Interview with Edith Sheffer by Robin Lindley, a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network. Professor Sheffer generously spoke by telephone on the evolution of her new book about Asperger and her original research.
Robin Lindley: What inspired you to investigate and write about the life of Dr. Hans Asperger and his work in Nazi Vienna?
Professor Edith Sheffer: My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 17 months old. Like any parent, I read what I could about the diagnosis. All of these parent manuals said that Leo Kanner was the child psychiatrist who learned about autism in the United States. Then there would be a paragraph or two about Asperger saying not much is know about him. He worked in Nazi Vienna and he had a heroic reputation for defending children with disabilities, for defining autism in a positive way, and for rescuing children from the euthanasia program. He could be seen as using autism as a psychiatric Schindler’s List. This is the reputation that he had.
I set out to tell this heroic story. When I had a conference in Vienna for Broken Bridge, I went to the archives to see what I could find about him. I found Asperger’s District Nazi Party file and that was enough to show that he’d been complicit in the regime and its euthanizing measures.
I actually thought of abandoning this project. I was so horrified by what I found in looking at the case stories of the children. I didn’t think I could engage in the topic at all on a personal level. But then I felt it was a really important story to be told that hadn’t been. I said yes.