autism and nazism as inverse states of being

My reaction to Asperger’s Nazism was a bit this:

She’s arguing from first principles, though. The details in Asperger’s Children do shed light on the creation of autism, in a way that’s pretty damning. The book puts Asperger in context, reconstructing his professional milieu. Who else was at conferences where he presented? What were they talking about? Sterilizing people, mostly.

This book suggests a new lens on the Third Reich–as a diagnosis regime. The state became obsessed with sorting the population into categories, cataloging people by race, politics, religion, sexuality, criminality, heredity, and biological defects. These labels, then, became the basis of individuals’ persecution and extermination…

The mind received special scrutiny in the Third Reich. Doctors who lived during the Nazi era named at least thirty eponymous neurological and psychiatric diagnoses still used today. As mental health depended on multiple factors of genetics, health, family status, class, and gender, the mind lay at a crossroads of Nazi eugenics. Neuropsychiatrists also played the largest role of any professional group in the medical cleansing of society, in the development of forced sterilization, human experiments, and the killing of those perceived to be disabled.

The term “autistic” didn’t come uniquely from Asperger. It was staff jargon in his work environment. Others in that environment used the term less judgmentally.

I think this book is good news, because it provides evidence of what the neurodiversity movement has been saying: our problems come from mistreatment and dehumanization by people with eugenicist inclinations. The key is that autistic traits were objectionable, to Nazis in particular, for a specific reason. Pathologizing it is a product of a fascist ideology, as a historical observation.

As commitment to the Volk became a priority in the Third Reich, Nazi child psychiatrists like Schroder and his colleagues increasingly noted children they believed forged weaker social bonds and did not align with the group. This new paradigm led a number of practitioners to develop diagnoses for children who lacked community connectedness, which resembled and preceded Asperger’s definition of autistic psychopathy.

Nazi child psychiatrists used the term Gemut to express their ideas of social feeling. Gemut is one of the German language’s famously untranslatable words, and its meaning changed dramatically over time. For Nazi thinkers, Gemut referred to one’s fundamental capacity to form deep bonds with other people. It had metaphysical and social connotations. Good Gemut was essential to one’s worth as an individual, and to the health of the Volk.

The term Gemut emerged in the eighteenth century as synonymous with soul, or Seele. As ideas of the soul secularized and people paid increasing attention to personal emotions, Gemut became a favored term in German culture. Philosopher Immanuel Kant saw Gemut as the seat of one’s “transcendental faculties”, animated by Geist, or spirit. In the Romantic period Gemut became the innermost layer of the soul–more elemental, emotional, and irrational than one’s Geist…

The meaning of Gemut did, indeed, regenerate by the mid-nineteenth century. In everyday conversation, it lost some of its existential and artistic flavor and became more about positive personal and social emotions. Having Gemut meant possessing a rich internal life, strong bonds with family and friends, and a warm and friendly temperament. With the common usage of “gemutlich”–cozy or homey–it also encompassed casual, everyday sociability. But in philosophy, the arts, literature, and other intellectual fields, it retained more metaphysical connotations.

In other words, autistic means not having a soul. Yes, really.

Paul Schroder held that Gemut signified “love of humanity.” Stressing the importance of children’s “readiness to serve the community” and “incorporation into this national community”, Schroder maintained that Gemut was essential to the success of the collective. “Gemut is the necessary precondition for the possibility of the coexistence of people in communities.” Schroder concluded, then, that Gemut determined one’s worth to society. “The degree of one’s richness of Gemut is one of the most important determinants of the practical usefulness and social value of a person,” he said. Defective Gemut was dangerous for the Volk: Schroder recommended that some youths “lacking Gemut” be placed “in detention under strict control.”

Asperger was deeply influenced by Schroder’s approach to the human character, emphasizing in his diary Schroder’s focus on “the essence, the richness of the spirit.” While Asperger felt that Schroder enumerated aspects of the personality rather systematically for his taste, he noted that “much pivots around” Gemut for Schroder, and he liked the idea. He wrote in his diary that “there is a lot there, it is quite a good concept.”

Asperger’s thesis cited Heinze’s “On the Phenomenology of Gemut.”

In it, Heinze disdained children with insufficient Gemut, especially “the intellectually gifted”, denouncing “their lack of devotion, their lack of respect for personal and material values, their lack of sense of community, their lack of compassion and sympathy.” After all, he said, asocials and criminals–even socialists and communists–lacked Gemut. Still, Heinze advocated a nuanced approach to assessing and treating children’s Gemut. He said children fell along a wide spectrum of Gemut and intellectual capabilities, as Asperger would also argue.

Asperger didn’t like us. Hence, psychopathy.

With Fritz and Harro his primary examples of autistic psychopathy, Asperger imputed “sadistic traits” to autistic children. He declared that “autistic acts of malice” were, in fact, characteristic of the disorder, stressing the “primitive spitefulness” and “negativism and seemingly calculated naughtiness of autistic children.” He stated that their “delight in malice, which is rarely absent, provides almost the only occasion when the lost glance of these children appears to light up.”

…Autistic malice, Asperger concluded, came down to a lack of emotional connectedness: “Their malice and cruelty too clearly arise from a poverty of Gemut.”

Interesting argument from etymology:

He was, essentially, defining autism and Nazism as inverse states of being. While the root of fascism (fascio) was the bundle, or group, the root of autism was autos, the condition of self. As an expert in Greek and Latin, Asperger may well have had this opposition in mind when sharpening his definitions of autistic psychopathy throughout the Third Reich.

They’re afraid that autistic people would become anarchists. Yes, anarchists:

We think about systems logically.

Anyway, they really, really didn’t like us:

“Nobody really likes these people,” he stressed, and they “don’t have personal relationships with anyone.” Autistic youths were “always loners, and fall out of every children’s community.” In short, Asperger declared, “The community rejects them.”

It’d be easier if the community wasn’t rejecting us. Rejecting us is under the community’s control. A lot of our problems come from very ugly and very widespread attitudes of normal people.

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