures where their cranial fluids were replaced with air or helium in order to X-ray their brains before they died.

Dr. Hans Asperger with patients at the University of Vienna Children’s Clinic in the 1930s

One of the evaluating physicians at the clinic was Dr. Hans Asperger, for whom a high-functioning version of autism was later named. In 1944, Asperger published findings on his studies of behavior patterns and abilities in certain children that included a lack of empathy, little ability in forming friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements. He called the children he studied his “little professors” due to their ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail. He diagnosed these children with what he called autistic psychopathy. Most of his work was unknown outside of Austria until after his death in 1980.

Although there is no known evidence that Asperger was a member of the Nazi party, it is likely that he signed an oath of loyalty to Hitler in order to retain his position at the clinic. Asperger refused to refer his little professors for extermination and publicly spoke of the good qualities they possessed in order to attempt to spare their lives, but he did recommend those on the low-functioning end of the spectrum for euthanasia.

Two-year-old Herta Schreiber suffered from seizures and “idiocy” caused by encephalitis. Asperger decided that Herta “must be an unbearable burden to her mother” and then recommended permanent placement at Am Spiegelgrund in July 1941. She died two months later. A specimen of her brain, along with those of hundreds of other children, was found in the basement of the clinic in the 1990s.

Brain specimens of 417 children found in the basement of the former Am Spiegelgrund clinic

At the age of 5, Elisabeth Schreiber (no relation to Herta) was evaluated by Asperger due to “aggressiveness.” He concluded that she also was a terrible burden on her family and recommended placement at Am Spiegelgrund, where she died shortly thereafter.

Alfred Wodl, age 6, was evaluated for failing to develop speech, although his mother believed he was highly intelligent and understood everything around him. When she learned what was happening to the children at the clinic, Anny Wodl begged officials to spare her son. While her pleas fell on deaf ears, she was resigned to asking that he at least be granted a quick and painless death. When she viewed his corpse, it was obvious to her, a nurse, that he had perished in agony.

These are just a few of the thousands of children murdered by the Reich in the name of progress.

After the war, Asperger wrote in his diary, “The fact that I was never called upon to kill anyone is a great gift of fate.” Not surprisingly, Asperger’s legacy is controversial. Although he might not have killed anyone by his own hand and was instrumental in sparing those he could, he definitely had a hand in sentencing many children under his care to death. It’s quite possible that he didn’t have much choice in the matter given the circumstances at the time, but that brings little, if any, consolation for the victims or their families.

Had I or my son been born a few decades earlier and in a different spot on the globe, things might have been very different for us. Imagine what innocent Herta, misunderstood Elisabeth, and brilliant Alfred might have done with their lives had they been allowed to live.

Our lives are worthy of life, just like anyone else.

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