The Damage Fascism Has Done to Trans and Disability Research

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.

My point in comparing these two situations is to illustrate how very much trans and autism acceptance was set back. For years, we operated on flawed understanding of autism because it had been tailored to include eugenics—but because the research survived, we eventually arrived at a much clearer understanding of autism. Alternatively, with all medical and historical research destroyed by a refusal to tailor it to totalitarianism, we are still arguing the very fact that there is no one trans experience—medically and socially—just different needs within a wide spectrum.

It must also be repeated that, despite some of Asperger’s research surviving, it was forever altered by his collaboration with the Nazi Party. No matter whether his collaboration was intended to save as many children as possible, or to play along with Nazi ideals, Asperger’s remaining research set back the understanding of autism in massive ways.

Many people would read these two instances and say, “I would refuse to collaborate.” But many of the people who would say such a thing have never been in the unwinnable situation of living under a completely totalitarian state. The fact is, there is no way to fight fascism through either decision. The results we see are: collaborate and lose most things including your credibility, or don’t collaborate and lose everything, including all the research you have spent decades on.

This is relevant to the time we are living in when politics are divided so harshly in the US, and indeed the whole world. The right has been moving towards banishing trans people from public life through limiting access to sports, health, education, and more, while making life nearly unlivable for many with disabilities (as we’ve seen demonstrated clearly in the recent responses to the COVID-19 crisis). 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? We may, some day soon, have to make them again.


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Alex DiFrancesco

Alex has written 1 article for us.

5 Comments

  1. thank you so much for this article! as a queer disabled Jew, it’s been very important to me personally to research the ‘forgotten’ victims and their stories. disabled people, most of whom were institutionalized in some way, were some of the very first victims of the nazi killing machine. and because of eugenics and the completeness of the genocide, their stories largely haven’t survived. i attended a seminar on trying to fill in the gap in the historical record when there’s essentially *no* firsthand accounts or survivor narratives and it was absolutely devastating.

  2. Great topic! Do you happen to have a reading list for this topic? I recently read “Hitler’s Scientists” which was pretty good but only really focused on those in the basic sciences (e.g. physics). Thanks!

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