A Refutation of the Allegation of Racism against Rudolf Steiner
By Richard House
It is commonplace in developed Western culture for the slightest whiff of 'racism' to be unconditionally condemned – an understandable balance-restoring tendency, perhaps, when viewed in the context of the Western world's own disreputable history in these matters. However, an equally interesting and quite new cultural phenomenon, at least in Britain, is the increasing challenge being mounted to what some see as an overbearingly stifling `political correctness' on questions of race.
I maintain that Rudolf Steiner's uniquely panoramic contributions on these questions can shed a great deal of light on to these commonly fraught debates – not least because, in Steiner's view of `the universal human being', we are presented with a quite new way of thinking about these questions that takes us well beyond the uncritical – and singularly non-illuminating – dichotomous thinking that swings simplistically between `racist' and `anti-racist' belief systems. In what follows, the comparatively recent charge of `racism' that was levelled at Rudolf Steiner in the 1990s is used as a vehicle for bringing some much-needed illumination to what is, in mainstream culture, an issue that typically generates far more heat than light.
In the 1990s a series of attacks were made on Rudolf Steiner, coming out of The Netherlands. This became something of a cause célèbre in Holland, and as a result, a detailed survey of all Steiner's literary corpus (over 6,000 lectures in all, with Steiner's Collected Works amounting to 360 volumes) was undertaken.
The resulting Commission examined and evaluated 245 quotations from the 89,000 pages of Steiner's Collected Works. The study was carried out under a mandate of the Anthroposophical Society in The Netherlands, by a commission chaired by the lawyer Dr Th. A. van Baarda.
The Commission's final report, Anthroposophy and the Question of Race', comprises some 720 pages, and is the result of nearly four years of work. It examined all passages about the subject of race in Rudolf Steiner's collected works in their context, and it issued an interim announcement on 4th February 1998 that there was no ground for accusations of racism in the work of Rudolf Steiner.
The following is a direct quotation from the Commission's final report:
There is no question of a racial doctrine being involved in the work of Rudolf Steiner. Nor does his work contain any statements which have been made with the intention of insulting people or groups on account of race… Suggestions that racism is inherent in anthroposophy… has been shown to be categorically incorrect.
Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical portrayal of man is based on the equality of all individuals and not on an alleged superiority of one race over another one. Nevertheless, the collected work of Rudolf Steiner does contain some statements which according to current criteria are of a discriminatory [nature] or could be found to be discriminatory.
As to Steiner (Waldorf) education, the Commission concluded – in agreement with
the prior judgement of Dutch Government Education Inspectors (Onderwijsinspectie) – that racism does not exist there.
In its report, the Committee made the point that Steiner appeared to have been subjected to `selective indignation'. Clearly, too, the fact that the comments identified are from `live' lectures, noted contemporaneously, rather than from specifically written books as such, is an important consideration. It is certainly arguable that a small number of quotations are, indeed, somewhat problematic, even when taken in context; yet it is crucial to emphasise the great changes in sensibility about these issues that have occurred since 1920 and earlier.
The Commission's report goes on to indicate the `racism' (according to present-day standards) in the work of Darwin, Schweitzer, and Gandhi! (not to mention Carl Jung, Martin Heidegger and many great cultural thinkers)…
Moreover, in the evolution of language many words have developed a different meaning in the course of time, and the originally intended content of a statement made by Steiner in the early 1900s (and in a different language to our own) may change if it is repeated verbatim. If a dated choice of words is simply repeated, the result may indeed be – quite unfairly – to cast Steiner in an unfavourable light.
At this point it is useful to consider the words of Steiner himself, who said:
[one of the aims of the] anthroposophical movement…[is to] cast aside the division into races. It must seek to unite people of all races and nations and to bridge the divisions and differences between people and various groups of people…[we]…must get beyond the illnesses of childhood and understand clearly that the concept of race has ceased to have any meaning in our time. A moreclear and unambiguous statement of `post-racist' thinking could hardly be imagined.
Moreover, the Commission regretted that in the debate about racism, Rudolf Steiner's progressive views about society are always conveniently left out of the discussion. In short, in regard to races, Steiner was of the opinion that racial differences are no longer of our time. In his participation in the debates after the First World War about the structure of society, Steiner argued not only for cultural diversity but also for the equality of all peoples and races as a universal principle. Moreover, he did this at a time when equality before the law was not at all self-evident, not even amongst white peoples.
Rudolf Steiner's concept of man, then, is based upon the equality of all individuals, and not on some supposed superiority of one race over another.
Anthroposophy is diametrically opposed to `social Darwinism', in which the idea of `survival of the fittest' leads to the domination of the strongest race. In Steiner's view of society, the central idea is a cosmopolitan striving for one humanity without distinctions as to races and peoples.
By its very nature, Anthroposophy cannot possibly be racist, for it simply does not encompass any theory of mutation and selection with regard to human races. The question of which race is `stronger' or `superior' is therefore irrelevant. There is clearly no inherent relationship between Anthroposophy and any ideologies based on racism, fascism or anti-Semitism. Steiner, for example, emphatically condemned the annihilation of the Indians by the white man; and in 1935 the Anthroposophical Society in Germany was banned by the Nazis.
I would like to ask you all carefully to consider the following: Just how many of us would be prepared to have virtually every public word we utter today written down and published (amounting to 360 volumes in all!) – and without having the opportunity to edit most of the resulting texts; and then, 80-100 years later, for every single word that we have uttered now to be judged and assessed according to the ethical standards and mores prevailing in the year 2100!…
I would guess that not one of us would be prepared to see this as in any way fair or appropriate; yet this is in effect precisely what Rudolf Steiner is being subjected to in these absurd attacks. There's surely not a human being who has ever lived who, if every word they had ever uttered were subjected to a searching gaze similar to that to which Steiner's have been subjected, wouldn't come out looking dubious, if a few statements were selectively and manipulatively highlighted, and divorced from the original living context in
which they were made…. And this is of course precisely what has been done to Steiner's words in the making of these pernicious accusations.
Racism is also a very tricky subject, especially in an age where political correctness has arguably run out of control. At certain times in history and in certain cultures, racist views have actually been the taken-for-granted cultural norm – and, often as not, in very `respectable' sections of society. Some of the greatest minds and individuals of the past century or so have been similarly accused of racism – notably, Carl Jung, Martin Heidegger (arguably the world's greatest 20th century philosopher); and perhaps in a few cases there may have been some limited truth to the accusations.
But I don't think it has ever been seriously suggested by even the strongest critics that it is valid to reject a body of thought generated by or from one person's cultural contribution merely because they have had one or two views which subsequent (presumably more enlightened) societies have regarded as morally questionable. I believe, in short, that it is important to bring some `historically relative' meta-understanding to the views held by people in earlier times, countries and cultures, and to understand, and even have some
compassion for, the specific historical contexts in which they arose.
I hope this clarifies the circumstances surrounding this question, and the highly misleading and grossly unfair accusations that have been levelled against Rudolf Steiner. It remains for those who persist in clinging to these baseless allegations to examine their own motivations for so doing, and for others to judge the possible motivations driving any such persistence.
Above all, I urge anyone harbouring the slightest doubts to actually visit a Steiner school or Kindergarten and to judge for themselves, rather than basing their view on prejudicial second-hand hear-say: for ultimately it is a direct experience of our learning environments that is the best antidote to the absurd claims that our education – or the ideas that underpin it – are `racist' or discriminatory.
Summary of the final report from the Commission
"Rudolf Steiner recognized as opponent of anti-Semitism and nationalism, Zeist/Driebergen, Netherlands, April 1, 2000: On Saturday, April 1, 2000, the
Commission on Anthroposophy and the Question of Race made its final report to
the Council of the Anthroposophical Society in The Netherlands.
In this final report the Commission reiterates its prior conclusion of the
interim report of February, 1998 – namely, that the work of Rudolf Steiner
(1861-1925) contains neither racial doctrine nor statements made for the purpose
of insulting persons or groups of people because of their race, and which could
therefore be called racist.
In the opinion of the Commission, the collected works of Rudolf Steiner do
contain a number of statements that, by today's standards, are of a
discriminatory nature or could be experienced as discriminatory. Certain words
or phrases, even if Steiner used them in a descriptive way, are emotionally
charged today, and may, by current standards, be experienced as discriminatory.
The Commission found that the debate in The Netherlands about the question
whether Anthroposophy embodies racism and racial discrimination has been
conducted on the basis of grossly incomplete information; and that this
incompleteness has led to a distorted picture. It found that any suggestion that
racism is an inherent part of Anthroposophy was proven to be categorically
The investigation shows that, beginning in the year 1900, Steiner clearly spoke
and wrote against the dangers of anti-Semitism, including in the periodical of a
then existing German association against anti-Semitism existing at that time."
It should be noted that the Commission did criticise the way in which the
anthroposophical movement has dealt with allegations of racism. The Council of
the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands had no coordinated strategy to
defend itself against such allegations made, which then probably had a `greater
harmful effect' than would have been the case had there been an energetic
defence against them.
RICHARD HOUSE, Ph.D. is Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy and Counselling,
Department of Psychology, Roehampton University. A counsellor since 1990 and a
trained Steiner Kindergarten and class teacher, his books include Therapy Beyond
Modernity (Karnac, 2003), Implausible Professions (co-editor Nick Totton, PCCS
Books, 1997/2011), Against and For CBT (co-editor Del Loewenthal, PCCS, 2008)
and Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos (co-editor Del Loewenthal,
Richard is a co-founder of The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy and
the Open EYE early-years campaign. With author Sue Palmer, he co-orchestrated
the two press Open Letters on `toxic childhood' and `play' in 2006 and 2007,
precipitating a global media debate about the state of childhood in modern
Originally published in New View magazine, 31 (Spring), 2004, pp. 51–3