Nazis, euthanasia, and a history of Special Education
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (colloquially known as Nazis) have, since their defeat in World War II and the following trials in Nuremburg, been exposed for their thirst for world domination and genocide, as well as their morally reprehensible experimentation in their bastardized attempts at medical science. The severity of their crimes was so far-reaching that Geneva Convention met to declare that what the Nazi Party did in this time could only be considered war crimes and that “following orders” could not be used as a viable excuse for military personnel. Now students are taught about the most famous death camps in high school and read books such as Night by Elie Wiesel to gain perspective on the scope and depth of the horror of the Holocaust.
However, if you stopped any of us on the street, regardless of our education level, and asked, “What do Nazis have to do with Special Education?” most people would be stumped. It’s widely known that Jews and Roma people were targets for extermination, as well as queer people and people with disabilities of all kinds. If really pressed, some people might be aware of the connection between the Nazi Party, Dr. Asperger, and the now-defunct diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (a type of autism).
The real connection is much deeper and much more insidious. Above all, Nazis prized social normalcy, compliance, and connectedness in their citizens and those citizens, regardless of age, that could not make the necessary social connections (those deemed ‘asocial’ or ‘psychopaths’ during that time), represented a huge problem for a party that depended on blind, unthinking conformity. Those who could not connect with their peers, regardless of their cognitive and physical abilities, represented a vast problem for a movement so hinged on the idea of Germans as a single people (‘Volk’).
Presently, those with disabilities have the same right to a free and appropriate public education in the US as all other students. Under the Nazi Party, this was obviously not the case. While some children with disabilities received an education and advocates said that some such children could be made into worthwhile citizens with a sense of social belonging and a desire to serve the Volk, others received a different kind of ‘treatment.’
Children who were deemed ‘unteachable’ or ‘uneducable’ by doctors, including Dr. Asperger himself, met a different fate. Thousands of children, including infants, were placed into a database that marked them as undesirable, taken from their families (or brought in and willingly surrendered by their families), and housed in institutions such as Spiegelgrund. Of the children who were placed at Spiegelgund alone, over 789 were murdered in the Nazi’s Child Euthanasia Program. Many of these children, even those less than a year old and who were medically healthy with the potential to live a long life, were subjected to experimentation such as vitamin deprivation to test its effect on organ development, or the test of vaccines. Of the children that died in this place, the brains of over 800 were harvested and stored in jars for decades after their deaths.
Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna by Edith Sheffer