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A Deadly Diagnosis

the U Remembers the Holocaust

 

The University of Utah’s long commitment to commemorating the Holocaust continues Feb. 4-5, 2020, with “A Deadly Diagnosis.”

Each academic year, the U Remembers committee thoughtfully selects topics which draw parallels between ideologies during the Holocaust and modern social constructs. This has included youth-led resistance against injustice, the use of propaganda in politics, misrepresentation of religious communities and the normalization of non-heterosexual oppression.

“Every year we try to help educate the university community about different ways the Holocaust has impacted our current world experience,” said Maeera Shreiber (she/her), co-chair of the U Remembers committee and chair of the Jewish Studies Initiative. “This year we chose to focus on the experience of children with medical challenges during the Holocaust.”

The U Remembers 2020 theme, “A Deadly Diagnosis,” will explore traces from the Nazi worldview of othering found in medical and social realms today and how we can reflect on the harm these dynamics cause as we push forward into a more inclusive future.

While autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed more often than in the past and has led to increased services for many people, there has also been increasing resistance to the diagnosis. Especially from people who challenge the idea that it represents an illness or abnormality.

Guiding this year’s first day of events, Dr. Edith Sheffer, senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California – Berkeley and author of “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna,” will be sharing her research on recent developments regarding Dr. Hans Asperger’s controversial role during the Holocaust.

“While Asperger did support children he believed to be teachable, defending their disabilities, he was dismissive about those he believed to be more disabled. Deprecatory pronouncements could be a death sentence in the Third Reich. And in fact, some of Asperger’s judgments were death sentences.” (Sheffer, 2018, p. 13)

Julie Ault (she/her), co-chair of the U Remembers Committee and assistant professor in History, recommended Sheffer as this year’s keynote based on knowledge of her previous work.

“I teach her first book on Germany and the Cold War in my ‘Postwar Europe, 1945-1991’ class. I heard she had a new book, and the theme fit with our general objectives for U Remembers. Her ability to analyze and contextualize this problematic figure (Asperger) through a myriad of sources sheds light on how the past influences the present.”

Ault’s recommendation led to a unique collaboration with the Program in Medical Ethics and Humanities’ Evening Ethics program — the first collaboration of its kind for U Remembers.

“This is an important topic to think about today for a variety of reasons,” said Brent Kious (he/him), assistant professor in Psychiatry, adjunct assistant professor in Philosophy, and core faculty in the Program in Medical Ethics and Humanities at the School of Medicine. “While autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed more often than in the past and has led to increased services for many people, there has also been increasing resistance to the diagnosis. Especially from people — many of whom are said to have autism spectrum disorder — who challenge the idea that it represents an illness or abnormality.”

The diagnosis did not arise fully formed, sui generis, but emerged bit by bit, shaped by the values and interactions of psychiatry, state, and society

Sheffer’s exploration of A sperger’s newly uncovered documents and Herwig Czech’s research, in hand with the legacy of the autism pioneer and namesake of Asperger’s syndrome, have reignited debate between disability studies experts, medical researchers and those diagnosed within the autism spectrum. When does the origin of research matter? Do the ends justify the means? Should terminology remain despite the actions of its eponym? (In fact, Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger’s Disorder and Autistic Disorder were replaced by the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in 2013.)

“The origins of the diagnosis matter for how we think about autism today for a subtle but powerful reason,” said Kious. “Although we would like to think the criteria for the diagnosis pick out a natural kind—a condition that exists in nature, waiting to be discovered—it is at least worth considering that the criteria are incidental, such that they would be different or wouldn’t even exist if history had been different.”

While the justification of diagnostic cruelty for the sake of medical research wasn’t unique during the Holocaust — and definitely not unique to medical research history worldwide (Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Neubauer twin experiment, Puerto Rico Pill Trials, Holmesburg Prison experiments), understanding the context surrounding these studies is necessary for improving the future of medical investigation and societal growth.

“It is important that we pay attention to the history informing specific medical achievements,” emphasized Shreiber. “Sheffer’s research on the role that the Nazi regime played in shaping our current understandings of autism is a stunning example of the ethical issues that historical inquiry can provoke.”

Kious agrees.

“The extent that some worry that the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, like other psychiatric diagnoses, is influenced by social factors like power differentials, systems of control and controversial value judgments, plus historical evidence that the Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis was influenced directly by Nazi ideology would be a matter of significant concern,” said Kious.

These are concerns that Sheffer also asserts.

“The diagnosis did not arise fully formed, sui generis, but emerged bit by bit, shaped by the values and interactions of psychiatry, state, and society” (Sheffer, 2018, pp. 22-23). And the same argument can be used for othering.

It is crucial that we recognize the extent to which Nazi ideology challenged our collective commitment to an inclusive society.

Jan. 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and more than seven decades later, acts of othering and prejudice are increasingly common and, according to Ault, “Many of the marginalized groups the Nazis targeted remain among the most vulnerable today.”

“Fear and hatred take any number of forms,” said Ault. “Anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise again in the United States and Europe. Discrimination against people with disabilities, the Roma and Sinti and the LGBTQ+ community all continue today.”

In hopes of addressing our campus climate and initiating an open dialogue with the U of U community, Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, will moderate a faculty panel on modern antisemitism and the dynamics of othering. This multidisciplinary faculty will explore how their scholarship delve into the othering of communities and discuss how past and present forms of nationalism, nativist thought and othering leads to alienation, targeting and “identifying”.

“[As we] shift our attention toward an urgent concern facing us all, the recent rise of anti-Semitism and the troubling turn towards nativism currently threatening our collective commitment to an inclusive society,” urges Shreiber, “it is crucial that we recognize the extent to which Nazi ideology challenged our collective commitment to an inclusive society.”


Commemorating the lives of the victims during the Holocaust, U Remembers (February 4 and 5, 2020) reflects on the historical effects of religious discrimination and genocide and invites us to make connections between the past and contemporary social issues. This year’s theme, “A Deadly Diagnosis”, will explore “how societies assess, label, and treat those diagnosed with disabilities” with Dr. Edith Sheffer, historian and author of “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna”.

All events are free and open to the public. View the full schedule here.

Sheffer, E. (2018). Asperger’s children: The origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna (pp. 11-23). W. W. Norton & Company.