A friend or a foe – anthroposophy in the fascist era

A while ago, early this year, I wrote a small article about Peter Staudenmaier’s book for the Swedish Skeptics’ Society’s journal. It has now appeared in print in the recent edition of Folkvett (2015:1-2), and is also available online here. I recommend reading the Swedish version if you can, but when I was asked if I wanted to do an English translation, I thought it may be a good idea; after all, I practice my English very little these days, and that is probably how it will remain. (As a sidenote intended for Swedish readers: there’s also another very short piece by me in Folkvett, a comment to an article about waldorf schools.)

So here it goes.

A friend or a foe – anthroposophy in the fascist era

Staudenmaier, Peter, Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era. (Leiden, 2014.)

Anyone who observes the resistance anthroposophy encounters from its critics will soon become aware of one commonly used argument: anthroposophy is racist. This statement alone is then supposed to provide the reason for an immediate rejection of anthroposophy; a discussion of its other merits is no longer called for, the assumption being that no human being of sound mind can find anything of value in such a worldview.

A correspondingly close-minded perspective is present on the anthroposophical side, where it originates in an inability to view anthroposophy critically, in an antipathy towards external, materialistic historiography, and in the naive idea that anthroposophy per definition is good and is doing what is good. Undesirable facts and individuals must be cleansed – applying advanced acrobatics of denial if necessary – or rejected as though not a part of true anthroposophy. Not infrequently, anthroposophists view any treatment of anthroposophical history as an accusatory act, and react as though it were not a question of describing ideas but of ascribing blame.

Such an attitude is not merely inadequate, it also points to a lack in the will to gain insight and to a propensity for self-deception – ironic for a movement which praises self-knowledge. Often the debates that arise tell us more about the state of anthroposophy today and its current difficulties than about its history. Peter Staudenmaier’s book may serve as a useful source of information and assist in dispelling unhealthy illusions. The history it recounts is more complex than many are ready to admit, and in the best case it may contribute to a more nuanced approach among friends of anthroposophy and its critics alike.

The book, a revised version of Peter Staudenmaier’s doctoral dissertation, describes the history of the anthroposophical movement in the first half of the 20th century and its relationship to the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. The main part focuses on the situation in Germany. Peter Staudenmaier, who works at Marquette University, is perhaps best known to Swedish readers through the essay ‘Antroposofi och Ekofascism’ (Folkvett, 2001:2; a revised version is available online in English, ‘Anthroposophy and Ecofascism’).

Some anthroposophists greeted Nazi ideology with genuine enthusiasm, while for others dealing with it may have been more of a question of survival in times when friendly officials within Nazi ranks was crucial to the movement’s continued existence. Among the more interesting aspects of the book is reading about how anthroposophists attempted to create sympathy for anthroposophy by emphasising its commonalities with Nazism and how they tried to adapt to the Nazi rule. On behalf of the Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Richard Karutz, a prominent anthroposophist and racial ideologist who is treated thoroughly in the book, wrote an article in which he provided assurance of the Waldorf movement’s dedication to the Nazi regime. Pro-Nazi statements also emanated from the leadership of the Anthroposophical Society in Dornach. Those are only a couple of countless examples.

Steiner’s work contains racist as well as anti-semitic elements. There are the occasional statements about Negro novels, blue eyes and intelligence, and other exotic views that today seem astonishing and antiquated. But the theosophically inspired root race doctrine and the view of human evolution are perhaps more important. The idea that certain races have evolved a more advanced state of consciousness than others provided a potential for Nazi leaning anthroposophists to find common ground for politics and spirituality to meet – even if this was a somewhat risky opportunity to take.

It was risky partly because Nazism lacked an understanding of one of anthroposophy’s core ideas, namely that the spirit, which is eternal and reincarnates repeatedly, transcends biology. The physical side of the human being was not, on the whole, an all determining factor for Steiner. Some of the anthroposophists we encounter in the book do indeed object to the racial ideology of Nazism mainly on this ground; they consider its conception of race too materialistic. Nazism, they believed, insufficiently considered the spiritual aspects. But it has to be said that Nazi views on race were not heterogeneous; to varying degrees they, too, included spiritual elements. Seeking and finding common ground was neither self-evident nor to be ruled out.

Anthroposophy views race as an external characteristic that mirrors inner, spiritual properties. Biology is not seen as a determinant of ultimate fate, especially when human life is considered over multiple incarnations. Typically Jewish traits, such as materialism and intellectualism, may also appear in individuals who are not Jewish. Or as Richard Karutz put it: ”the Jew in every person is the enemy”. Despite this viewpoint, he saw a direct correlation between physiology and level of consciousness, and believed that human races manifest different degrees of spiritual development, and that interracial marriages would cause spiritual regression. Unsurprisingly Richard Karutz found a lot to admire in Nazi ideology, and though he regretted that it was incomplete in spiritual terms, he vowed that Hitler’s and Steiner’s racial teachings were similar.

Anthroposophists thought that Jews could overcome their degenerate and obsolete race. Since the human spirit is free, everyone can strive to become a part of the German community, which holds promise for the future and for spiritual evolution. A crucial distinction between Nazi and anthroposophist views on Jews was, thus, that for the former elimination was the goal, while the latter held assimilation as the ideal. Jewishness would disappear not as a result of active measures of extinction but through a natural process of abandonment. As Friedrich Rittelmeyer, a priest in the anthroposophical Christian Community, expressed it: worthy Jews could ”lift themselves out of the defects of their race.”

A telling example of this way of thinking is provided in the chapter about Waldorf schools. When a Waldorf parent, who was also a Nazi party member, became provoked by the school’s hiring of a substitute teacher of Jewish descent, the school argued that for every human being spiritual development is a possibility. ”[W]e are firmly convinced that anthroposophy provides the possibility for an individual to outgrow his racial origin”, the school stated. Such points of view failed to make positive impressions in Nazi circles, and the school eventually backed down and declared its fidelity to the regime. The substitute teacher, who was a dedicated anthroposophist as well as a confessed Christian, quit working at the school.

The book contains many examples of ideas and factors that were promoted by active anthroposophists to emphasize anthroposophy’s compatibility with Nazi ideals and to mark the rejection of supposed Jewish characteristics. Among the things they called attention to were a shared desire to revitalize the German folk soul and a hope for spiritual renewal; a conviction that Germany had a spiritual mission to fulfill in the world; an anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual outlook; a fad for a natural lifestyle; an aversion towards parliamentarism and democracy as well as towards liberalism, capitalism and communism; a resistance to dry abstraction, rationalism and modern rootlessness; a dislike for internationalism and individualism which supposedly threatens the national community; et cetera. Jews were held accountable for all manners of perceived evil, such as modern natural sciences, industrial agriculture, vaccination (supposedly planned by Jewish doctors with the intent to ”contaminate healthy blood”) and last but not least the denial of Christ. Prominent anthroposophists, such as Norbert Glas – an Austrian of Jewish origins and living in exile in the United Kingdom – gave Jews themselves and Jewish culture the blame for the hatred they encountered. In addition to this, there were already existing connections between anthroposophy and Nazism through the Völkisch and Lebensreform movements. To a large part, the points of commonality had much to do with the experience of elements of modern life as dangers and threats – be it to the spirit or to the folk soul or the purity of the nation.

But there were obstacles too, apart from the already mentioned spiritually oriented concept of race preferred by anthroposophists. Despite anthroposophists’ promotion of an anti-intellectualist stance, some Nazis regarded them nonetheless as intellectuals (presumably with fairly good cause). Additionally, and despite its predilection for everything German, the anthroposophical movement was basically an international movement, and failed to convince the Nazis of its anti-international character. And in the anthroposophical conception of man there was a core of individualism – also exemplified in, but not limited to, the idea that a human being can overcome her race – which is at odds with Nazi ideals.

This and other things made anthroposophy into a potential friend and at the same time a potential enemy or competitor to the Nazis. For anthroposophists it meant balancing between keeping anthroposophy’s distinctive character intact and approaching and adapting to the regime. In the end, efforts turned out to be unsuccessful. The anti-esoteric faction of the Nazi party won the victory over pro-anthroposophical forces, and everything conceived as a threat to the party’s totalitarian aims was eliminated. The Anthroposophical Society was prohibited and Waldorf schools closed. Through this time, however, many anthroposophical enterprises could remain in operation in some form. This was especially true for biodynamic agriculture, which was even practiced in concentration camps using prisoners as a labour force.

Anthroposophy has good reason to attempt a more unbiased view of history. It is, for example, unrealistic and unworthy to do as is often done in Waldorf environments: to insist on a characterization of Waldorf schools as enemies of the Nazi regime or to claim that the closing of the schools was caused by ideological incompatibility. Such a viewpoint takes into account neither how far the movement’s representatives were prepared to go in the adaptation to the regime, nor how positive an atmosphere towards Nazism there was in Waldorf schools. It also constitutes a denial of how representatives of the pedagogy regarded their ideas as compatible with Nazism and how Waldorf – this is described in the book – was even promoted as the most suitable pedagogy for the Nazi state. Partly, these attitudes may have been a strategy for survival, but partly their origins lay in genuine conviction. Anthroposophists and people in the Waldorf movement were not simply passive victims – they were active participants. All who wish to inform themselves about this can easily find ample material in Peter Staudenmaier’s book.

The anthroposophical movement must become able to live with its past. In the best case knowledge of these chapters in the history of anthroposophy could contribute to a more critically inclined approach to anthroposophical ideas in general. It could yield insights into the value of evaluation, reassessment and modernisation, and perhaps lead to a freer and more independent reading of Steiner. But, as Peter Staudenmaier observes, even today there are anthroposophists who defend Steiner’s ideas on race as ”humanitarian, tolerant and enlightened.” Aside from the fact that history cannot be about ascribing guilt to the dead or requiring that anthroposophists today accept blame for the actions of previous generations, anthroposophists bear responsibility for how anthroposophy and its inheritance is dealt with here and now. Coming to terms with the theosophical root race doctrine or other outdated elements of thought ought not to be impossible for anthroposophists who can withstand an apologetic impulse.

*Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation. Cornell University, 2010