“For success in science and art,” the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger once proposed, “a dash of autism is essential.” For success in medicine during the heyday of the Third Reich, as Edith Sheffer’s account of his career shows, the requirement was different. More than a dash of Gemüt—which Nazi psychiatrists defined as commitment to community (just what autistic children were said to lack)—was crucial.
Sheffer, a historian at UC Berkeley, isn’t the first to probe the past of the man whose name has become a popular psychiatric label. In the 1980s, Asperger’s decades-old portrayals of socially isolated but bright boys in his care caught the attention of autism researchers. His own history got a brief vetting in the early 1990s, in preparation for the christening of a new diagnosis in his honor. Asperger, dead by then, got credit for never having joined the Nazi Party and for being a champion of neurodiversity.