Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2012  



Fascism and Anthroposophy
Part I of II


by Michael Barker



"[A]nthroposophy has become renowned in different parts of the world for its efforts on behalf of alternative education, holistic health care, organic farming and natural foods, environmental consciousness, and innovative forms of spiritual expression, among other causes." (p.viii)

"The effort to blame Nazism on shadowy occult machinations is as wide of the mark as the effort to portray occultists as blameless victims of Nazism." (p.523)


(Swans - October 8, 2012)   Seen in one light, the application of various anthroposophical principles to everyday life has led to many positive achievements, achievements that should not blind Anthroposophy's proponents to their less than commendable past. Therefore, understanding the full implications of the entwinement of authoritarian politics with the history of occultism is vital if we are to comprehend why, in the past, so many anthroposophists connected their spiritual future to fascism. Good intentions are never enough, and Peter Staudenmaier's study, Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945, "reveals the limits of a spiritual renewal approach to individual and social change, and of an unpolitical conception of new ways of life, even with the loftiest of aspirations." (1)

Anthroposophy itself did not arise in a spiritual vacuum, but evolved from a complex "invented tradition " largely based upon the ideas formulated by the Madame Blavatsky that became known as Theosophy -- a practice that rode the wave of the modern occult revival of the late nineteenth century. In 1912 Rudolf Steiner, who had served as the General Secretary of the German branch of the Theosophical Society, decided to part ways with their esoteric beliefs to found his own religious order, Anthroposophy. Steiner's new group, however, aligned itself with Christian rather than oriental spiritualism. (2) The rise of such esoteric movements as part of a broader occult revival was clearly no marginal event, and "By the early 1930s, occultism was in several respects a mass phenomenon in Germany." But this did not mean that is was an entirely anti-modern event, or a flight from reason. This is because the rhetoric of science was actually brought into the service of occult doctrine. "Indeed the modern occult revival itself can be seen as a product of 'the secularization of esotericism' in the post-Enlightenment era and a product of the hybridization of esoteric cosmologies and modern scientific cosmologies." (3)

The now repudiated doctrines of race science provide a prime example of how occultism appropriated the products of the Enlightenment. First theosophists, and then anthroposophists, "incorporated racial categories into an overarching evolutionary paradigm uniting the spiritual and physical realms, which they cast as an alternative to the purportedly materialist science of the day." (4)

[O]ccult racial doctrines are best viewed not as precursors to Nazism or unexceptional scientific hypotheses or innocuous expressions of spiritual harmony, but as efforts to stake out specifically esoteric positions within the contested terrain of modern race thinking. These efforts did not as a rule take heed of their own political ramifications, due partially to a tendency to concentrate on supernatural concerns rather than social conditions, and this left them open to appropriation by reactionary ideologies which recognized particular affinities between esoteric precepts and authoritarian practices. Nonetheless, occult race theories did not represent a throwback to pre-modern beliefs, but exemplified a distinctively modern approach to race and its ostensible significance strongly influenced by contemporary developments in the natural sciences. The concrete contours of esoteric racial concepts, however, were often idiosyncratic and markedly different from more familiar forms of race thinking. (5)

To date, studies that have examined the relationship between occult tendencies and German politics in the early twentieth century have tended to focus on "an extreme version of occult racism" known as ariosophy. This has meant that the influence of the more mainstream anthroposophical movement, which is arguably the "chief inheritor of theosophy's [racial] legacy," has not been adequately examined in the German context. (6) Additionally, many previous historical studies of Steiner's esoteric movement have been over-reliant upon (largely uncritical) anthroposophical sources, a problem that is further aggravated (for English-speaking readers) by the fact that "a number of current translations of Steiner's published works have been bowdlerized, with the more conspicuous instances of racist and ethnocentric content surreptitiously excised." (7) Staudenmaier's study thus provides a welcome intervention, taking his readers beyond the simplistic conflation of sinister occult practices and the rise of the Nazism. (8)

Given the widespread popularity of esoteric doctrines (then, as today) it is not surprising that esoteric ideas came to play an important part in the development of Nazi ideology, but the portrayals of "Hitler as an avid occultist are untenable." Interest in occult doctrines instead exhibited a more precarious position within Nazi ranks. Three of the best-known Nazi supporters of the esoteric tradition are Alfred Rosenberg ("nominally the chief ideologist of the Nazi party"), Rudolf Hess ("the Deputy of the Führer and titular head of the party"), and Heinrich Himmler (the "leader of the SS"); yet their interest in occultism was hardly unconditional. Indeed, the "tug-of-war between pro-anthroposophical and anti-anthroposophical factions within the party and state lasted until 1941, when anthroposophist activities fell victim to an all-out Nazi campaign against occultism." This historical narrative stands in stark contrast to that presented by the anthroposophical community, who "have almost uniformly preferred a one-sided narrative of their movement's history during the Third Reich, viewing themselves and their forebears as victims of Nazism." (9) So bearing this in mind let us now turn to the early political orientation of Rudolf Steiner's movement.

First off, anthroposophists had been wholly shocked by Germany's unexpected defeat in World War I. This forced Steiner to reassess his movement's priorities and so develop an anthroposophist approach to economics and politics (known as "social threefolding"), and simultaneously take up the building of practical institutions (not just the promotion of esoteric doctrine). In practice this saw the emergence of Waldorf schools, biodynamic agriculture, and the religious renewal movement known as the Christian Community. This shift in approach arose from the "notion that the unblemished German spirit had been failed by an inadequate array of social institutions which needed to be revitalized through spiritual and national regeneration." (10) Social threefolding was presented by Steiner...

...as an alternative to the various proposals for collectivization and socialization that abounded in the early stages of the fledgling Weimar democracy. Positioning his own proposals as a 'third way' between capitalism and Communism, Steiner devoted much of 1919 to promoting social threefolding to industrialists and business leaders, as well as to proletarian audiences in the newly formed workers councils. Even while courting mass support from workers, Steiner rejected democratization of the factories, and maintained that the economy was not to be run by the "hand-workers," but rather by "the spiritual workers, who direct production." At the same time, the social threefolding movement claimed to represent the harmonization of workers' interests and owners' interests. (p.127)

That Steiner's pre-war and post-war outlook should have resonated in "nationalist oriented circles" is hardly surprising given that in 1914 he had declared that the "war is a conspiracy against German spiritual life." Moreover, in the aftermath of the war, scapegoats in the form of Freemasons and Jews were rapidly incorporated into the anthroposophical lexicon, playing a central part in the imagined anti-German conspiracy. In this manner, it is obvious why "thematic overlap between anthroposophy and the völkisch milieu gave rise at times to a situation of competition and rivalry, both organizational and ideological." (11)

Anti-Semitism within anthroposophy found an influential exponent in the form of Friedrich Lienhard (1865-1929), an individual who was "a leading representative of 'idealistic antisemitism' within völkisch ranks" and who counted Steiner as "an enthusiastic supporter..." The "foremost example" of the melding of esoteric and anti-Semitic nonsense, however, presented itself in a book published in 1918 by Swiss anthroposophist Karl Heise. With a foreword written by Steiner, Heise's "book offered a plethora of conspiratorial claims about the occult scheming of foreign powers against Germany, and frequently identified the culprits as Jews, from bankers to Bolsheviks." Of course, not all early anthroposophists were content with the promotion of such explicit hate speech, and others preferred to just highlight the presence of a "vague ensemble of secretive 'financial powers'" (which were "not specifically Jewish"), and the threat posed by a politically organized working class. On the latter point it is noteworthy that "from the early 1930s [anthroposophist publications] warned again and again against Bolshevism and Marxism, but rarely against nationalism, Fascism, or Nazism." (12) This counterrevolutionary perspective owes much to the anthroposophists desire for a spiritual, not political, awakening (or revolution). Thereby...

...many anthroposophists simply avoided the political sphere, seeing it as a demeaning and corrupt distraction that was inevitably at odds with their conception of a spiritual aristocracy. Those who did have an identifiable political affiliation were often enough on the right. In most cases, though, anthroposophist public statements centered on an emphatic but politically undefined re-affirmation of the mission of the German spirit. (pp.177-8)

Admittedly, some anthroposophists were uncomfortable with the "insufficiently spiritual" nature of the Nazi regime, but anthroposophist officials "nonetheless exhibited a remarkably positive perspective" towards the Nazi Party. Taking the opportunity to work with the Nazis, in 1931 Hanns Rascher ("a follower of Steiner since 1908 and one of the founders of anthroposophical medicine") joined the NSDAP and subsequently "acted as liaison between the Anthroposophical Society and the Nazi party" from 1933 until 1935. (13) Amplifying this trend:

In June 1933 Guenther Wachsmuth gave a revealing interview to a Danish newspaper during a visit to Copenhagen, emphasizing his sympathy for the Nazi regime. Wachsmuth, secretary of the General Anthroposophical Society at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, was one of the three members of the Society's board of directors, alongside its president, Albert Steffen, and Steiner's widow, Marie Steiner. The interview indicated a decidedly friendly stance toward the Nazi state. In response to a question about the new government's attitude to anthroposophy, Wachsmuth replied: "We can't complain. We've been treated with the utmost consideration and have complete freedom to promote our doctrine." Speaking for anthroposophists generally, Wachsmuth went on to express his "sympathy" and "admiration" for National Socialism... (pp.184-5)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Peter Staudenmaier , Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945, Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University, August 2010, p.x.  (back)

2.  "The Christian elements within anthroposophy, while unorthodox, are central to its overall doctrines. Peter Clarke, New Religions in Global Perspective (London: Routledge, 2006) describes anthroposophy as a 'Christian Occult group' (114). See also Roger Olson, 'Rudolf Steiner, Esoteric Christianity, and the New Age Movement' Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religions and Cultures 1 (1992), 341-53." Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.30.

Steiner had joined the Theosophical Society in 1902, but while he "had briefly flirted with theosophical notions around 1890, his published discussions of theosophy during the 1890s were without exception scathingly critical." (p.61)  (back)

3.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.8. For a discussion of the occult as a flight from reason, see James Webb, The Occult Underground (Open Court Publishing, 1974). "Other scholars argue that these accommodations to scientific terminology were not merely rhetorical maneuvers but represented a new synthesis of spiritual and scientific approaches. Historian Corinna Treitel, for example, maintains that modern German occultism sought to transcend the divide between science and religion and reclaim and reconfigure scientific methods within an esoteric framework. Instead of revealing occultism as a flight from reason, this approach argues that occultism reveals the ambiguities of modernity. Though they sometimes take esoteric claims to scientific status at face value, such interpretations offer important insights into the distinctive nature of modern occult thought." (p.9)  (back)

4.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.10.  (back)

5.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.12. "The principal formulation of these theories is to be found in the works of the leading figures in the Theosophical Society, beginning with Blavatsky herself. Racial and national themes occupy a central place in dozens of theosophical texts. Although many of these texts include extensive racist content, membership in the Theosophical Society was open to people of all races and nations, and the Society's stated goal was to promote brotherhood and unity within humankind. For theosophists, however, brotherhood was not the same thing as equality; indeed the two were essentially opposites. Annie Besant (1847-1933), president of the Theosophical Society from 1907 onward, sharply contrasted 'brotherhood' and 'equality,' endorsing the former and rejecting the latter. Racial brotherhood, in theosophical eyes, was predicated on inequality and a hierarchical understanding of racial and spiritual evolution. These ideas were linked in turn to a social Darwinist view of racial and ethnic improvement. Theosophy offered an 'account of human racial progression' and of 'the moral evolution of the races.' Through cosmic karma, 'the survival of the fittest races and nations was secured" while 'the unfit ones -- the failures -- were disposed of by being swept off the earth.'" (p.14)  (back)

6.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.23. "Unlike ariosophy, with its pronounced right-wing affiliations and blatant racism, anthroposophy represented a more mainstream face of occultism interacting with the modern world." (p.24)

Anthroposophy's "teachings have had a notable influence on a range of cultural figures, including Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Christian Morgenstern, Andrei Bely, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Beuys. Anthroposophy has given rise to successful and enduring alternative institutions in education, agriculture, health care, and other areas. Its best known innovations include Waldorf schools, biodynamic farming, anthroposophical medicine, a type of expressive dance known as eurythmy, and a church called the Christian Community." (p.27)  (back)

7.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, pp.32-3. Staudenmaier draws his readers' attention to Geoffrey Ahern's book Sun at Midnight: The Rudolf Steiner Movement and Gnosis in the West (Clarke, 2009 [1984]). He notes that "Ahern's study has several notable shortcomings; it is based entirely on English-language sources; it often takes an ethnographic approach, relying on interviews with anthroposophists for even basic factual claims; and the second edition does not incorporate the extensive literature on Western esotericism which has emerged since the first edition was published. The book nevertheless provides a useful overview for readers unfamiliar with anthroposophy. A more discerning analysis, focused on Waldorf education in particular, is now available in English from a German expert on the history of pedagogical reform movements: Heiner Ullrich, Rudolf Steiner (London: Continuum, 2008)." (p.24) For German speakers Staudenmaier recommends reading the "enormously detailed and carefully nuanced account of the movement's origins and early development" (p.36) provided in Helmut Zander's two volume study Anthroposophie in Deutschland: Theosophische Weltanschauung und gesellschaftliche Praxis 1884-1945 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007). For Staudenmaier's review of this book, see Aries: The Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism, 10 (2010), 107-16.  (back)

8.  "For a judicious appraisal of popular enthusiasm for the 'Nazi occultism' thesis see Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, 'The Nazi Mysteries' in Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 107-27." Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.40.

"What this study of occultism points to is not that esoteric tendencies belong to another political or intellectual universe far from our own, but that many of the ideas traditionally associated with the right-wing margins of interwar German culture were actually widely spread throughout Germany and other parts of Europe, and in many instances were tied to aspirations for new, humane, progressive forms of life and thought. Occult beliefs were often much closer to liberal and enlightened beliefs than is commonly acknowledged, in ways that are both familiar and unsettling; a further illustration of the entwinement of myth and enlightenment." (pp.54-5)  (back)

9.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.43, p.41, p.46, p.507. "Rosenberg's support for esoteric worldviews was capricious at best, and he often opposed forms of occultism which he considered incompatible with National Socialism. Hess came to play a crucial role in protecting anthroposophist projects in particular. Himmler, with much more effective power at his disposal, followed a dual strategy of suppressing some occult movements while incorporating others into his own SS empire." (p.41)

Staudenmaier writes that Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's "respected work" The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany 1890-1935 (New York University Press, 1992) is "one of the few books by a responsible scholar on a topic which is otherwise a playground for conspiracy theorists and amateur occultisms..." See Peter Staudenmaier, "Anthroposophy and its Defenders," Institute for Social Ecology, January 9, 2009.  (back)

10.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.115-6. In a separate essay titled "Rudolf Steiner's threefold commonwealth and alternative economic thought" Staudenmaier writes: "[A]dmirers of anthroposophical economic thought may be comparable to latter-day fans of other would-be economic reformers such as Henry George in the United States, C.H. Douglas in Britain, or Silvio Gesell in Germany. Anthroposophists themselves have pointed out the affinities between Steiner's work and the 'social credit' movement initiated by Douglas. What they neglect to mention is that Douglas based his economic theories on the anti-Semitic forgery 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'. In addition to such unpleasant company, social threefolding also displays significant parallels with the phenomenon of "producerism" that is perceptively analyzed in the excellent study by Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America (New York: Guilford, 2000)."  (back)

11.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.116, p.117, p.121. "Early anthroposophy was thus in several ways a point of crossover and contact among various esoteric and völkisch streams, and the intense shared focus on a cluster of related themes from a range of shifting political and cultural perspectives could give rise to animosity and competition. Historian James Webb has argued that for all of the invective traded back and forth between anthroposophy and various right-wing groups, the hostilities were due not to fundamental differences between them, but on the contrary to their ideological proximity -- indeed it was these basic ideological affinities which made them rivals in the first place. 'Steiner was not really alien to völkisch thought,' Webb concludes: 'the völkisch reaction 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 was another vision of the universe which claimed to be "spiritual".' From the perspective of contemporary critics of the völkisch scene, Steiner's movement could sometimes appear to be cut from the same cloth as the emerging Hitler movement." (p.153)  (back)

12.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.145, pp.145-6, p.176. "Heise holds the Jews responsible for the World War (Entente-Freimaurerei und Weltkrieg 32-33, 84, 262, 295, etc.), warns repeatedly against 'Jewish capitalists' (e.g. 286), claims that the Roosevelts are Jewish and that their real name is Rosenfeld (285), that Woodrow Wilson's wife is Jewish (296), that the news agencies are controlled by Jews (306), that the Jews control Britain and the Empire is a plaything of the Zionists (122-127), and that Bolshevism is an Anglo-Jewish invention (253). Heise invokes Steiner and anthroposophy throughout the book, at one point praising Steiner as the alternative to 'Jewish thinking' (297). The book draws heavily on ariosophist sources as well. Heise's work continues to find anthroposophist admirers; Ursula Marcum, for example, writes: 'What makes Heise's book special is his treatment of Jewish influence in world affairs.' Marcum, 'Rudolf Steiner: An Intellectual Biography,' 408." (p.176)  (back)

13.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.184, pp.183-4, p.184. "Nor did Steiner's followers introduce or specially highlight 'Germanic' themes after January 1933; these themes had been central to anthroposophy all along. Many anthroposophists distrusted democracy and sympathized with national and authoritarian alternatives, and more than a few anthroposophist spokespeople condemned the Weimar republic and endorsed the Third Reich. The chance to contribute concretely to the re-construction of the German national spirit appealed strongly to these predispositions, and made the dawn of Hitler's regime seem as much a promise as a threat." (p.253)

"Steiner's movement and Hitler's movement shared an array of common enemies, from intellectualism to materialism to liberalism to Bolshevism, and sometimes Freemasonry and Judaism. They also shared positive goals, including a commitment to fundamental spiritual renewal and the conviction of a decisive German historical mission. In their contradictory details, the conceptual affiliations between the two otherwise disparate movements reveal an underappreciated aspect of the convergence of Nazism with Lebensreform aspirations and 'alternative' subcultures, both esoteric and exoteric. Focused on phenomena such as vegetarianism, organic food, unconventional therapies, educational reform, back-to-the-land movements and unorthodox spirituality, these tendencies offered a bridge between Nazism and various alternative milieus. This supposedly 'softer' side of Nazi politics and culture, often unnoticed or unrecognized, helps explain the extent of interchange between occult visions and the practical application of Nazi policies. It is tempting to see this history as an illustration of the anti-modernist elements of Nazi thought, but its proponents and practitioners did not share such a view. In their own eyes, the projects and proposals they championed exemplified a simultaneous embrace of the modern world and a rejection of the corrupt and damaging effects of its debased forms." (pp.259-60)  (back)


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Published October 8, 2012