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Anthroposophy and its Defenders

Reply to Peter Normann Waage, Humanism and Polemical Populism, II

vervolg To first part of this essay


Waage seems to have misunderstood Anthroposophy and Ecofascism as a version of the guilt by association argument: if some anthroposophists were Nazis and some Nazis were anthroposophists, this simpleminded reasoning goes, then the two groups must be identical. At the very least it should have been clear that the article dealt with one specific wing of the Nazi movement, the ecofascist tendency, a grouping which was controversial within the party as a whole. Waage’s failure to recognize this crucial distinction marks the very beginning of his reply, where he invents a "quotation" that never appeared in the article. Nowhere does the article assert "that Steiner was a Nazi," much less that "anthroposophy is Nazism," as Waage pretends.17) He goes on to make several untenable claims about anthroposophy’s relationship to National Socialism: that there were no significant ideological parallels between the two worldviews, that the Nazis tried to kill Steiner in 1922 because he was a principled opponent of their political outlook, and that anthroposophist collaborators with the Third Reich were repudiated by organized anthroposophy after World War Two. Let us examine each of these claims in turn.

1. Ideological parallels. In addition to casting doubt on the article’s comparison of Steiner’s anti-French diatribes to Mein Kampf (we urge readers who share Waage’s skepticism on this point to read Hitler’s passages on France as Germany’s "mortal enemy" alongside Steiner’s passages on the same theme), Waage says that the description of similarities between the anthroposophist and the Nazi racial mythologies is "obviously unreasonable." This view is not shared by most scholars of the topic. In the words of anti-fascist researcher Volkmar Wölk, "It is a short conceptual step from this position [Steiner’s root-race theory] to the racial doctrine of the Nazis."18) If Waage finds such politically conscious scholarship too critical, he may want to consult instead the work of historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, who wrote the entirely approving preface to Rudolf Steiner: Essential Writings and can hardly be suspected of harboring any bias against Steiner. Goodrick-Clarke’s respected work The Occult Roots of Nazism, one of the few books by a responsible scholar on a topic which is otherwise a playground for conspiracy theorists and amateur occultists, is a thorough analysis of "ariosophy," another turn of the century Viennese offshoot of theosophy which took the Aryan myth even further than Steiner did and which had a direct and documented influence on Hitler.

Goodrick-Clarke notes that in the late nineteenth century Steiner was involved in the Vienna theosophist circles which were the source of "the particular kind of theosophy which the Ariosophists adopted to their völkisch ideas." (Occult Roots of Nazism, Wellingborough 1985, p. 29) He also emphasizes that "the very structure of theosophical thought lent itself to völkisch adoption." (ibid. p. 31) In 1908, midway through Steiner’s tenure as the head of German theosophy, a German theosophist named Harald Grävell published a significant article in the major Viennese ariosophist journal. There Grävell "outlined a thoroughly theosophical conception of race and a programme for the restoration of Aryan authority in the world. His quoted occult sources were texts by Annie Besant, Blavatsky’s successor as leader of the international Theosophical Society at London, and Rudolf Steiner, the Secretary General of its German branch in Berlin." (ibid. p. 101) In particular Grävell cited Steiner’s 1907 text Blut ist ein ganz besonderer Saft, "which reflected the theosophical interest in racist ideas." (ibid. p. 242; the title of Steiner’s text means "Blood is a very special fluid.") Goodrick-Clarke also shows that the ariosophists were influenced by nineteenth century Romanticism, Haeckel and Monism, just as Steiner was.

Does all this prove that Rudolf Steiner was personally responsible for shaping Hitler’s perverse worldview? Of course not, and the article made no such argument. What Goodrick-Clarke’s painstaking research does show is that the borders between anthroposophy proper and other versions of race mysticism and occult nationalism were exceedingly porous. Nearly all of the far-right esoterist groupings of the interwar period drew on the root race doctrine which Steiner had done so much to promote, and this obscure body of ideas had an undeniable impact on Nazi thought. This point is borne out by numerous other scholars. James Webb writes: "there is absolutely no doubt that Hitler believed in a theory of occult evolution of a Theosophical type." (Webb, The Occult Establishment, Chicago 1976, p. 313) Webb also documents, in detail, several important areas of overlap – race theory, Atlantis, Aryans, among others – between anthroposophy and theosophy on the one hand and the belief systems of the Nazi leadership, particularly Hitler, Himmler, and Rosenberg, on the other.

If such scholarship is still too "biased" for Waage, he might prefer to consult the work of Eduard Gugenberger and Roman Schweidlenka, who have many nice things to say about Steiner and in general present him as an honorable exception to the otherwise dismal record of esoterist thinkers (see Gugenberger & Schweidlenka, Mutter Erde – Magie und Politik, Vienna 1987, pp. 135-145). But even these sympathetic commentators emphasize that "Steiner posited a strictly hierarchical evolutionary chain" based on the root race model, with "Germanic-Nordic" peoples at the top (ibid. p. 144). They go on to remark that in Steiner’s anthroposophy, his "own race and own culture appear as the currently highest stage of humanity’s spiritual development" (ibid. p. 145). Gugenberger and Schweidlenka themselves point out the obvious racism and justification of social injustice which anthroposophy thereby propagates under the guise of spiritual enlightenment. It is hence only to be expected that contemporary neo-Nazis draw substantially on Steiner’s teachings.19)

Waage would seem to be alone, then, in denying the ideological parallels between anthroposophy and National Socialism, particularly its esoterist and environmentalist variants. To reassure readers of Humanist that we have not cited historical sources selectively, we urge those curious about this philosophical affinity to check our interpretation against the standard historiography on the Nazi worldview and its ideological origins. Even those works which mention Steiner merely in passing, as one among many contributors to right-wing authoritarian demagoguery, will serve to correct Waage’s impression that Steiner was "a rational humanist."20)

2. The 1922 incident. Waage writes that "Steiner himself was the victim of an attempted assassination by the Nazi movement in 1922" as proof that Steiner was a conscientious opponent of Nazism. Before reviewing this very revealing 1922 event, we must remark on the peculiar logic invoked here. If Waage thinks that the identity of a public figure’s assassin tells us something definitive about the victim’s beliefs, then he must conclude that Trotsky was not a Bolshevik and Rabin was not a Jew. Perhaps Waage also believes that Nazi leaders Ernst Röhm and Gregor Strasser were really anti-Nazi, since Hitler had them killed in 1934. But in fact this point is moot, because Waage gets the relevant details of the 1922 incident wrong in the first place. What actually happened in Munich in May, 1922, was that a group of right-wing thugs disrupted a large public lecture by Steiner and apparently tried to physically assault him after he had finished speaking, but were beaten back by Steiner’s supporters. To call this lecture-hall brawl an "attempted assassination" is unsubstantiated hyperbole, as there is no evidence that Steiner’s attackers intended to kill him.21) Nor was there any direct involvement by "the Nazi movement"; standard anthroposophist sources indicate instead that Steiner’s assailants belonged to a rival far-right outfit.22)

Although anthroposophists frequently try to recast Steiner as an anti-Hitler martyr by pointing to the 1922 incident, the facts of the event do not support this interpretation. The confrontation took place at the Vier Jahreszeiten hotel, where Steiner chose to give his Munich speech. From 1919 onward this hotel was a notorious gathering point for Munich’s ultranationalist far right; it housed the headquarters of the Thule Society, one of the most militant völkisch groups, and was indeed owned by Thule members.23) Some contemporary anthroposophists even claim that Steiner’s attackers belonged to the Thule Society.24) But no matter who was in fact responsible for the aborted disruption of Steiner’s lecture, his own choice of venue is difficult to explain if one views Steiner as an anti-nationalist who abjured far right politics. Furthermore, several prominent Thule Society members had direct ties to Steiner and anthroposophy, including Steiner’s mentor Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Hess, anthroposophy’s chief ally during the Third Reich.

How are we to make sense of this convoluted situation? As we have already indicated, in the interwar period the organizational outlines of the reactionary nationalist-occult spectrum were thoroughly porous, with competing groups displaying a substantial overlap in membership and ideology. Anthroposophy was a part of this spectrum, as were several of the direct precursors to the Nazis. Goodrick-Clarke offers an illuminating example of this crossover: In 1923, immediately after moving to Germany, the Russian antisemitic conspiracy theorist and occultist Gregor Bostunitsch "became an enthusiastic Anthroposophist" (Occult Roots of Nazism, p. 170). By the end of the decade Bostunitsch had turned on anthroposophy, seeing it as yet another cog in the international occult conspiracy; he later became a colonel in the SS.

Such examples are anything but isolated, as the literature on German esoteric politics shows. The constant intermingling of right-wing and esoteric groups is a major theme of Webb’s Occult Establishment, and the book includes a thoughtful exploration of both the overlaps and the mutual hostilities between Steiner and his followers and the militant völkisch forces. Webb concludes that "Steiner was not really alien to völkisch thought," and shows that "the völkisch reaction [against Steiner] was an admission that both camps were operating on the same level. And a proportion of the völkisch rage came from the realization that here [in anthroposophy] was another vision of the universe which claimed to be ‘spiritual’." (p. 290) Despite Waage’s efforts to imply the opposite, we can say with confidence that the outbreak of hostilities between völkisch groups and anthroposophy was not at all due to any fundamental differences between the two currents, but on the contrary to their marked ideological proximity – indeed it was precisely these basic ideological affinities which made them rivals in the first place.25) Thus the lessons to be drawn from the 1922 incident point toward, not away from, the thesis of mutual influence by early Nazis and anthroposophists.

In addition to misrepresenting and misunderstanding the 1922 incident, Waage makes two further points about Steiner and the Nazis which he thinks are proof of Steiner’s anti-Nazi credentials: Steiner’s 1920 criticism of the misuse of the swastika, and Hitler’s 1921 criticism of Steiner’s harmful spiritual influence. Both of these claims rest on a basic incomprehension of the historical context. Waage quotes a brief remark by Steiner, made "already in 1920," about "the beastliness that goes on in Germany under the swastika banners." Waage gives an erroneous date for this quote; Steiner actually said these words on 10 September 1923 (see Rhythmen im Kosmos und in Menschenwesen. Wie kommt man zum schauen der geistigen Welt? GA 350, p. 276), although he did make another revealing remark about the Swastika in 1920.26) But mixed-up citations aside, it is unlikely that any comment on the use of the swastika in 1920 was directed against the Nazi party as such. That party was not officially formed until April, 1920, and remained minuscule and largely unknown for some time. Moreover, the Nazis did not adopt the swastika emblem until the summer of 1920, and the distinctive swastika banners were not designed until two years later (William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, New York 1960, 43-44).

In fact, when we checked the citation Waage gives, we found this: "This symbol [the swastika] which the Indian or old Egyptian once looked to when he spoke of his sacred Brahman, this symbol is now to be seen on the [Russian] ten thousand ruble note! Those who are making grand politics there know how to influence the human soul. They know what the triumphal procession of the swastika means – this swastika that a large number of people in Europe are already wearing – but they do not want to listen to that which strives to understand, out of the most important symptoms, the secrets of today’s historical development." (Geisteswissenschaft als Erkenntnis der Grundimpulse sozialer Gestaltung GA 199, p. 161; speech 27.08.1920) From this passage it is clear that Steiner opposed the use of the swastika by the Bolsheviks; he makes no mention at all of the Nazis.

Still, is it not possible that Steiner was expressing a general hostility to the racist thinking associated even then with the swastika? That is similarly unlikely. Consider another of Steiner’s critical comments on the misuse of the swastika as a political symbol, this one from a lecture at Dornach in 1924: "The Asian cannot understand concepts like the European has; instead the Asians wants images. These abstractions, these concepts which the European has, the Asian does not want those, they hurt his brain, he does not want them. And a symbol like, for example, the swastika, this symbol – it was an ancient sun symbol – was present all throughout Asia. The old Asians still remember this. Certain Bolshevik politicians were clever enough, just like the German Völkischen, to use this ancient swastika as their symbol. This makes a much bigger impression on Asians than all of Marxism does. Marxism consists of concepts for thinking; that doesn’t make an impression on these people. But such a symbol, that makes an impression on these people." (Steiner, Geschichte der Menschheit, p. 261) It would be obtuse to describe a passage like this as an admonition against racist politics.

What of Hitler’s early criticism of Steiner? Waage quotes a 1921 article by Hitler which, in Waage’s rendering, accuses Steiner of "ruining people’s normal spiritual basis." To take this brief remark as a considered rejection of Steiner’s philosophy is to misunderstand both the quotation and its broader context. Waage’s truncated quote gives the impression that the passage is a general denunciation of the deleterious effects of Steiner’s spiritual doctrines. In fact Hitler’s article from March 15, 1921 – the only recorded reference to Steiner in Hitler’s writings during Steiner’s lifetime – is directed not against Steiner, but against the German foreign minister Walter Simons. (See Adolf Hitler, Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905-1924, Stuttgart 1980, 348-353) Hitler mentions Steiner merely as a "friend" of Simons, evidently convinced that Simons was somehow influenced by Steiner.27) As one might expect from a practiced demagogue, Hitler’s criticism of the foreign minister, and by extension of Steiner, bears little relationship to either figure’s actual politics.28) While Hitler’s rhetorical jibe shows contempt for Steiner, it tells us nothing about the conceptual continuities and discontinuities between their respective belief systems.

Hitler was generally impatient with would-be spiritual reformers like Steiner because he thought they distracted attention from the real struggle in the political realm. This scarcely indicates a fundamental philosophical hostility toward Steiner’s teachings; indeed Hitler frequently made similar criticisms of loyal Nazi party members. Consider distinguished historian George Mosse’s discussion of an analogous case, that of Steiner’s fellow cosmic spiritualist Artur Dinter: "Even as early as Mein Kampf Hitler severely criticised Volkish ‘religious reformers.’ Considering Hitler’s own view of nature mysticism and the ‘secret science,’ this might seem contradictory. However, his reasons for such criticism are illuminating. The Volkish leaders in general were in his eyes ‘sectarians’ who must be crushed by the true ‘movement,’ but specifically these reformers weakened the fight against the common enemy: Jewry. They scattered the forces that were needed to wage this battle. Basically, Hitler’s criticism of such men as Dinter was that they failed to focus their ideology on the Jews. This leads once more to our thesis that Hitler transformed the German revolution, of which many Volkish adherents dreamt, into an anti-Jewish revolution, and thereby concretized and objectified an ideology that had been too vague for the purposes of a mass movement. The spiritualist and theosophical ideas were thus relegated to the background and their adherents silenced or ignored." (Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology, New York 1964, pp. 306-307) The historical record simply does not support Waage’s interpretation of the passing insults traded between Steiner and Hitler. When understood in their historical context, the sometimes nasty exchanges between Steiner and völkisch leaders, far from exonerating Steiner, actually provide further evidence of the extent to which he contributed to that "vague ideology" which Hitler later put into practice.

3. Repudiation of anthroposophist collaborators. Waage informs us that "the leader of the Steiner schools in Germany who held the schools open until 1941 with the approval of the regime, was after the war dispelled from all Steiner schools." Waage does not name this person, but the context makes clear that he must mean Elisabeth Klein, who lead the negotiations with Nazi education officials to keep the Waldorf schools operating as long as possible. We have never before encountered the claim that Klein or any other anthroposophist was expelled from all Waldorf schools after the war, and we cannot say with certainty that this claim, for which Waage cites no source, is mistaken. We can, however, say with complete certainty that Waage’s claim is seriously misleading. If Klein was ever barred from the schools, the ban did not last long. Uwe Werner, anthroposophy’s in-house historian, writes that Elisabeth Klein "was from 1951 to 1965 a teacher at the Hannover Waldorf school" (Werner, Anthroposophen in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus, p. 450). In 1951 the official process of denazification of German public life had barely been completed, and the Nuremberg trials had only concluded two years earlier. Klein’s Nazi ally Otto Ohlendorf, convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg, wasn’t executed until 1951. It is thus hardly the case that a general normalization had set in by this time. Furthermore, most German Waldorf schools did not re-open until the late 1940’s. Thus Klein was in fact able to return to her official position relatively quickly.

Waage’s claim is also misleading because it implies that open Nazi collaborators were unwelcome within organized anthroposophy after the war. The very opposite was the case. Both Marie Steiner and Günther Wachsmuth continued without interruption to occupy the highest offices in all of international anthroposophy, despite their expressed admiration for the Nazis. Nor is there any record of measures against Erhard Bartsch, chief promoter of biodynamic agriculture and Hitler fan. Even Werner, with his access to internal documents and his evident eagerness to include every last exculpatory detail imaginable, concedes that anthroposophists undertook no collective soul-searching after 1945: "Curiously, the anthroposophists did not discuss or describe in detail their behavior during the Nazi period directly after the year 1945." (ibid. p. 2) Indeed he emphasizes that after the war anthroposophists "more or less consciously refused to revive controversies about the behavior of some anthroposophists during the Nazi period." (ibid.) Werner does not note a single exception to this policy. He explicitly states that the only postwar recriminations of any kind "were certain barely expressed reservations about individuals." (ibid. p. 364)

Far from pursuing a general reckoning with the Nazis in their midst, postwar anthroposophists got back to business as usual and stifled any discussion of their sordid past. To this day the vast majority of anthroposophists completely deny their extensive record of collusion with the Nazis. Nor is this record, as Waage suggests, a matter of a few wayward figures like Klein.29) Werner’s work alone – quite against its author’s intentions – provides copious evidence of just how widespread this collusion was; in the course of the book he lists numerous named individuals who were both active anthroposophists and Nazi party members. He also inadvertently shows that the extent of the organizational and personnel overlap between the Anthroposophical Society and the Nazi party was significant enough to concern the anti-esoterist faction of the Nazis, and reveals that the anthroposophist leadership was willing to go to great lengths to protect the party members in its ranks (see, e.g., p. 72). Obviously not a few anthroposophists wanted to remain Nazis in good standing. Moreover, anthroposophist loyalty to their Nazi comrades continued after the defeat of the Third Reich. Walter Darré’s lawyer at Nuremberg was the anthroposophist Hans Merkel; he remained a close confidante of the notorious racial theorist and former minister in Hitler’s cabinet until the end of Darré’s life. And after Ohlendorf was hanged for the murder of 90,000 Jews, the anthroposophist pastor Haverbeck presided at his funeral. Neither repentant nor rueful, postwar anthroposophists were at least consistent in their political allegiances.

Anthroposophy Today

Waage devotes much of his reply to Anthroposophy and Ecofascism to issues that the article did not address, such as the benevolent activities of Waldorf schools in various countries around the globe. While it is difficult to see what these matters have to do with the relationship between anthroposophy and ecofascism, Waage seems to think they count as refutations of the article. He says that its "perfidious accusations" against anthroposophy are harmful to "teachers, pupils and parents" of Waldorf schools. We don’t understand how questioning the ideology of an ideologically oriented school can be harmful to anyone; surely it would be more harmful to leave the ideology unquestioned. We hope that the lesson Waage learned at his Waldorf school is not that anthroposophists are always right and their critics always wrong. Our own experience, at any rate, is rather different.30)

Waage also makes much of the recent report by Dutch anthroposophists which purports to exonerate Steiner of the charge of racism. Incredibly, he takes this report as an example of anthroposophists grappling candidly with their compromised past. Waage himself admits that Steiner said a number of "absurdly grotesque and outrageous" things about blacks, Asians, native people, etc., but discounts these utterances because they were supposedly "marginal" to Steiner’s core beliefs. Waage does not seem to have reflected on the fundamental divergence between his own position, which is ethically incoherent, and the position staked out in the Dutch report, which is empirically incoherent. It would be one thing if the Dutch commission had concluded that, on balance, anthroposophy is not necessarily a racist doctrine. But this is not the conclusion the Dutch commission came to. Instead their report, as Waage himself notes, determined that "no race theory or racist views can be attributed to Steiner." We repeat: in the commission’s opinion, which Waage appears to endorse, Rudolf Steiner held no racist views whatsoever, and his writings do not contain any race theory.31)

Let us note, first, that this is a bold departure from previous anthroposophist apologetics, which imagined that Steiner’s racism was forgivable because it was a "product of its time" – an interesting argument in itself, since it can be used to justify so many twentieth century atrocities.32) Until now, the anthroposophist attitude toward Steiner’s racism was: ignore it and it will go away. But with the Dutch report this stance of silent complicity has given way to one of pure and absolute denial. Rudolf Steiner, we are now told, never uttered a racist word in his life. We are dismayed that humanists would join in such a specious pretense. To claim that Steiner held no racist views is simply a sign of dishonesty, ignorance, or bad faith. A person who is free of racist views cannot possibly say things like "the Negro race does not belong in Europe," "transplanting black people to Europe is horrible," "the white race is the spiritually creative race," and "concepts hurt the Asian’s brain," and cannot conceivably call aboriginal peoples "degenerate," "decadent," and "stunted". These statements admit of no non-racist interpretation. Steiner made each of these statements, and expressed similar sentiments over and over again, from a position of professed moral authority. To absolve such a practice is incompatible with humanist values.

But even this dismal instance of willful ignorance is surpassed by the belief that Steiner’s written works contain no racial theory. To appreciate just how intellectually threadbare this posture is, let us briefly recapitulate: Steiner was the chief public spokesperson for one of the largest branches of theosophy for a full decade. The chief original contribution theosophy made to the occult canon was the doctrine of root races. Steiner adopted the root race doctrine wholesale into anthroposophy. That comprehensive doctrine divides the human family into five root races (Wurzelrassen, sometimes also named Hauptrassen or Grundrassen, principal or primary races), with two more root races to appear in the distant future. Each root race is further stratified into sub-races (Unterrassen). These categories are biological (Steiner calls them "hereditary") as well as spiritual. The racial classifications are not normatively neutral; they are arranged in ascending order of spiritual development, with the fifth root race, the "Aryan race," and within that root race the "Germanic-Nordic sub-race," at the top of the hierarchy. This hierarchy, in turn, is an integral component of the cosmic order. All of these ideas are explicitly laid out in great detail and with emphatic repetition in numerous books, pamphlets, articles and lectures written and published by Rudolf Steiner. Yet somehow, Waage assures us, they do not constitute a race theory.

To anyone who has tried to engage anthroposophists and their defenders in dialogue and critique, such dubious apologetics are all too recognizable. There is a growing group of voices that have raised challenging questions about anthroposophy’s political heritage, and these voices have for the most part not been met with an honest response. When faced with logic and fact, anthroposophy and its defenders have nowhere to turn but denial of what everyone else knows to be true. When confronted with public scrutiny and scholarly inquiry, anthroposophy and its defenders have no reply but derision and evasion. These are the familiar habits of sectarians and cultists, and they threaten to turn every attempt at critical debate into a travesty of reason. To participate in such a travesty is a form of self-deception and self-debasement unworthy of any humanist. Our hope is that a sober assessment of the historical entwinement of anthroposophy and ecofascism will challenge anthroposophists and their defenders to ask themselves if the belief system they admire can be extricated from this poisonous legacy. If it cannot, we hope they will have the courage to leave anthroposophy behind.

Peter Staudenmaier

Peter Zegers

from Norwegian magazine Humanist, 4, 2000
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