The journal Molecular Autism this week published an article about the links between Hans Asperger and the Nazis in world war 2 Vienna, Austria. Hans Asperger is the paediatric pscyhiatrist on whose work Asperger’s syndrome is based, and after whom the syndrome is known. Until recently Asperger was believed to have been an anti-Nazi, someone who resisted the Nazis and risked his own career to protect some of his developmentally delayed patients from the Nazi “euthanasia” program, which killed or sterilized people with certain developmental disabilities for eugenics reasons.

The article, entitled Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna, is a thorough, well-researched and extensively documented piece of work, which I think is based on several years of detailed examination of primary sources, often in their original German. It uses these sources – often previously untouched – to explore and rebut several claims Asperger made about himself, and also to examine the nature of his diagnostic work during the Nazi era to see whether he was resisting or aiding the Nazis in their racial hygiene goals. In this post I want to talk a little about the background of the paper, and ask a few questions about the implications of these findings for our understanding of autism, and also for our practice as public health workers in the modern era. I want to make clear that I do not know much if anything about Asperger’s syndrome or autism, so my questions are questions, not statements of opinion disguised as questions.

What was known about Asperger

Most of Asperger’s history under the Nazis was not known in the English language press, and when his name was attached to the condition of Asperger’s syndrome he was presented as a valiant defender of his patients against Nazi racial hygiene, and as a conscientious objector to Nazi ideology. This view of his life was based on some speeches and written articles translated into English during the post war years, in particular a 1974 interview in which he claims to have defended his patients and had to be saved from being arrested by the Gestapo twice by his boss, Dr. Hamburger. Although some German language publications were more critical, in general Asperger’s statements about his own life’s work were taken at face value, and seminal works in 1981 and 1991 that introduced him to the medical fraternity did not include any particular reference to his activities in the Nazi era.

What Asperger actually did

Investigation of the original documents shows a different picture, however. Before Anschluss (the German occupation of Austria in 1938), Asperger was a member of several far right Catholic political organizations that were known to be anti-semitic and anti-democratic. After Anschluss he joined several Nazi organizations affiliated with the Nazi party. His boss at the clinic where he worked was Dr. Hamburger, who he claimed saved him twice from the Gestapo. In fact Hamburger was an avowed neo-nazi, probably an entryist to these Catholic social movements during the period when Nazism was outlawed in Vienna, and a virulent anti-semite. He drove Jews out of the clinic even before Anschluss, and after 1938 all Jews were purged from the clinic, leaving openings that enabled Asperger to get promoted. It is almost impossible given the power structures at the time that Asperger could have been promoted if he disagreed strongly with Hamburger’s politics, but we have more than circumstantial evidence that they agreed: the author of the article, Herwig Czech, uncovered the annual political reports submitted concerning Asperger by the Gestapo, and they consistently agreed that he was either neutral or positive towards Nazism. Over time these reports became more positive and confident. Also during the war era Asperger gained new roles in organizations outside his clinic, taking on greater responsibility for public health in Vienna, which would have been impossible if he were politically suspect, and his 1944 PhD thesis was approved by the Nazis.

A review of Asperger’s notes also finds that he did send at least some of his patients to the “euthanasia” program, and in at least one case records a conversation with a parent in which the child’s fate is pretty much accepted by both of them. The head of the institution that did the “euthanasia” killings was a former colleague of Asperger’s, and the author presents pretty damning evidence that Asperger must have known what would happen to the children he referred to the clinic. It is clear from his speeches and writings in the Nazi era that Asperger was not a rabid killer of children with developmental disabilities: he believed in rehabilitating children and finding ways to make them productive members of society, only sending the most “ineducable” children to institutional care and not always to the institution that killed them. But it is also clear that he accepted the importance of “euthanasia” in some instances. In one particularly compelling situation, he was put in charge – along with a group of his peers – of deciding the fate of some 200 “ineducable” children in an institution for the severely mentally disabled, and 35 of those ended up being murdered. It seems unlikely that he did not participate in this process.

The author also notes that in some cases Asperger’s prognoses for some children were more severe than those of the doctors at the institute that ran the “euthanasia” program, suggesting that he wasn’t just a fairweather friend of these racial hygiene ideals, and the author also makes the point that because Asperger remained in charge of the clinic in the post-war years he was in a very good position to sanitize his case notes of any connection with Nazis and especially with the murder of Jews. Certainly, the author does not credit Asperger’s claims that he was saved from the Gestapo by Hamburger, and suggests that these are straight-up fabrications intended to sanitize Asperger’s role in the wartime public health field.

Was Asperger’s treatment and research ethical in any way?

Reading the article, one question that occurred to me immediately was whether any of his treatments could be ethical, given the context, and also whether his research could possibly have been unbiased. The “euthanasia” program was actually well known in Austria at the time – so well known in fact that at one point allied bombers dropped leaflets about it on the town, and there were demonstrations against it at public buildings. So put yourself in the shoes of a parent of a child with a developmental disability, bringing your child to the clinic for an assessment. You know that if your child gets an unfavourable assessment there is a good chance that he or she will be sterilized or taken away and murdered. Asperger offers you a treatment that may rehabilitate the child. Obviously, with the threat of “euthanasia” hanging over your child, you will say yes to this treatment. But in modern medicine there is no way that we could consider that to be willing consent. The parent might actually not care about “rehabilitating” their child, and is perfectly happy for the child to grow up and be loved within the bounds of what their developmental disability allows them; it may be that rehabilitation is difficult and challenging for the child, and not in the child’s best emotional interests. But faced with that threat of a racial hygiene-based intervention, as a parent you have to say yes. Which means that in a great many cases I suspect that Asperger’s treatments were not ethical from any post-war perspective.

In addition, I also suspect that the research he conducted for his 1944 PhD thesis, in addition to being unethical, was highly biased, because the parents of these children were lying through their teeth to him. Again, consider yourself as the parent of such a child, under threat of sterilization or murder. You “consent” to your child’s treatment regardless of what might be in the child’s best developmental and emotional interests, and also allow the child to be enrolled in Asperger’s study[1]. Then your child will be subjected to various rehabilitation strategies, what Asperger called pedagogical therapy. You will bring your child into the clinic every week or every day for assessments and tests. Presumably the doctor or his staff will ask you questions about the child’s progress: does he or she engage with strangers? How is his or her behavior in this or that situation? In every situation where you can, you will lie and tell them whatever you think is most likely to make them think that your child is progressing. Once you know what the tests at the clinic involve, you will coach your child to make sure he or she performs well in them. You will game every test, lie at every assessment, and scam your way into a rehabilitation even if your child is gaining nothing from the program. So all the results on rehabilitation and the nature of the condition that Asperger documents in his 1944 PhD thesis must be based on extremely dubious research data. You simply cannot believe that the research data you obtained from your subjects is accurate when some of them know that their responses decide whether their child lives or dies. Note that this problem with his research exists regardless of whether Asperger was an active Nazi – it’s a consequence of the times, not the doctor – but it is partially ameliorated if Asperger actually was an active resister to Nazi ideology, since it’s conceivable in that case that the first thing he did was give the parent an assurance that he wasn’t going to ship their kid off to die no matter what his diagnosis was. But since we now know he did ship kids off to die, that possibility is off the table. Asperger’s research subjects were consenting to a research study and providing subjective data on the assumption that the study investigator was a murderer with the power to kill their child. This means Asperger’s 1944 work probably needs to be ditched from the medical canon, simply on the basis of the poor quality of the data. It also has implications, I think, for some of his conclusions and their influence on how we view Asperger’s syndrome.

What does this mean for the concept of the autism spectrum?

Asperger introduced the idea of a spectrum of autism, with some of the children he called “autistic psychopaths” being high functioning, and some being low functioning, with a spectrum of disorder. This idea seems to be an important part of modern discussion of autism as well. But from my reading of the paper [again I stress I am not an expert] it seems that this definition was at least partly informed by the child’s response to therapy. That is, if a child responded to therapy and was able to be “rehabilitated”, they were deemed high functioning, while those who did not were considered low functioning. We have seen that it is likely that some of the parents of these children were lying about their children’s functional level, so probably his research results on this topic are unreliable, but there is a deeper problem with this definition, I think. The author implies that Asperger was quite an arrogant and overbearing character, and it seems possible to me that his assumption that he is deeply flawed in assuming his therapy would always work and that if it failed the problem was with the child’s level of function. What if his treatment only worked 50% of the time, randomly? Then the 50% of children who failed are not “low-functioning”, they’re just unlucky. If we compare with a pharmaceutical treatment, it simply is not the case that when your drugs fail your doctor deems this to be because you are “low functioning”, and ships you off to the “euthanasia” clinic. They assume the drugs didn’t work and give you better, stronger, or more experimental drugs. Only when all the possible treatments have failed do they finally deem your condition to be incurable. But there is no evidence that Asperger considered the possibility that his treatment was the problem, and because the treatment was entirely subjective – the parameters decided on a case-by-case basis – there is no way to know whether the problem was the children or the treatment. So to the extent that this concept of a spectrum is determined by Asperger’s judgment of how the child responded to his entirely subjective treatment, maybe the spectrum doesn’t exist?

This is particularly a problem because the concept of “functioning” was deeply important to the Nazis and had a large connection to who got selected for murder. In the Nazi era, to quote Negan, “people were a resource”, and everyone was expected to be functioning. Asperger’s interest in this spectrum and the diagnosis of children along it wasn’t just or even driven by a desire to understand the condition of “autistic psychopathy”, it was integral to his racial hygiene conception of what to do with these children. In determining where on the spectrum they lay he was providing a social and public health diagnosis, not a personal diagnosis. His concern here was not with the child’s health or wellbeing or even an accurate assessment of the depth and nature of their disability – he and his colleagues were interested in deciding whether to kill them or not. Given the likely biases in his research, the dubious link between the definition of the spectrum and his own highly subjective treatment strategy, and the real reasons for defining this spectrum, is it a good idea to keep it as a concept in the handling of autism in the modern medical world? Should we revisit this concept, if not to throw it away at least to reconsider how we define the spectrum and why we define it? Is it in the best interests of the child and/or their family to apply this concept?

How much did Asperger’s racial hygiene influence ideas about autism’s heritability?

Again, I want to stress that I know little about autism and it is not my goal here to dissect the details of this disease. However, from what I have seen of the autism advocacy movement, there does seem to be a strong desire to find some deep biological cause of the condition. I think parents want – rightly – to believe that it is not their fault that their child is autistic, and that the condition is not caused by environmental factors that might somehow be associated with their pre- or post-natal behaviors. Although the causes of autism are not clear, there seems to be a strong desire of some in the autism community to see it as biological or inherited. I think this is part of the reason that Andrew Wakefield’s scam linking autism to MMR vaccines remains successful despite his disbarment in the UK and exile to America. Parents want to think that they did not cause this condition, and blaming a pharmaceutical company is an easy alternative to this possibility. Heritability is another alternative explanation to behavioral or environmental causes. Asperger of course thought that autism was entirely inherited, blaming it – and its severity – on the child’s “constitution”, which was his phrase for their genetic inheritance. This is natural for a Nazi, of course – Nazis believe everything is inherited. Asperger also believed that sexual abuse was due to genetic causes (some children had a genetic property that led them to “seduce” adults!) Given Asperger’s influence on the definition of autism, I think it would be a good idea to assess how much his ideas also influence the idea that autism is inherited or biologically determined, and to question the extent to which this is just received knowledge from the original researcher. On a broader level, I wonder how many conditions identified during the war era and immediately afterwards were influenced by racial hygiene ideals, and how much the Nazi medical establishment left a taint on European medical research generally.

What lessons can we learn about public health practice from this case?

It seems pretty clear that some mistakes were made in the decision to assign Asperger’s name to this condition, given what we now know about his past. It also seems clear that Asperger was able to whitewash his reputation and bury his responsibilities for many years, including potentially avoiding being held accountable as an accessory to murder. How many other medical doctors, social scientists and public health workers from this time were also able to launder their history and reinvent themselves in the post-war era as good Germans who resisted the Nazis, rather than active accomplices of a murderous and cruel regime? What is the impact of their rehabilitation on the ethics and practice of medicine or public health in the post-war era? If someone was a Nazi, who believed that murdering the sick, disabled and certain races for the good of the race was a good thing, then when they launder their history there is no reason to think they actually laundered their beliefs as well. Instead they carried these beliefs into the post war era, and presumably quietly continued acting on them in the institutions they now occupied and corrupted. How much of European public health practice still bears the taint of these people? It’s worth bearing in mind that in the post war era many European countries continued to run a variety of programs that we now consider to have been rife with human rights abuse, in particular the way institutions for the mentally ill were run, the treatment of the Roma people (which often maintained racial-hygiene elements even decades after the war), treatment of “promiscuous” women and single mothers, and management of orphanages. How much of this is due to the ideas of people like Asperger, propagating slyly through the post-war public health institutional framework and carefully hidden from view by people like Asperger, who were assiduously purging past evidence of their criminal actions and building a public reputation for purity and good ethics? I hope that medical historians like Czech will in future investigate these questions.

This is not just a historical matter, either. I have colleagues and collaborators who work in countries experiencing various degrees of authoritarianism and/or racism – countries like China, Vietnam, Singapore, the USA – who are presumably vulnerable to the same kinds of institutional pressures at work in Nazi Germany. There have been cases, for example, of studies published from China that were likely done using organs harvested from prisoners. Presumably the authors of those studies thought this practice was okay? If China goes down a racial hygiene path, will public health workers who are currently doing good, solid work on improving the public health of the population start shifting their ideals towards murderous extermination? Again, this is not an academic question: After 9/11, the USA’s despicable regime of torture was developed by two psychologists, who presumably were well aware of the ethical standards their discipline is supposed to maintain, and just ignored them. The American Psychological Association had to amend its code in 2016 to include an explicit statement about avoiding harm, but I can’t find any evidence of any disciplinary proceedings by either the APA or the psychologists’ graduating universities to take action for the psychologists’ involvement in this shocking scheme. So it is not just in dictatorships that public policy pressure can lead to doctors taking on highly unethical standards. Medical, pscyhological and public health communities need to take much stronger action to make sure that our members aren’t allowed to give into their worst impulses when political and social pressure comes to bear on them.

These ideas are still with us

As a final point, I want to note that the ideas that motivated Asperger are not all dead, and the battle against the pernicious influence of racial hygiene was not won in 1945. Here is Asperger in 1952, talking about “feeblemindedness”:

Multiple studies, above all in Germany, have shown that these families procreate in numbers clearly above the average, especially in the cities. [They] live without inhibitions, and rely without scruples on public welfare to raise or help raise their children. It is clear that this fact presents a very serious eugenic problem, a solution to which is far off—all the more, since the eugenic policies of the recent past have turned out to be unacceptable from a human standpoint

And here is Charles Murray in 1994:

We are silent partly because we are as apprehensive as most other people about what might happen when a government decides to social-engineer who has babies and who doesn’t. We can imagine no recommendation for using the government to manipulate fertility that does not have dangers. But this highlights the problem: The United States already has policies that inadvertently social-engineer who has babies, and it is encouraging the wrong women. If the United States did as much to encourage high-IQ women to have babies as it now does to encourage low-IQ women, it would rightly be described as engaging in aggressive manipulation of fertility. The technically precise description of America’s fertility policy is that it subsidizes births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution. We urge generally that these policies, represented by the extensive network of cash and services for low-income women who have babies, be ended. [Emphasis in the Vox original]

There is an effort in Trump’s America to rehabilitate Murray’s reputation, long after his policy prescriptions were enacted during the 1990s. There isn’t any real difference between Murray in 1994, Murray’s defenders in 2018, or Asperger in 1952. We now know what the basis for Asperger’s beliefs were. Sixty years later they’re still there in polite society, almost getting to broadcast themselves through the opinion pages of a major centrist magazine. Racial hygiene didn’t die with the Nazis, and we need to redouble our efforts now to get this pernicious ideology out of public health, medicine, and public policy. I expect that in the next few months this will include some uncomfortable discussions about Asperger’s legacy, and I hope a reassessment of the entire definition of autism, Asperger’s syndrome and its management. But we should all be aware that in these troubled times, the ideals that motivated Asperger did not die with him, and our fields are still vulnerable to their evil influence.

 


fn1: Note that you consent to this study regardless of your actual views on its merits, whether it will cause harm to your child, etc. because this doctor is going to decide whether your child “rehabilitates” or slides out of view and into the T4 program where they will die of “pneumonia” within 6 months, and so you are going to do everything this doctor asks. This is not consent.

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On the fat of the land I been living
Now it’s only a matter of time
Sooner or later, you open your eyes
And return to the scene of the crime
Dig deep at the top of the heap
Now you’ve bitten off the hand that feeds you
You got nothin’ but your soul to sell
You got nothin’
When the river runs dry
You will return to the scene of the crime
When the river runs dry
Salvation will rain on you one last time

 

Things fester in New Horizon. Out in the zones, away from the Claws, where the poor strive and toil and graft their way through life, jumping from paycheck to scam to paycheck to grift and back again, life is a hard scrabble, and you’re always just a step away from failure. When you fail – or when the system pushes you over the edge, into the shadows – you have to look for help among other people with the same hard luck and hard stares as you, and it doesn’t always end well. But sometimes you find a community, people who have something in common with you beyond being a ragged survivor of a hard world, and then you have a chance, at dignity if not at wealth and security.

Being non-human marks you out, and all across the sprawling ruins of the edge of New Horizon there are groups of metahumans who make it together, because they have something they can recognize each other by. Sometimes those bands don’t work out so well – sometimes they bring the shadows with them, and looking inward as they do, cloak themselves in darkness.

In a world of augmentation and magic – things can get very nasty down there in the shadows.

That’s why Anansie contacted the characters with an urgent job – a missing person’s case. An elven girl had gone missing, and after they exhausted all their own options her family called on shadowrunners to try and find her. Anansie did not know the details but he said there would be some money in it, maybe contacts, and it probably wasn’t such a tough job. So they headed off to the south end of Havensport, where the hard scrabble folks live.

For this job Anansie had hooked them up with new members, because their technomancer and their mage were on other work. Their new team members were:

  • Zenith, an Orc rigger, the driver who took them to the Troll gig on their last little outing
  • Jo, an ex-corporate human hacker

Anansie did not know if they would need a hacker for this job – “there is always a phone, is there not John?”, he had asked rhetorically when he introduced them – but he assured Jayden and John that Jo could handle herself in a fight, and if they were going to be cruising the badlands looking for detritus they would need a driver, so Zenith was their man. The two were waiting at the bar where they always met Anansie, Jo looking trim in armoured suit and Zenith casual in jeans, a t-shirt and big brown boots – classic rigger work wear. They hopped into his big, tint-windowed van and cruised South to the badlands.

Their target was a run down stretch of slums and shacks in the very far southern tip of Havensport, nestled in the shadows of a complex of disturbing looking chemical plants. They drove carefully through the sinister smell of unregulated industry and past sprawling slums into a slapped-together township of temporary shacks, stacked container apartments and crumbling converted warehouses to their meeting point – a dusty park from back in the era of state-run schools. The park had long since been converted into a market place, stalls scattered around a central open area scattered with outdoor tables, and it was here that they were due to meet their contact. When they parked their car, however, they realized they were in metahuman turf – not a human to be seen, and the boundaries of the market park patrolled by a nasty looking bunch of troll and orc irregulars. Of course John and Zenith were unbothered by the sight of a few metahumans, and Jayden was so used to being out of place in New Horizon that being confronted by non-humans did not bother him at all, but Jo looked distinctly uncomfortable as they strolled up to a pair of huge troll guards and asked to see their contact, Charcul. They were allowed through with a few grunts and into a largely troll-dominated arena of families and small groups, eating and drinking and relaxing in an unseasonally dry New Horizon afternoon. The entire park stank of stinky tofu, a delicacy from south China and Taiwan that held an almost narcotic appeal for trolls of all races, and which was ubiquitous at all their events throughout Asia. Jayden grabbed a few plates of the stuff as they walked through the park, so when they got close to Charcul and the next round of even bigger, even scarier troll guards approached he was ready with this opening gift. Zenith gave them the code phrase Anansie had told them and, thankfully relieved of their disgusting-smelling cargo, they were able to pass through to a small gaggle of metahumans standing around a tall, proud old troll.

Charcul told them the story quickly enough, in that deep and engaging bass rumble that only old trolls can mange. A young elven woman from the local community called Lin Fei had disappeared about two weeks ago, and they had very recently discovered that she was being held captive by an anti-metahuman gang called the Purifiers. This gang, entirely human, had set itself up above a bar called Akanebana in a nearby area that because of bad blood between gangs and some old agreements, Charcul’s community could not easily enter. He had reached out to Anansie in hopes of finding a team of shadowrunners with at least some human members that he might be able to cut a deal with. The purifiers had a history of torturing metahuman captives – tearing out tusks, rounding off ears, that sort of thing – and the longer they waited the worse it would be for Lin Fei. They assumed she was still alive because the Purifiers usually returned the bodies of their captives once they were finished, so they thought there was still a chance they could get her out. Word in the neighbouring metahuman areas was that she was not the first victim of this gang, and even if the shadowrunners could not liberate Lin Fei alive, Charcul hoped that their going to get her out would send a warning that she should be the last victim they took from this area.

The matter of payment came up. Charcul and his people were obviously not wealthy, and did not have much to give, but they offered 1500 nuyen each and the free takings of anything the PCs found in the Purifier’s gang base if they could liberate Lin Fei or return her body. They looked at each other, nodded, and offered to do the job for free.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Jayden made the offer, and suggested that the only payment they would ever ask was that one day they might need somewhere to lie low. This part of Havensport was a great place to hide, being almost off the grid and well out of the reach or interest of most corporate security teams. People in this part of town did not talk to strangers, and many of the communities down here had ferocious internal loyalties that stopped them talking loosely with their neighbours. For at least a little while a team of shadowrunners could get lost in here, and bonds of community would hold faster than any deal nuyen could buy – if they were owed a favour here, the trolls hiding them would take the secret of their location to the grave with them. Charcul thought the offer way too good, and in truth it was, but they all saw that one day it could be a life saver for the PCs too. They agreed, and the PCs set off to investigate this bar, Akanebana.

Trivial checks by Jo revealed it was a yakuza bar, owned by a small local yakuza family, the Kurosasori, that worked the edges of the sprawlzone. The Purifers must have set up on one of the levels above, and from the plans Jo downloaded it was pretty clear that the only way to the higher floors was to brazen their way through the yakuza bar itself. But this bar was in a human zone, and the yakuza who owned it were notoriously metaphobic, and a more detailed search suggested that although they did not own the building they were on more than friendly terms with whoever did – so getting in to beat up a bunch of tenants was going to be a challenge. They needed a way in that would get them past the bar without a fight.

They put in a call to Mr. Niwa, consigliere for the Yamada family, whose daughter they had previously escorted to a Troll metal gig. Mr. Niwa was a grateful man, and in exchange for the many extra services they had provided him on that mission he was able to arrange them an invitation to the bar, to talk to a Mr. Uesugi about the details of their evening. They made clear their visit was not going to be pretty, and he reminded them that his reputation was on the line. Everyone understood the stakes, so they went in.

The maps they had downloaded showed that the bar took the entire ground floor of the building, which had a large elevator hall near the entryway, but when they entered the building they found a very different setup. Most of the elevators had been blocked off and turned into cloak rooms or staff offices, and the elevator hall had become the entryway for the club itself, where security guards in smart suits greeted them in subdued Japanese style and divested them of their weapons. They were led into a relatively quiet public area, pumping music and a pair of scantily clad human women gyrating in some kind of raised platform at the end of a long, heavily burnished bar. The windows opened onto sedate zen gardens, and a brusque human waitress took their order. They stood there at the bar waiting for the maitre’d to bring them to their assigned seats but before they began their meeting they noticed a single human woman, blonde and muscular, leaning on the bar and looking around with a kind of urgent, uncertain and tense manner. Jayden approached her and discovered quickly that she was looking for her brother, who had disappeared in the area a few months ago – she suspected having joined the Purifiers. Her name was Gillian Payne, her little brother was Max, and plan was to go in and find him. Thinking she might know something about how to get in, they invited her to join them, and went to their meeting with Mr. Uesugi.

The conversation with Mr. Uesugi proved surprisingly easy. They told him directly they were going to go upstairs and get their target out of the Purifiers, and they hoped to come to some kind of arrangement. He told them directly that he wanted all of the Purifiers dead – they had become an embarassment to his gang, and now their rent was due – and he would much prefer someone else did it, so he would happily allow them into the building, clear the bar so there were no witnesses, and turn a blind eye to the slaughter. But he added two conditions: every single Purifier had to die, and the PCs could only take as much loot as they could carry. In particular the Purifiers were believed to be sitting on a large collection of crates whose contents the PCs were not to take or even to look at. They balked at the “every single purifier” condition, but managed to cut a bargain with Mr. Uesugi, that Max Payne could live if Gillian worked for the yakuza for a year. Mr. Uesugi made very clear that he really did not care for Max Payne to live, and he would make the one exception only if Gillian agreed to repay him with work. She agreed, and the deal was done.

The bar experienced a sudden freak blackout, and all the customers were asked to leave and move to a different bar nearby. Zenith slipped out to his car and came back with a drone – a tank the size of a large dog, bristling with guns. They were led down into the basement to a separate service lift by one of Mr. Uesugi’s goons, a massive thug called Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – and told that it would deposit them on the 2nd floor. They went up.

The third floor was deserted, a big dark common area that led to a kind of dormitory at one end. Here they found sets of bunk beds, with small bags of belongings in lockers at one end of the room. Searching the belongings they soon found commlinks, and Jo was able to hack the commlinks to get their contents. They found Max Payne’s commlink, and by quickly searching through the messages he had shared with a few of his fellow Purifiers they learnt many things:

  • Max was an initiate who was not allowed to do many things, and spent much of his time in lectures and indoctrination sessions
  • The more experienced Purifiers had a private bar/hangout area in the basement, that the initiates were not allowed into
  • Max and his friend had found a secret access shaft that connected all the floors, and even went down to the basement
  • Max’s friend had used the shaft and had stashed a card for the basement security system behind a cistern in the bathrooms
  • Calli was on level 5, and there was a complex they did not visit – where the prisoners were held – on level 4
  • The initiates spent most of their time in level 3, in a training and indoctrination area, and that was where they were now
  • The entire grubby little arrangement was run by a woman called Calli, who as far as they could discern was some kind of technical wizard

They decided to go down and deal with the security guards first, so once they had found the card they got back into the lift and headed down.

The elevator doors opened into a wide open space dominated by a large set of benches with computer equipment in the middle. There were five men standing around those benches, holding drinks and chatting. When the lift doors open they all stared at the PCs in shock, perhaps thinking for a moment they were colleagues from upstairs, and the PCs, expecting some kind of elevator hall or entryway, stared back in shock.

Except Jayden. Jayden is never surprised, so he burst into the room and set to work with his knife. From there the battle was short and brutal, the room starkly illuminated with flashes of gunfire and echoing with the scream of dying men. All five men died without doing any damage to the PCs, barely able to get a shot in before they found themselves face to face with Jayden, or pinned down under a withering barrage of gunfire.

As the last of the men slid groaning to his grim end Jo set to work hacking the computers, and the rest of the party fanned out to search the area. They found a simple bar and lounge, the kind of messy, untidy and comfy place that a bunch of twenty-something men set up when they’re living together. Nasty posters adorned the walls, yelling hateful human supremacist slogans from faces of young men distorted with anger. Pumping hardcore human first music roared through the room, and messages of hate scrolled across the computer screens. A typical human supremacist den.

Jo soon hacked the computer and gained complete access to the entire computer system. She accessed maps of all the other areas, gained full control of the lift, and hacked one of the guard’s commlinks. From this she showed them a feed of events in the prisoner area of level 4. A horrible tableau unfolded before them: the elf girl, Lin Fei, and an Orc man were tied to chairs in the middle of a stark, bare chamber. Around the back walls of the chamber were several cages, in which a couple of weak, sickly and heavily mutilated elves and dwarves were held captive. One cage in the middle held a huge, badly injured troll, who was rattling on the bars and screaming at the room. His tusks had been removed violently and his body was covered in scabby cuts and sores. Both the elf girl and the orc boy were covered in blood, and someone behind the camera was laughing at them. As they watched a rough, heavy-set man entered the scene from the left and slapped the orc, making a joke about how soon the elf girl wouldn’t have a use for him as a boyfriend. Then he turned to the girl and told her it was time for her to lose her ears. Someone behind the camera laughed, and the troll screamed.

This video was being streamed from the commlink in this room to Calli’s commlink, up in her hidey hole on level 5. If the PCs attacked now she would see her guards die and know that the den had intruders; but if they did not, this pair would soon be done for. They had to act now. They ran back to the lift and punched it for level 4.

At level 4 the elevator opened into a small entryway that fed into a wider corridor. They moved quickly down this corridor towards the sound of the raging troll, and ambushed the three guards in here with maximum violence. They were dead before they knew what hit them.

As they freed Lin Fei and her boyfriend, crying and desperately thankful, the Troll raged behind them in the cage. “Free me!” he yelled, and “You treacherous bitch, I’ll destroy you!” Apparently this was aimed at Lin Fei, though they had no time to find out why. By now Calli would know they had invaded her den, and would be planning some defense. Zenith sent his drone back to guard the elevator while they discussed what to do. Finally someone suggested that they free the troll and let him use the elevator to go and get Calli, then follow him. They would have to channel him away from Lin Fei, but everyone could see that he had lost his mind, and there was no hope for him. He was rattling the cage bars and screaming, “Let me at Calli! Let me out! I’ll kill her!”

It was a risk, but they took it. Jayden walked up to the cage and did his best to convince the troll that his enemy was Calli, not Lin Fei, and that he could come back for Lin Fei. Then he opened the cage, and they watched as the troll went screaming along the hallway, smashing into walls and yelling at the ceiling, insane with berserk rage. A troll in his finest fury is a sight to behold, and they all paused for just a moment to show him the respect he deserved before they moved down the hallway after him.

By the time they reached the elevator he had already headed up. They called the elevator back down and followed him, and when it opened on the fifth floor the sense of their strategy was clear. There were three guards on the ground in the elevator hall, all with SMGs that had been pointed at the elevator doors, which were smeared in thick dark troll blood. They found the troll around the corner, dead on the ground, riddled with bullets and what looked suspiciously like dog bites. Zenith looked at the bites and told them he had been attacked by a K-nine, a type of drone with a dog form that was specially designed for attacking humanoids. They advanced past the dead troll, giving him momentary whispers of respectful remembrance, and hit the main room.

Here again battle was joined, but now their enemy was ready for them and in cover. Calli was some kind of rigger like Zenith, because she had gun turrets set up in two corners of the room and sent a K-nine drone to get them as they approached the room. With the gun turrets and Calli’s remaining guards ensconced behind cover at the far end of the room it appeared to be a death trap, but Jayden did not let this concern him – he charged in and drew all the fire in the room as he ran to the cover, giving the others a chance to get inside the room and take cover in shooting positions. Jayden’s attack was a crazy spectacle of Adept power – he leapt onto the cabinet that Calli hid behind, dodging short bursts of bullets from two turrets and pistol fire from one of the guards as he dived forward to attack Calli. At the same time the rest of the group opened fire on the turrets, and another guard, and Jo hacked the dog drone to try and make it stand down. More gunfire sprayed at Jayden, but he slipped between the cones of fire and jumped down from the barrier to kill Calli. Seeing the trouble she was in, she dropped out of the connection to her drones and fled, leaving the dog and the turrets dead at her feet. The group chased her but were ambushed by another K-nine drone, which slowed them down enough to give Calli the edge, and she leapt into the secret access shaft that linked all the floors together. As she fell Jo fired shots after her, but Jayden did not wait – he jumped in after her in a controlled fall, sliding down the walls and catching himself enough to land on her crumpled body without injury. She was alive but badly injured, so he calmly reached down and cut her throat. Calli was dead.

The others came down to the basement to get her body, and then they moved back to the final floor, level 3 where the initiates were in training. They burst into the training room to find the initiates on their knees, hands up, pleading not to die. Jo, Zenith and John calmly shot them all in the head, leaving only Max kneeling on the ground in his white Purifier robes, spattered with the blood of his friends and sniveling and crying in terror. As Gillian stepped forward to slap her brother everyone else noticed Jo raising her gun to shoot him in the head too. Nobody bothered to stop her, but at the last she lowered the gun and turned away in disgust. They looked through the room for loot as Gillian ranted and screamed at her stupid little brother and then, satisfied that there was nothing worthwhile, moved back to level 4 to free the prisoners and begin the looting.

Two of the elves they found were seriously injured and badly malnourished, in need of immediate trauma care. They had obviously been held here and tortured for some time. An hour after they entered the building the PCs emerged on level 1 to the waiting Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – accompanied by their injured and shattered charges, and loaded down with loot. Takuya escorted them to their van, made sure they were all inside, and saw them safely away from the building with another final “Takuay’su! Uss!”

They returned to Charcul and a hero’s welcome. He promised them that if ever they needed somewhere to run, if they needed somewhere to hide, they could always count on him and his people. They were thanked effusively, given lashings of intense troll beer and stinky tofu and fried noodles and heavy, fatty grouper fish meat in a delicious rich sweet dark sauce, feasted until morning, and then left, exhausted, to drag their loot back to their safe houses.

In one small part of New Horizon, they had become heroes. In another small part of New Horizon the Kurosasori yakuza gang slid quietly into the silent, bloody halls of the Purifiers, stepping with sneers of distaste over the bodies of the Purifier guards and the congealing pools of blood that ran between them, searching diligently for the crates that they had been assured no one had opened. They found them in the back of a storage room on level 4, untouched, and as the first grey light of dawn slid across New Horizon’s fractured, fractal cityscape they carried the crates silently and carefully down and out to waiting vans. They spared the dead Purifiers only the minimum attention they needed to avoid slipping in their filth. Once it was done a truck backed up to the doors, and heavy bundles wrapped in black plastic were dumped into it, to be driven off to an incinerator outside the city limits.

Nobody likes Nazis.

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Today I discovered an interesting interview with one Stephen Shapiro, University of Warwick, which was conducted in 2003 by the German Tolkien fanclub (at least I assume that’s what it is). At that time it would appear he had been working on a research theme similar to that which I’ve gathered here and here, about whether Tolkien is racist, racialist, or vulnerable to interpretation as such. The interview contains support for the claims I’ve made before about how Tolkien can be read, and contains some interesting information I hadn’t previously found about the way in which Tolkien is used by the far right in Europe[1]. The interview came out in 2003 and is, I think, a bit unfair on Peter Jackson – I think Shapiro has a very uncharitable reading of the poster advertising The Two Towers.  I’m no film critic so I can’t say anything about the claim that

In visual terms, there are also uncanny references to both Leni Riefenstahl and DW Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, the film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

If so, that’s a bit disappointing, but it’s also maybe not unexpected – Leni Riefenstahl is supposed to have done revolutionary stuff, isn’t she?

Shapiro also suggests that Jackson’s film could have been tolerably done in a more multi-racial fashion, and says

For Jackson’s part, he gives viewers too little credit, since many contemporary fans in the “fantasy and role-playing community” of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Everquest often encourage players to avoid racial stereotypes in their games, Jackson makes no concession to ethnic heterogeneity and often seems not to have considered if a non-white viewer would feel that her or his dignity had been degraded by the film’s representations.

I don’t know if I agree with this – D&D et al are games which, while they superficially “avoid racial stereotypes,” tend to also err strongly on the side of making the protagonist white[2]. Also, these games strongly encourage racialism, and I’m not sure that racialism is compatible with “avoid racial stereotypes.”

Shapiro also states that he is aware of someone else (internet link now dead) who claims to have proof that Tolkien subscribed for 20 years to an extremely right-wing, racist magazine called the League for Empire Loyalists. I don’t think this claim can be tested from the comfort of my armchair, so I’d like to add that I know someone whose dog has eaten someone’s homework, and on that homework it was clearly written that Tolkien was a member of NAMBLA.

There is s sizable section of this interview which backs up my earlier evidence about how Tolkien is used by the far right. For example, the Heathen Front (some kind of long-since collapsed British organisation of right wing “volkists”) admired him as “racialist”, and he was also extremely popular on the far right in Italy. One far right movement even ran paramilitary youth groups called “camp Hobbits”, and infiltrated the Italian Tolkien Society in the 80s. The modern Italian far right developed from a rump movement that survived Mussolini, but it developed along very different lines – it eschewed the modernist futurism of pre-war fascism and instead developed a philosophy based on sacred fascism, in which a traditional and a modern world view are in constant conflict, with the traditional worldview slowly decaying but then reasserting itself. This decay is associated with a decline due to racial mixing and loss of religious strength. This ideology of the “sacred Right” is consistent with the themes in Tolkien’s work, and is a very common view across much modern extreme right thought – David Duke espouses it, it’s crawled all across the pages of Stormfront and the other far right websites[4], and the people who are closest associated with it also seem very likely to be Tolkien admirers. The links between the spiritual fathers of modern Italian fascism and Tolkien are well described in this essay, which also points out that modern fascism is now so diverse that it is difficult to ascribe it a single guiding philosophy or even to define it clearly as “fascism” anymore.

I think that had Tolkien’s work been popular in the ’30s it would probably not have been popular with the Italian fascists, who were much more into futurism and total war than they were into romantic recreation of bucolic rural utopias. It might have influenced those who wanted religious re-development under the regimes, but these people were never popular with their leaders[5].  Had it been associated with Fascism then I doubt it would be very popular now, either, so it’s all round good luck for us that he published just a tad late. But I think in the post-war age there are clear parallels between the mythology and cultural history of the Lord of the Rings and the tale of cultural decline and racial mixing which the modern far Right want to tell. It’s not a coincidence, because like his fellow fantasy authors (and pretty much all of the white world) in the pre-war era, Tolkien believed in the Aryan mythology, the now-discredited model of Aryan archaeology, eugenics and the dangers of racial mixing; and he was, apparently, on the right-wing of British literary activity. Because he wrote such a detailed, lyrical and evocative world based around these ideals, he has become the literary standard for those elements of the modern far right who subscribe to the same mythology. I think he would probably see a lot of things in the modern far Right of which he would approve, but I think he would also see a lot (particularly in Berlusconi’s Italy) that horrifies him, and I think it highly unlikely that he would ever have supported the goals or politics of any fascist organisations in the 20th or 21st centuries. But his writing supports their ideals and he has been used shamelessly to reinvigorate their cultural background in the last 20 years[6]. Given the influence of Tolkien on role-playing and the fantasy world today, I think it’s fair to say that role-playing has a cultural heritage in these fascist ideals, and the closer one hews to the work of the pre-war canon that was steeped in them, the closer this heritage is to one’s game.

I don’t wish to draw too many conclusions about what this says about people like me who enjoy playing in these worlds. Some choices:

  1. It’s actually really easy to sterilise artistic work of nasty meaning if you like the work itself
  2. Good literary work can transcend even very powerful politically objectionable ideals (Nabokov, anyone?)
  3. The reader’s intentions and goals are much more important in the interpretation of the work than even the most blatant political intent on the part of the author[7]
  4. I’m an outrageous fascist who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes

I do think, though, that there must be some extent to which this racialisation in standard fantasy and role-playing has to make it seem exclusionary to non-white readers. Even if 1) were true, some proportion of non-white readers who would otherwise enjoy the work must be put off by their obvious placement on the wrong side of the story in the pre-war canon (and by extension, much of the post-war canon). I wonder how many role-players in the creation of their own worlds unconsciously move away from the outright racialism in the early work, or subvert it in some way. I know I have done by, for example, making Orcs noble (I did this long before I knew about this critique of Tolkien) or by making Elves fascist (in my 4th Age Middle Earth Campaign)[8]. But it’s really hard to preserve D&D in any original sense without keeping the racialism, and I think this must be a turn-off for some people, and I would guess particularly for non-white readers who are perhaps more aware of the consequences of racialism than a lot of white readers are.

fn1: For those who don’t want to wade through all the other crap I’ve written on this, I should point out that although I think the association of LoTR with the far right is evidence that it is easy to read as racist, I don’t take it as evidence that Tolkien was racist and I don’t care if he was[3]

fn2: There is a whole literature and 15 years of internet debate over whether making your protagonists white is a sign that you, your story, your game, or your movie, is racist. I think that it’s better if, where race is an explicit motif, the races in question are inclusive. I don’t think in early D&D they are. I don’t take this to mean Gygax (or anyone else) was racist

fn3: In the sense that, I think it’s bad to be racist, and I think it’s bad if a book sets out to tell a racist story, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of all the other appreciable elements of the book. And I think it’s interesting to investigate the politics of a book and of its writer, but that doesn’t mean I think every book should be PC, etc. blah blah, insert other ritualistic disclaimers about not being a killjoy here.

fn4: As ever, I’m not going to link to these sites, because they’re evil and I don’t want them coming here!

fn5: Am I the only person who thinks it highly suspicious that “hyperborea” and “hyborea” sound very, very similar? I might have to investigate Howard, who wrote “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

fn6: It’s worth bearing in mind that after a movement engages in the level of monumental fail that the fascist movement fell to, they need some serious help reinvigorating, and a completely new ideological direction. It’s a miracle really that they’ve managed to survive in any way, shape or form and I’m sure any kind of long-term survival depends on their finding a new ideological basis.

fn7: Again, I’m not saying here that fascism was Tolkien’s intent. It’s worth noting that Orwell is consistently misused too, and loved by people on the right, even though he’s obviously a ferociously left-wing writer

fn8: This is really piss-poor subversion, because it doesn’t change the inherent racial essentialism of the framework, just reverses who gets what trait. Is this better? I would argue not… it’s just fun. I think Stephen Donaldson may be a good example of a popular canonical fantasy writer who screwed with the racial essentialism in the most obvious way – by writing a recognisable fantasy world mostly devoid of racial structures.