Anthroposophie in Deutschland:
Theosophische Weltanschauung und gesellschaftliche Praxis I884-I945
2 vols., Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2007. xvii + 1884 p. ISBN 978-3525554524
(Anthroposophy in Germany:
Theosophical Worldview and Social Practice 1884-1945)
by Helmut Zander,
Review by Peter Staudenmaier
Anthroposophy is the foremost esoteric movement in German-speaking Europe today, with a significant presence in the Anglophone world, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere as well. Founded a century ago by Austrian born thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), anthroposophy has achieved an impressive public profile through its various practical endeavors, from Waldorf schools to biodynamic agriculture to anthroposophical medicine, as well as Demeter and Weleda products. The Anthroposophical Society initially appeared in 1913 as a split-off from the Theosophical Society, and has since developed a considerable influence within alternative spiritual circles, the New Age milieu, ecological currents, and a variety of social reform movements. In light of this broad cultural impact, anthroposophy would seem to provide an ideal case study in the societal emergence and integration of Western esotericism. Yet the history of anthroposophical ideas and institutions has received relatively little scholarly attention.
German historian Helmut Zander's monumental study of anthroposophy's early development presents an imposingly thorough examination of the subject and its context, and in the process establishes new standards for comprehensive historical engagement with esotericism. In two volumes spanning 1900 pages, Zander provides an invaluable compendium of information on Steiner and his movement, as well as a series of provocative analyses of anthroposophist beliefs and practices. One of the book's chief strengths lies in its readiness to follow anthroposophical sources as far as they reliably lead, while simultaneously integrating these internal accounts into a broader historical framework based on existing research in the wide variety of fields with which anthroposophy intersects.
In not a few instances, this yields a critical re-assessment of established anthroposophist narratives and offers compelling alternative interpretations of central themes in the evolution of the movement. Beginning with a detailed reconstruction of Steiner's intellectual itinerary from the 1880s onward, the book traces his development from modest origins on the Austrian periphery through his studies in the natural sciences in Vienna and his incipient literary and philosophical interests. Zander provides an insightful portrait of the cultivated and ambitious young Steiner, giving particular attention to his involvement with German cultural nationalism against the backdrop of the aging Habsburg empire. Through the mediation of sympathetic teachers, Steiner came to early prominence as an editor of Goethe's scientific works and tried for a time to parlay this into a scholarly career. With painstaking precision, Zander examines the remarkable ideological transformations Steiner underwent in the course of the 1890s, from German Idealism to Nietzsche and Stirner to Haeckel and Monism by the turn of the century.
It was not until 1901 that Steiner came to embrace Theosophy, a doctrine he had harshly dismissed just a few years before. In 1902 Steiner became General Secretary of the German Section of the Theosophical Society and soon oversaw one of the livelier branches of continental Theosophy, eventually becoming a potential rival to Annie Besant for leadership of the worldwide movement. Unlike the India-based Theosophists around Besant, Steiner emphasized the priority of Western spiritual traditions, particularly Christian ones. At the same time, he drew heavily on the work of Blavatsky and other principal Theosophical thinkers, while adding elements from his own idiosyncratic reception of Rosicrucianism and further strands of European esotericism. Steiner was an enormously productive author and speaker. In books such as Theosophy, Cosmic Memory, How to Know Higher Worlds and Outline of Occult Science he expounded his syncretic vision of spiritual
evolution, supplying additional detail in the nearly six thousand lectures he gave between 1902 and 1925, most of which were transcribed and subsequently published by his followers.
Zander's astute analysis of Steiner's Theosophical career and his increasingly strained relation with Besant explores the interplay between substantive doctrinal disagreements and organizational politics. While the vicissitudes of esoteric schisms are sometimes viewed as simply a matter of ideological incompatibility or principled differences over the details of revelation and worldview, the book suggests that much of this history was rooted equally in intra-Theosophical institutional maneuvering, with different factions vying for predominance. In an increasingly acrimonious series of mutual recriminations, Steiner broke with the Theosophical Society a decade after joining it, taking most of the German speaking membership with him. He soon moved anthroposophy's headquarters to Switzerland, building a central structure called the 'Goetheanum' in the village of Dornach, near Basel.
With the establishment of the Anthroposophical Society as an independent entity, Steiner and his followers expanded their efforts to renew various spheres of social life according to the strictures of" spiritual science", the overarching term Steiner gave to his teachings. The first Waldorf school was founded in Stuttgart in 1919; organized anthroposophical medicine began in 1920; the openly religious arm of the anthroposophist movement, the Christian Community, was launched in 1922; and biodynamic agriculture was initiated in 1924. Each of these endeavors retained clear vestiges of their Theosophical origins while going well beyond what most other esoteric movements had achieved in practical terms. At Steiner's death in 1925, anthroposophy enjoyed considerable if contentious standing within German culture, combining the allure of occult insight, spiritual rejuvenation, and an array of alternative lifestyle approaches associated with the Lebensreform movement and the German youth movement. A range of notable literary, artistic, and political figures were attracted by anthroposophy's promise of spiritual and social transformation.
Zander's history attempts to do justice to that promise, while delineating the ambiguous contours it actually took on in practice. The book offers minutely detailed accounts of the early development of Waldorf pedagogy, anthroposophical medicine, biodynamic farming, and the Christian Community, as well as Steiner's other innovations, including eurythmy and anthroposophical architecture and theater. These case studies, comprising roughly half of the total text, condense a very large amount of information into an accessible format, and can be consulted as free-standing monographs by readers interested in particular aspects of organized anthroposophy. The section on Waldorf schooling is a representative example.
The one hundred page chapter on Waldorf schools (known as Steiner schools in some countries) begins with an overview of sources and literature on the distinctive educational model pioneered by Steiner and his followers, while situating Waldorf traditions in the broader history of alternative pedagogies.
Sponsored by a wealthy anthroposophical industrialist, the original Waldorf school arose in the wake of World War One. The schools now number nearly one thousand worldwide and represent the single most successful anthroposophist enterprise. Zander argues convincingly that Waldorf's eclectic mixture of methodologies and curricula can only be adequately comprehended against its anthroposophical background, a point hotly contested between advocates and critics of Waldorf schooling today. Much of his analysis focuses on Steiner's programmatic statements to the first generation of Waldorf teachers, texts which continue to play a central role within the Waldorf movement.
Accompanying this is a detailed historical narrative of the founding and growth of the first Waldorf school, with Steiner promulgating the general guidelines and choosing the initial faculty. Many of the characteristic features of Waldorf education, from its emphasis on music, artistic activities and mythology to its down playing of standard academic instruction, have their origins in Steiner's somewhat ad hoc decisions. Zander finds that Steiner assembled the basic components of the new approach to schooling without a substantial prior plan, responding instead to the exigencies of establishing a novel institution under time constraints and with haphazard preparation. To accommodate the needs of the moment, Steiner borrowed from a variety of previous pedagogical reform movements as well as traditional schooling methods, combining these with his own spiritual insights. In one particularly enlightening instance, Zander explores the extent to which Steiner may have adapted central facets of Waldorf education from his own experience with conventional nineteenth century Austrian schools.
The results could sometimes seem eccentric. In Waldorf classrooms, esoteric precepts intersected with mundane educational matters, linked together by a Theosophically derived worldview. According to the original Waldorf model, children are incompletely incarnated beings whose process of incarnation must be overseen by anthroposophically guided teachers; each child is assigned to one of the four classical temperaments, marked in part by physiological characteristics, and grouped accordingly; and every child is seen as progressing through an elaborate series of developmental stages based on an occult conception of individual evolution. In some cases, such assumptions led to creative alternatives to mainstream education (Waldorf schools were coeducational from the beginning, for example, and traditional grading was not practiced), while other outcomes were more questionable. Steiner told the original Waldorf teachers that left-handedness is a "karmic weakness" which must be "corrected" in children, and he frowned on the teaching of French because it "corrupts the soul".
As with other sections of the book, the chapter on Steiner schools presents in microcosm both the strengths and weaknesses of anthroposophy in practice.
In Germany and elsewhere, a number of prominent scholars associated with the alternative educational milieu have leveled significant criticisms of Waldorf's principles and procedures. Zander's analysis is premised on a generally sympathetic attitude toward Waldorf's virtues, but offers ample material for its various critics. For instance, many of the original faculty were chosen not according to pedagogical experience or training in specific fields, but on the basis of anthroposophical commitment. The pedagogical model that Steiner erected was explicitly teacher-centered, not student-centered, with pronounced authoritarian tendencies. Critical skills and independent thinking among the pupils were frequently discouraged. Class sizes were unusually large. While many of these traits continue to mark Waldorf schools today, Zander's achievement lies in a meticulous historical contextualization of the disparate factors that gave rise to Steiner education ninety years ago as the best-known instance of applied anthroposophy. At the same time, Zander's approach helps counteract the positivist tendency toward a merely reductive contextualization by his willingness to engage with Steiner's work at a theoretical and practical level and enter into a dialogic relationship with anthroposophy and its advocates. This is a considerable merit in view of the often heated controversies over anthroposophical beliefs and activities which have arisen in German public discourse in recent years.
Zander does not shy away from scholarly controversy, however, and his study is the stronger for it. Grappling head-on with a range of anthroposophical shibboleths, the book tries to correct the record on several critical points. Zander demonstrates, for example, the inauspicious conditions under which Steiner produced a number of his major works, as well as the extensive revisions to which he subjected his own earlier writings after his Theosophical turn. This is a virtually heretical claim in anthroposophist eyes; the received wisdom is that Steiner was an esotericist and an Initiate throughout his life, that all of his works from the different phases of his career are internally consistent, and that his mature teachings sprang fully fledged from his head as revelations from the" higher worlds". Zander patiently dismantles each of these notions, in the process restoring Steiner's human character and placing his shifting ideas into their historical environment. The Steiner that emerges from this thoroughly sourced portrait is a dynamic thinker responding to the challenges of his time and place, rather than a harbinger of eternal spiritual truths. Zander notes that his task as a historian is not to pronounce judgment on Steiner's claims to clairvoyance, much less to adjudicate the accuracy or inaccuracy of specific assertions about the higher worlds, but to inquire into the this-worldly circumstances out of which Steiner's doctrines emerged.
Zander also confronts the charged question of anthroposophy's politics, both implicit and explicit, in its early years. These are among the strongest sections in the book, filled with historical information and keen assessments of the cultural import of the stances Steiner and his followers adopted within the changing political landscape of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany. Zander's nuanced appraisal reveals a complicated tableau whose details may surprise readers familiar with anthroposophy's current affiliation with progressive trends. The early anthroposophist movement included a substantial German nationalist component, expressed not primarily in political or economic terms but in spiritual and cultural terms. In addition, anthroposophists harbored significant reservations about democracy and in some cases greeted the arrival of the Weimar republic with decided skepticism. Like many Theosophists, Steiner sided with his compatriots in World War One, supporting the Central Powers while interpreting the war as an occult struggle in which Austria and Germany were destined to prevail. The unexpected outcome of the war and the subsequent collapse of the German and Austrian empires galvanized a re-thinking of anthroposophist priorities and led to a more politicized approach in the post-war years.
The book conveys a palpable sense of both the continuities and the alterations that marked anthroposophy during this chaotic period. Karma, reincarnation, and an esoteric conception of "national souls" played an ongoing role in Steiner's discourse even as more directly social themes came to the fore. In his public statements as well as in internal anthroposophical forums, Steiner insisted that Germany bore no war guilt, and polemicized against Wilson, the Entente, the Versailles treaty, and the League of Nations. Steiner simultaneously developed his theory of "social threefolding" based in part on longstanding occult tenets. His followers during this era touted Steiner as "Germany's savior" and preached anthroposophy as the answer to the ills of modernity, above all materialism, collectivism, atheism, Western democracy, liberalism, Bolshevism, and cultural degeneration. Zander emphasizes the crucial influence that belief in a spiritual elite and its cosmic mission had on anthroposophist political engagement, and concludes that esoteric forays into politics are best seen neither as straightforward instances of a counter-Enlightenment tendency nor as shining examples of progress and tolerance, but as politically ambivalent phenomena requiring further research.
Perhaps the most controversial subject addressed in the book is anthroposophy's intricate racial theory, a topic which typically generates more outrage than analysis from defenders and critics of anthroposophy alike. Zander's calm and judicious appraisal is a welcome departure from the polemical and apologetic approaches that have characterized much of the public debate on the issue in Germany. He provides a balanced, methodical, and accurate summary of Steiner's racial doctrines, which were closely bound up with anthroposophy's broader evolutionary framework. Like Blavatsky and Besant before him, Steiner held that humankind progresses through a series of" higher" and "lower" racial forms correlated directly to spiritual advance or decline; the racial and ethnic identity of the body a particular soul inhabits in a given incarnation reflects that soul's level of progress toward the "universal human".
Zander demonstrates that the racial components of Steiner's teachings cannot be easily separated from his overall worldview, and that anthroposophical race doctrine frequently involves implicit or explicit value judgements. While the racist aspects of Steiner's theory need not overshadow the rest of his work, they cannot be dismissed as incidental to it.
Zander's study offers copious material for any reader interested in the history of Western esotericism: an intellectual biography of Steiner; an institutional history of early Theosophy and anthroposophy; and a series of case studies of anthroposophical initiatives. The book includes a detailed discussion of other branches of Theosophy as well, based on extensive archival research, which will be of great value for scholars whose primary interest lies outside of anthroposophy proper. It contains little information, in contrast, on the relationships of Theosophy and anthroposophy with other occult tendencies current in German-speaking Europe at the time, from ariosophy to the Mazdaznan movement, several of which have been studied by other scholars.
Along with its extremely impressive strengths, a work of this length inevitably contains weaknesses. To begin with a comparatively minor complaint: portions of the text display an extraordinary number of typographical errors, which cumulatively form a significant distraction for the reader. This is testimony to the less than ideal conditions under which scholarly publications are produced in Germany today. More substantively, there are occasional passages where the rationale for including or arranging particular sub-themes is not entirely clear. The section on historicism and Theosophy, for example, seems somewhat out of place, and some of the excurses on topics from Darwinism to modern theater have a digressive effect, even while offering important context.
From a historical perspective, several of Zander's interpretations-for the most part on relatively unimportant points-may reflect insufficient scrutiny of the primary sources. His basically forgiving treatment of the anthroposophical campaign in Upper Silesia in 1921 is an example; while the recounting of events is perceptive and fair-minded, it may leave the impression that anthroposophists maintained a neutral stance in the dispute between Poland and Germany. This notion is popular in exculpatory ex post facto anthroposophist accounts of the Upper Silesia affair, but sharply at odds with the actions and statements of anthroposophists at the time, who sided emphatically with Germany. Discerning this discrepancy, however, demands a close reading of anthroposophical periodicals and pamphlets from the era in question.
This last point indicates a more serious underlying concern with the book as a whole. On a number of occasions Zander goes out of his way to incorporate worthwhile anthroposophical secondary literature into his analysis. This is a laudable approach, and one that can be readily understood from an external point of view: if a meaningful discussion is to develop between anthroposophists and non-anthroposophist scholars, those who study anthroposophy need to take seriously anthroposophical attempts to come to terms with their own history. The difficulty lies in the quality of these internal anthroposophist accounts; most such literature is of very little historiographical value. Zander recognizes this clearly, but makes a conscientious effort to engage with those anthroposophical works that fulfill at least some basic research standards. Zander is moreover committed to ongoing exchange with the sectors of contemporary anthroposophy that are open to dialogue, and this sometimes leads him to take a less than critical approach to their claims. In light of the frequently overheated anthroposophical response to external inquiry, there is undeniable merit in this practice, but in some cases it leads Zander's conclusions astray.
A special instance of this problem is his treatment of the book-length account of anthroposophy during the Third Reich published by anthroposophist Uwe Werner in 1999. In acknowledgement of that work's ample archival sources and its effort to mount an earnest investigation on a very sensitive subject, Zander generally defers to Werner's findings, and does not engage in an extended analysis of anthroposophy during the Nazi era himself (in this sense Zander's study does not fully live up to the chronological parameters set out in its subtitle). Despite Zander's caveats and his cautious observations, the apologetic nature of Werner's arguments goes effectively unchallenged and at times is even endorsed. One example is Zander's repetition of Werner's claim that almost no anthroposophists joined the Nazi party (p. 250). This claim is false. A relatively cursory review of archival sources has identified several dozen anthroposophist members of the NSDAP, SS, and SA, and a comprehensive evaluation of the available files would likely yield considerably higher figures.
Zander has subsequently played a central role in bringing this contrary archival evidence to light, and has amended the passage in later re-printings of the book, but the initial claim has been taken up by anthroposophists eager to exonerate their forebears.
These considerations do not, however, detract from the extremely high standards of Zander's study overall. A larger concern, from a scholarly point of view, is not the quality of the work itself but its reception within the anthroposophical milieu. The book has provoked a furious reaction in some anthroposophical quarters, with official anthroposophist publications denouncing it as an uncomprehending attack on the movement. A raft of indignant articles and two book-length rebuttals have appeared to date, while other anthroposophist responses have been more measured. One conspicuous aggravating factor is Zander's examination of the interaction of ideas and institutions; rather than viewing Steiner's ideological production as free-floating, disembodied missives from the higher worlds, the book investigates the ways these ideas were embedded in institutional conflicts, power struggles, contemporary debates, and so forth. For some anthroposophists, this procedure is an affront to their self-conception as esotericists. For historians, it is unremarkable and indispensable.
The irate reaction to Zander's work in certain anthroposophist circles may also foreshadow new trends in the dynamics of scholarly engagement with the occult. As a range of recent studies have highlighted, many of the pioneers of scholarship on Western esotericism were themselves sympathizers or practitioners of esoteric paths, an understandable factor in light of the obtuse response so often encountered among mainstream academics dismissive of the entire field. Some esotericists have consequently greeted the impressive expansion of scholarship on Western esotericism in recent decades as confirmation of their own beliefs and practices. From this perspective, straightforwardly historical research like Zander's can come as something of a shock. Moreover, a number of anthroposophist rejoinders to Zander appear to misconstrue what it is that historians of occultism can and cannot impart to broader societal debates on the matter, and some of them even cite Wouter Hanegraaffs salutary principle of methodological agnosticism as an ostensible alternative to Zander's approach. But it is precisely the fact that Zander's study abides by methodological agnosticism that seems to have enraged many anthroposophist readers, who fault him for not addressing Steiner's visionary claims on their own terms.
In spite of such reactions, Zander's scrupulous history of anthroposophy in Germany may constitute an opportunity for heightened reflection on the potentials and limits of scholarly analysis brought to bear on the distinctive and distinguished traditions of Western esotericism. His voluminous book is challenging, thoughtful, informative, and critical, and places anthroposophy and its offshoots on much more solid ground as subjects of historical inquiry. It evinces a decent circumspection toward and consideration for anthroposophical sensibilities while remaining true to its primary responsibility to the scholarly community. A study like this should encourage more historical exploration of the cultural resonance of occult worldviews in modern contexts.
Building on this propitious foundation, other scholars now have a firm basis for further research on the demanding topic of Rudolf Steiner and the movement he founded.
This article appeared originally in Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, vol. 10 no. 1 (2010).
Peter Staudenmaier is a doctoral candidate in modern European history at Cornell University, currently completing a dissertation on the anthroposophical movement in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. He has long been a fervently one-sided critic of anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner.