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Anthroposophy and its Defenders

Reply to Peter Normann Waage, Humanism and Polemical Populism

Anthroposophy and Ecofascism has sparked a debate within Scandinavian humanist circles, with some humanists like Peter Normann Waage lining up to defend Anthroposophy as a harmless variant of humanism.1) While we are encouraged by this long overdue debate, we are troubled by the degree of historical naiveté it has revealed. Waage’s perspective seems to represent a view that is fairly widespread among educated and well-intentioned people. We hope that we can contribute to a more accurate view of the political implications of anthroposophy by correcting several of the misconceptions exemplified by Waage’s reply. Although Waage has nothing to say about the article’s main topic, the systematic collusion between organized anthroposophy and the so-called "green wing" of German fascism, he does raise several issues that lie at the core of that collusion. Waage would have us believe that Rudolf Steiner was a principled anti-racist, that he opposed private property, rejected militarism and nationalism, and was a staunch adversary of Nazism. These claims are not simply untrue; they betray a surprising unfamiliarity with Steiner’s published work and a profound misunderstanding of anthroposophy’s political history.


Let us begin, as Waage does, with the question of nationalism. To the end of his life, Steiner was forthright in acknowledging his early and enthusiastic participation in pan-German agitation. In the autobiography he published shortly before his death, he had this to say about his years in Vienna before the turn of the century: "At this time I was enthusiastically active in the struggles of the Germans in Austria for their national existence." ("Nun nahm ich damals an den nationalen Kämpfen lebhaften Anteil, welche die Deutschen in Österreich um ihre nationale Existenz führten." Steiner, Mein Lebensgang, original edition Dornach 1925, p. 132; the phrase "lebhaften Anteil" could also be translated as "deeply sympathetic".) Waage says that he was unable to find this passage in the Norwegian translation of Steiner’s autobiography.2) But even without this particularly revealing sentence, Steiner’s autobiography provides ample testimony to his German nationalist convictions. The paragraph following the one quoted above refers to Steiner’s numerous "friends from the national struggle," and two pages prior he discusses the impact of Julius Langbehn’s infamous book Rembrandt als Erzieher on his thinking.3)

But Waage need not have searched through Steiner’s autobiography for evidence of his early pan-German engagement, as Steiner’s collected works contain several dozen articles published in the German nationalist press between 1884 and 1890, with titles like "Die deutschnationale Sache in Österreich" ("The Pan-German Cause in Austria").4) The hard-line nationalist stance that Steiner adopts in these articles is extremist even by the standards of the 1880s; he attacks the mainstream nationalist parties as "un-German" and rejects any compromise with them.5) Nor was this a mere youthful aberration; Steiner never disowned or regretted these writings. On the contrary, he emphatically re-affirmed his pan-German views in a series of articles at the turn of the century.6)

The striking thing about Steiner’s proud avowal of his nationalist activities is how utterly divorced from reality those activities were. There was, of course, no real "struggle for national existence" among Germans in the Habsburg empire – much less in Vienna itself – because there was never any serious threat to German predominance under the monarchy, and certainly not to their national existence. On the contrary, ethnic Germans were the undisputed administrative, economic, and cultural elite throughout the Austrian half of the far-flung multinational empire. Steiner’s involvement in pan-German efforts was based on nothing more than chauvinism and ethnic prejudice; the contemporary Norwegian counterpart to such groups would be the People’s Movement Against Immigration (Folkebevegelse mot Innvandring). In light of Steiner’s long-standing attachment to a particularly virulent form of Great German nationalism, it is hardly surprising to see his attitude descend into outright national hatred with the advent of World War One.7)

Steiner gave dozens of lectures during the war (collected in the two volume Zeitgeschichtliche Betrachtungen) condemning what he termed "British, French, and Russian imperialism," never for a moment mentioning German imperialism. These lectures portray Germany and Austria as innocent victims of the "West" and the "East" and are filled with indignant rejections of any criticism of German nationalism and militarism. They recycle the hoary myth of Mitteleuropa familiar to students of the German far right. Steiner sketched in the details of this myth in his postwar writings; one might consult, for example, the lecture cycle Bewußtseins-Notwendigkeiten für Gegenwart und Zukunft (Dornach, 1967), where Steiner repeats the standard nationalist line about the special spiritual mission of the German people and warns that this unique "German essence" is being "alienated" by "Americanism" on the one side and "Russianness" on the other (p. 408). Steiner goes on to explain that "fear of the spiritual is the characteristic element of Americanism" (p. 405), while describing the threat from "the East" as "socialism" and "bolshevism" (p. 407). This is a classic instance of the reactionary German paranoia of being trapped between the soulless West and the collectivist East, dressed up as spiritual insight. The very same paranoia formed a crucial component of German fascism.

Waage notes that Steiner was a fervent opponent of Wilsonian self-determination, a fact which the article had already pointed out. This position, in itself, by no means indicates a fundamental hostility to nationalism; several of the leading lights of extremist pan-German nationalism, such as Count Reventlow and the fanatical racist Adolf Bartels, shared Steiner’s dim view of Wilson’s proposals.8) More importantly, Waage fails to grasp why Steiner took this stance. Steiner held that the doctrine of national self-determination "is opposed to the divinely ordered course of evolution." (Steiner, From Symptom to Reality in Modern History, London 1976, p. 12)9). He considered this doctrine, in concert with the triumph of "British, French, and Russian imperialism" in World War One, responsible for the dismantling of the Habsburg empire, which Steiner evidently viewed as a great loss for European civilization. Again and again Steiner argued that unlike other "national characters," which are stuck in particularity, the German national character strives toward universalism, which in his eyes legitimated the German claim to predominance in Central Europe. For Steiner, Germany’s supposed spiritual advancement was the perfect excuse for imperialist expansion: "If one national civilization spreads more readily, and has greater spiritual fertility than another, then it is quite right that it should spread." (Steiner, The Threefold Commonwealth, New York 1922, p. 183).10)


Waage reminds readers of Humanist that Steiner "at the end of the century was involved in ‘the Association Against Anti-Semitism’." Indeed, Steiner was a friend of Ludwig Jacobowski, an employee of the Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus (Society for Protection Against Antisemitism). The association with Jacobowski, however, does not speak well for Steiner’s confused attitude toward anti-Semitism. In fact, a look at Jacobowski’s writings on Jewish affairs shows that it was a familiar appeal to German nationalism which drew Steiner’s attention. Jacobowski advocated the "complete assimilation" of Jews to what he called the "German spirit," and his best-known work, Werther der Jude, "can easily be read as . . . an antisemitic text." (Ritchie Robertson, The ‘Jewish Question’ in German Literature 1749-1939, Oxford 1999, p. 279) In a much-discussed pamphlet attacking a prominent antisemitic agitator, Hermann Ahlwardt, Jacobowski called Ahlwardt "un-German" (and also accused him of being a Social Democrat); the same pamphlet spoke of "an honorable anti-Semitism" in contrast to Ahlwardt’s variety, and declared in assimilationist-patriotic style that "a young Jewish generation is being prepared which is German and feels German." (All quotes from Sanford Ragins, Jewish Responses to Anti-Semitism in Germany, 1870-1914, Cincinnati 1980, pp. 43-44) Jacobowski also referred to some of the anti-Jewish arguments put forth by pan-German antisemites as "important and correct" (Jacobowski quoted in Fred Stern, Ludwig Jacobowski, Darmstadt 1966, p. 159). One of the leading scholars on the topic, Ismar Schorsch, describes Jacobowski’s position thus: "Anti-Semitism is indeed based upon fact and can only be overcome by a drastic ethical reformation of the entire Jewish community." Schorsch comments: "The response to anti-Semitism of this alienated Jew [Jacobowski] was thus marked by extreme vacillation between criticism of his coreligionists and defiant reaffirmation of Judaism." (Schorsch, Jewish Reactions to German Anti-Semitism, 1870-1914, New York 1972, pp. 47 and 95). Steiner himself emphasized Jacobowski’s exclusive commitment to German culture and believed that his friend had "long since outgrown Jewishness" (Steiner quoted in Moses and Schöne, editors, Juden in der deutschen Literatur, Frankfurt 1986, p. 200). This is hardly a convincing testament to Steiner’s pro-Jewish sympathies.

What Waage doesn’t mention is that throughout his life Steiner consorted with notoriously bitter antisemites and was by his own account on entirely friendly terms with them. The passages in Mein Lebensgang on his relationship with Heinrich von Treitschke, for example, are straightforwardly admiring of this towering figure on the German right, who was the foremost intellectual ally of militant anti-Semitism (Treitschke coined the Nazi slogan "The Jews are our misfortune"). Steiner never so much as mentions Treitschke’s infamous stance on the "Jewish question." The same is true of Steiner’s appraisals of Haeckel and Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, among others. In fact it is abundantly clear from Steiner’s own writings on the subject that he had an extremely rudimentary understanding of anti-Semitism and that he was himself beholden to a wide variety of antisemitic stereotypes, which he frequently broadcast to his followers.11) On more than one occasion he expressed the wish "that Jewry as a people would simply cease to exist" (Steiner, Geschichte der Menschheit, Dornach 1968, p. 189 and elsewhere). This wish was consistent with Steiner’s categorical rejection of the Jewish people’s right to existence: "Jewry as such has long since outlived its time; it has no more justification within the modern life of peoples, and the fact that it continues to exist is a mistake of world history whose consequences are unavoidable. We do not mean the forms of the Jewish religion alone, but above all the spirit of Jewry, the Jewish way of thinking." (Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Literatur, GA 32, p. 152) It would seem that Waage’s portrait of Steiner as an opponent of nationalism and anti-Semitism is at odds with the facts.


Waage believes that Steiner "cannot justly be called a racist" and that anthroposophy’s peculiar philosophy of root-races constitutes "a sound anti-racist view." To support these claims Waage tells us that "already in 1909" Steiner "stopped using" the terms "root race" and "Aryan." Waage seems to be rather confused about the chronology here. 1909 is the year that Steiner first published the collection Aus der Akasha-Chronik, his most thorough presentation of the root race doctrine in all its fantastic detail. This book remains to the present day the primary source for anthroposophy’s worldview, with no distancing whatsoever toward its racist elements. The editor’s foreword to the current edition, published in Dornach, doesn’t so much as mention the book’s racist content, much less try to explain or minimize it; and the Anthroposophical Society continues to officially designate the book one of the "fundamental anthroposophist texts" (Wolfram Groddeck, Eine Wegleitung durch die Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe, Dornach 1979, p. 16). Nor did Steiner himself ever renounce it; on the contrary, in 1925 he called Aus der Akasha-Chronik the "basis of anthroposophist cosmology" (Mein Lebensgang, original ed., p. 301). Today the book is still officially recommended for use by Waldorf teachers.

In 1910 – that is, after Waage claims Steiner had "stopped using" the terminology of root races and Aryans – Steiner gave the lectures in Oslo which served as the opening device for Anthroposophy and Ecofascism. The Norway lecture cycle on "national souls" was revised and edited by Steiner in 1918 and published in book form that same year. The term "root race" is used throughout this book. The fifth chapter, Steiner’s lecture in Oslo from June 12, 1910, is titled "The Five Root Races of Mankind", and refers to the racial superiority of "the Aryans" (Steiner, The Mission of the Individual Folk Souls in Relation to Teutonic Mythology, London 1970, p. 106).12) But Waage would no doubt complain that we have taken Steiner’s unequivocal words "out of context" if we did not go on to mention that the book also contains these curious sentences: "Since all men in their different incarnations pass through the various races the claim that the European is superior to the black and yellow races has no real validity. In such cases the truth is sometimes veiled, but you see that with the help of Spiritual Science we do after all light upon remarkable truths." (ibid. p. 76)

Aside from the vexing question of just what that ominous reference to "veiled truth" is supposed to mean – do black and yellow skins "veil" an inner truth? – this passage can only be interpreted as anti-racist if one accepts the anthroposophist version of "Spiritual Science," and the sentence makes no sense at all unless one believes in reincarnation. Moreover, any anti-racist interpretation of this passage is immediately contradicted by the context which Waage thinks Anthroposophy and Ecofascism systematically obscured. On the page directly before the above quote, Steiner prints a diagram showing Africa on the bottom, Asia in the middle, and Europe on top, and on the same page he explains that the "Negro race" is tied to humanity’s childhood, "the yellow and brown races" to adolescence, and Europeans to adulthood and maturity. Steiner then insists that this racially stratified hierarchy "is simply a universal law" and indeed a product of inescapable destiny: "The forces which determine man’s racial character follow this cosmic pattern. The American Indians died out, not because of European persecutions, but because they were destined to succumb to those forces which hastened their extinction." (ibid. p. 76 — the very same page as the quote which to Waage represents "a sound anti-racist view.")

Thus we can see that Waage’s claim that Steiner rejected the ideology of root races and Aryan supremacy is flatly untrue, and that Steiner’s occasional trite phrases about the spiritual insignificance of race are obviously disingenuous.13) But have his anthroposophist followers managed to free themselves from their master’s xenophobic prejudices?14) The article already offered numerous examples of the continuing virulence of racist thinking within contemporary anthroposophy, but let us examine one further instance which highlights Waage’s indefensible claims. One of Steiner’s early devout followers was Ernst Uehli, a teacher at the original Waldorf school and an officer of the Anthroposophical Society. In anthroposophist circles Uehli is regarded as an outstanding anti-fascist; Uwe Werner makes special mention of him as having been "extremely critical" of National Socialism (Werner, Anthroposophen in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus, Munich 1999, 97).

In reality Uehli was an ugly racist, an Aryan supremacist and antisemite with a marked penchant for blood-and-soil ideology. In 1926 he published a book on "Nordic-Germanic Mythology" and dedicated it to the recently deceased Steiner, who is quoted and referred to constantly throughout the book. Uehli uses the terms "root races" and "Aryan" repeatedly (Ernst Uehli, Nordisch-Germanische Mythologie als Mysteriengeschichte, Stuttgart 1965, 134-144). Why would a close follower of Steiner continue to promote ideas that the master had supposedly renounced? But Uehli doesn’t content himself with simply repeating the anthroposophist orthodoxy on root races and Aryan superiority; he constructs a grand historical-evolutionary-racial narrative in which the two rival forces, separated throughout the millennia by their fundamentally different racial makeup, are "the Semitic and the Aryan peoples" (ibid. 144). But whereas "the early Germans were a people of nature" and thus pure and strong, "the Jews succumbed to Ahriman" (ibid. 147; "Ahriman" is the anthroposophist term for demonic forces that promote materialism). Alongside the world-historical struggle between the nature-loving Aryans and the materialistic and diabolical Jews, Uehli notes that there are still a few "primitive peoples that are dying out" as a result of cosmic necessity, since they are nothing more than the "decadent remnants" of an earlier root race (ibid. 135).

One might think that latter-day anthroposophists would be sensible enough to quietly ignore such repellent racist nonsense from their not so distant past. But in the year 2000 Uehli’s works were still part of the officially recommended curriculum for Waldorf teachers in both Germany and the United States. This fact sparked yet another public scandal around anthroposophist racism when a book of Uehli’s about Atlantis, evidently even more offensive than the one we’ve quoted, was brought to public attention earlier this year. The German youth ministry responded by putting the book on its index of racist literature. If even German government bureaucrats have no trouble recognizing anthroposophy’s racist content, why does Waage stubbornly deny it? Anthroposophy’s ongoing racist legacy has led to public investigations in the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Belgium as well. Limits of space prevent us from elaborating on this crucial topic, but interested readers can consult the outstanding treatment of the German case by Peter Bierl in his Wurzelrassen, Erzengel und Volksgeister. Die Anthroposophie Rudolf Steiners und die Waldorfpädagogik (Konkret Literatur Verlag, Hamburg 1999).


Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Waage’s reply is his emphatic contention that Steiner "was an opponent of the right to private property." Indeed Waage is adamant that the article’s depiction of Steiner’s pro-capitalist views is "sloppy at best, untruthful at worst." Curiously, Waage offers no supporting quotes from Steiner and cites no other literature to back up his interpretation, and some of his own paraphrases of Steiner’s views actually contradict his interpretation. Steiner’s voluminous writings on economic subjects, while often vague and occasionally opaque, provide a clear answer to the question of his attitude toward private property. What Steiner opposed was the misuse of private property, not the institution itself. He favored a peculiar mixture of private ownership and social conscience, whereby both individual capitalists and small groups of especially "talented" executives would manage private capital as a sort of trust for the ostensible good of the whole community (those who are familiar with the confused economic doctrines of classical fascism will immediately notice the parallels to the ideology of the Volksgemeinschaft or people’s community). The anthroposophist Walter Kugler, who works for the Rudolf Steiner Nachlaßverwaltung in Dornach (the administrators of Steiner’s published and unpublished works) and therefore can be assumed to have an intimate knowledge of Steiner’s writings, describes Steiner’s position thus: "Each entrepreneur, that is each individual who wants to make use of his talents to satisfy the needs of others, will obtain capital for as long as he is able to make productive use of his talents." (Kugler, Rudolf Steiner und die Anthroposophie, Cologne 1978, p. 165) Steiner himself wrote: "The entire ownership of capital must be arranged so that the especially talented individual or the especially talented group of individuals comes to possess capital in a way which arises solely from their own personal initiative." (ibid.)

A central tenet of the Dreigliederung doctrine, which Steiner emphasized again and again, was that the economic sphere must never be organized or managed democratically. Accordingly, Steiner polemicized against socialism (not just its marxist variants) and explicitly rejected the socialization of property (not just nationalization).15) He also opposed labor unions. Within a full-fledged "threefold commonwealth" Steiner foresaw a spiritual meritocracy in which the "most capable" would be given effective control over economic resources, and he vehemently rejected the notion of tempering this arrangement through any kind of community oversight. He derided the idea of "transferring the means of production from private ownership into communal property," as well as of socializing "the management of concentrated masses of capital," and insisted that "the management of the means of production must be left in the hands of the individual." (Steiner in ibid. 199, 200) Steiner was insistent on this point: "No-one can be allowed to return to economic forms in which the individual is tied to or limited by the community. We must strive instead for the very opposite." (ibid. p. 201) In one work alone, the 1919 book Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage, he expressly and forcefully dismissed "communal property" more than a dozen times; nearly every chapter contains at least one denunciation of "common ownership."

Steiner’s interest in economic affairs arose as a reaction to the wave of working-class revolt that swept across Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War One. During this period numerous grassroots demands for socializing the factories were put forward in city after city. Steiner ridiculed all such proposals – "as if one could really socialize the various factories." (ibid. p. 209) His own counterproposals were meant precisely to thwart this economic democratization from below.16) In Steiner’s utopia, the economy was not to be run by the "hand-workers," but rather by "the spiritual workers, who direct production." (Threefold Commonwealth, p. xxxii; this is the original authorized English translation of Kernpunkte der sozialen Frage.) And just how are these privileged spiritual workers to be chosen? "The spiritual organization will rest on a healthy basis of individual initiative, exercised in free competition amongst the private individuals suited to spiritual work." (ibid. p. 158) Within this framework, "the spiritual life should be set free, and given control of the employment of capital" – indeed, an "absolutely free use of capital" (ibid. pp. 117, 126). "Private property," for Steiner, "is an outcome of the social creativeness which is associated with individual human ability." (ibid. p. 126) Shared ownership, in contrast, is an obstruction to this all-important creative unfolding of individual talent: "The individual cannot make his abilities effective in business, if he is tied down in his work and decisions to the will of the community." (Steiner, Rudolf Steiner: Essential Readings, ed. Richard Seddon, Wellingborough 1988, p. 106) Given these thoroughly capitalist assumptions, Steiner’s conclusion comes as no surprise: "Really practical thought, therefore, will not look to find the cure for social ills in a reshaping of economic life that would substitute communal for private management of the means of production. The endeavor should rather be to forestall the ills that can arise through management by individual initiative and personal worth, without impairing this management itself." (ibid.)

Moreover, when Steiner’s economic ideas were put into practice in the early 1920s by the Threefold Commonwealth League (Bund für Dreigliederung des Sozialen Organismus) in southwest Germany, it was very clear that he opposed a democratic organization of the affiliated factories - the Waldorf tobacco factory being the best known. The anthroposophist Hans Kühn wrote: "Democratization of the factories was something he [Steiner] opposed on principle. The manager had to be able to make his own arrangements without interference." (Hans Kühn, Dreigliederungszeit. Rudolf Steiners Kampf für die Gesellschaftsordnung der Zukunft. Dornach, 1978 p. 52). Since anthroposophists themselves have no trouble grasping this point, it is difficult to understand how Waage could mistake Steiner for an opponent of private ownership and capitalism. Steiner’s scheme was nothing more than an ‘enlightened’ version of private property under the benevolent control of a spiritual aristocracy. As such it forms the perfect economic counterpart to his mixture of radical individualism and elitism. It would be hard to explain the appeal of Steiner’s economic doctrines to Junkers and industrialists – and these, after all, are the ones who responded most favorably to his proposals – if those doctrines had contained anything that threatened the profits of the powerful.

vervolg To second part of this essay, on Nazism

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