BY ALEX DIFRANCESCOFEBRUARY 7, 2022
One of the most well-known and -recorded outcomes of the historical period around World War II when fascism rose to world power was the horrific cultural effects on the Jewish population. From genetic studies of inherited trauma to the fact that most living people of Jewish descent today can trace at least one relative lost to the murderous desires of Hitler, we are a culture very aware of what fascism did to its main victims in World War II.
But two outcomes many know less about are the long-term effects that the Nazi Party’s sway had on the present day understanding of both autism and transgender identities. As we live through a time when totalitarianism seems to be rearing its ugly head again (from instances of people aligned with Nazism in parliaments worldwide to the terrifying swing to the far-right in the United States), it is important to discuss these two lesser-known outcomes.
The first historical instance of a mass-destruction through totalitarianism of the understanding of trans people was the burning of the library of Institut fur Sexualweissenschaft in Berlin during the dictatorship of Nazi Germany. The institute served as a hospital that did early versions of gender confirming surgeries, and also contained an extensive library of the existing science and world history of queerness. Trans acceptance suffered a massive blow when Nazis burned the institute to the ground, destroying all the work of pioneering gender scholar and doctor, Magnus Hirschfeld, who refused to collaborate with the Nazis.
The rising fascism in the world is likely to, if allowed to grow unchecked, create more situations like the unthinkable choices the scholars behind the Institute and Asperger’s practice were faced with—how do we advance life-altering research under fascism?
Another significant research hospital in Nazi Germany was that of Hans Asperger, who studied autism. At the time, little was understood about autism, and the pediatrician Asperger’s work with such children was considered ground-breaking. There is proof of the fact that he both tailored his research to Nazi ideals (where we got long-standing designations like “high-functioning” to denote those with milder forms of autism from) and indefensibly turned at least two children over to Nazi death camps. Some historians claim that Asperger was paying lip service to Nazis so he could save the largest amount of children in his care from certain death. Whether it was true or not, we do know that Asperger’s research survived, which gave modern scientists and doctors a point from which to consider and correct it—we now understand autism as a spectrum of different needs and abilities rather than in terms of “functioning” or not in eugenic standards.