These statements alone might seem fatal to the hero story, but some argued that Asperger was only saying those things to throw the Gestapo off the scent. This transformation of a Vienna pediatrician into a wily resistance figure—credited by one writer with making “deft chess moves” against the Nazis—was enormously appealing. It gave professionals working in the autism field an inspiring forebear, and was also an attractive characterization for people given the Asperger’s diagnosis, many of whom, since the late 1990s, had been building a kind of pride movement in response to lifetimes of rejection, bullying, and isolation. The Asperger resistance story wasn’t crucial to fighting the condition’s stigma, but it didn’t hurt—it was a nice add-on for those who sometimes spoke of their “Aspie pride.”
I found it appealing too, and in the first draft of my book’s short chapter on Asperger’s past I described the resistance narrative as standing up to “a fair-minded analysis,” in the absence of solid countervailing evidence.
Then, in the spring of 2014, six or so months before my deadline, I got a call from Jeremiah Riemer, the freelance translator I’d asked to check the English translation I was using to quote Asperger’s writing in German. Riemer asked me if I’d ever heard of Herwig Czech—the historian whose work has just appeared in Molecular Autism. It seems my friend, frankly suspicious of the hero narrative (which he said had a great deal to do with being a Jew well acquainted with the history of postwar patterns of Austrian denial of responsibility), had googled around in German, and come across an interview Czech gave to an Austrian newspaper raising questions. I had never heard of Czech, but we were to become well acquainted over the next two years, as he gradually shared with my coauthor and me most of the details that he has now made public in full.
At the start, I found it difficult to accept what he was telling us over email and Skype calls: that Asperger, after examining numerous disabled children, had signed documents recommending their placement in the pseudo-hospital called Am Spiegelgrund, where, his follow-up work showed, they had been murdered. With my coauthor, I flew to Vienna, where Czech laid out the documents, showed us Asperger’s signature, and walked us around the grounds of Am Speigelgrund and into the building where the marked children waited to die—a place that was the more chilling for actually looking like an ordinary ward.
Here, at last, was a researcher who bridged the language barrier, and knew his way around an archive. Czech was able to provide what had been missing before: minute, documentable detail, which made clear that the hero story was a fantasy.
Zucker and I included Czech’s findings on Asperger in our book, but it did not deal a lethal blow to the myth. Out on press tour, we found that most reviewers and interviewers representing general audiences were far more interested in other aspects of autism’s history than the character of one distant Austrian, and unfamiliar with the resistance narrative anyway. Among those more directly connected to autism, we encountered some who were stunned and dismayed, but we also got pushback from people who charged us with sensationalism, fabrication, and Nazi baiting. Quite reasonably, some thought it better to withhold judgement until Czech’s work was peer-reviewed and fully published.
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