Swans Commentary » swans.com October 22, 2012  



Fascism and Anthroposophy
Part II of II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - October 22, 2012)   During the early 1930s the General Anthroposophical Society took a proactive approach in reminding the Nazis of Steiner's "pure Aryan heritage" and the compatibility of his ideas with those of the Third Reich, sending a letter to this effect to "all the Gauleiter or regional Nazi leaders in Germany..." Little wonder that the membership of the Anthroposophical Society in Germany increased 25% between the end of 1932 and September 1935 (in September 1935 they had 6,920 members). (1) During this period the anthroposophists could boast of even having their own pro-Nazi race theorists, like Richard Karutz, who "expressly and resoundingly endorsed the new regime's race principles, providing an extended anthroposophical justification of them." Anthroposophist publications likewise "provided sympathetic overviews of Nazi racial theories as late as 1936." However, significantly, anthroposophists did not adopt the Nazis' "exterminationist trajectory" towards the Jewish population, instead promoting a "radically assimilationist approach" that offered Jews spiritual redemption. (2)

The anthroposophical community thus maintained a highly favourable relationship with the Nazi regime, and as Ernst Bloch wrote in 1935, arguably "only the international affiliation of the anthroposophical movement 'prevents it from unanimously going over to Hitler.'" (3) For example, in March 1934, it is significant that:

In Karlsruhe, where the secretariat of the Anthroposophical Society in Germany was located, the Gestapo found no reason for any police action and described anthroposophists in the area as "completely irreproachable." Indeed, they reported, "most members are rather right-wing, or even belong to the NSDAP." (pp.189-90)

Yet despite cultivating powerful supporters within the Nazi party, which owed much to their political flexibility,...

... anthroposophy faced formidable opponents within the Nazi hierarchy, above all [from] the anti-occult faction within the SD [security service] and Gestapo, led by Reinhard Heydrich, and its allies in other agencies, including Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels. In their eyes, anthroposophy was a menacing sect unfit for the new Germany, an elite and suspiciously foreign belief system committed to its own dubious dogma. (p.187)

A curious feature of anthroposophy's ongoing relations to Nazism meant that the "theory and practice" of the two groups "were at odds as often as they were in accord." Anthroposophy's enemies therefore only began organizing in earnest in 1934, gaining limited successes in "dismantling anthroposophist organizations" between 1935 and 1941. But despite this dedicated opposition from within some parts of the Nazi party, "German anthroposophy nonetheless saw remarkable achievements in cooperation with various Nazi sponsors." (4) One anthroposophist initiative that positively "flourished between 1933 and 1941" was biodynamic agriculture. "Even after its official suppression in 1941," its "representatives continued to work with the SS, taking part in 'settlement' activities in the occupied lands of Eastern Europe and overseeing a network of biodynamic plantations at various concentration camps." (5) Here it should be emphasized that:

These Nazi initiatives -- around environmentally sensitive public works, organic agriculture, habitat protection, and so forth -- were not mere camouflage or peculiar deviations from the destructive path of the Nazi juggernaut; they were part and parcel of the Nazi project for remaking the landscape of Europe, ethnically as well as ecologically. Ignoring their impact yields an impaired comprehension of the full dimensions of that project and its attempted implementation under the banner of blood and soil. Steiner's followers played no small part in trying to bring that project to fruition. (pp.250-1)

Either way, in November 1935, following an order from Heydrich, "the Gestapo banned both of the principal anthroposophist organizations in the Third Reich, the Anthroposophical Society in Germany and the Anthroposophical Working Groups." Yet even this did not spell the end for Steiner's movement, and in the following months "anthroposophists and their allies succeeded in establishing fairly lenient parameters within which anthroposophical activities could continue in Germany without interference." (6)

Anthroposophists responded to this inhospitable atmosphere by downplaying the esoteric facets of their doctrine and advertising their scientific and philosophical credentials, and by presenting their practical activities as contributions to the common good of the nation. To the chagrin of Nazi officials dedicated to rooting out creeping occultism, this strategy met with considerable success. By 1940, the anti-esoteric faction within the SD and Gestapo considered itself outmaneuvered by anthroposophy's allies. ... In spite of serious setbacks, many anthroposophists had managed to accommodate themselves to the Third Reich. (p.207)

"In many cases," the launch of World War II actually encouraged anthroposophists to exhibit "in a more pronounced fashion their German nationalism and their latent enthusiasm for the Nazi leadership and its project of restoring German greatness." This is in contrast to those "German liberals who had initially supported some aspects of National Socialism" but then moved in the opposite direction and "became more critical and oppositional with the outbreak of the war." At the end of the day though, anthroposophy's willingness to support the Nazi regime would never be enough to placate their enemies, and even the support they received from Rudolf Hess -- who served as "the highest-ranking and most visible Nazi protector of anthroposophical endeavors" -- proved insufficient to safeguard them from persecution. And so on June 9, 1941, "less than two weeks before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Nazi domestic security services launched an all-out campaign against occultist organizations, practices, and individuals." (7) This was an all-out campaign against all occult practitioners.

Far from confirming that "the Nazis" as such determinedly opposed anthroposophy, the June 1941 action demonstrates the volatility of Nazi attitudes toward alternative worldviews, particularly those that placed significant emphasis on race and nation. The SD targeted a wide range of openly racist organizations and did not tolerate their continued existence under National Socialist auspices. The anti-esoteric faction of the SD also persecuted the emphatically pro-Nazi Theosophical Brotherhood, ariosophists, the Thule Society, various völkisch organizations, Aryan orders, and occultist groups that had supported Nazism even before 1933 and had high proportions of Nazi members. (p.405)

While the roots of the SD's longstanding hostility to all things occult are often traced to the occult-Masonic conspiracy theories of a far-right fringe group (the Ludendorffers), Staudenmaier argues that this thesis "is questionable" and unsupported by available evidence. Instead he suggests that it is more fruitful to examine the influence that the two anthroposophists, Karl Heise and Gregor Schwartz-Bostunitsch, had in contributing to this hostility. Heise's first 1918 book has already been mentioned, while his second opus on the so-called Jewish-Freemason conspiracy was published in 1921 and apparently "made an impression on Himmler, who read it in 1926 and praised it as 'a deeply serious work.'" Ironically, it appears that "these same ideas helped shape Himmler's conception of National Socialism as an eternal struggle against Jews and Freemasons, which then became the guiding principle of the SD's persecution of anthroposophists and other occultists." (8)

On the other hand, Gregor Schwartz-Bostunitsch -- who had initially been mentored by Heise -- had a more direct impact on the SD's occult obsession. In 1929, after spending some ten years in the theosophical movement, Schwartz-Bostunitsch "turned sharply against Steiner and anthroposophy" and then worked closely with the SD in helping them develop their ideological framework for attacking esoteric doctrines. That is before being forcibly removed from their ranks in January 1937, because "his fanatical pursuit of freemasons, Bolsheviks, and Jews concealed behind occult masks was considered crude and excessive" even by the SD's standards. (9)

Returning to the 1941 all-out campaign against occultism, the trigger event that enabled the SD to unleash their fury against their ideological rivals arose when Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess flew to Britain on May 10, 1941, and was subsequently captured. This problematic event allowed Hess's then chief of staff, Martin Bormann, and Heydrich, to present the case to Hitler that Hess had come under the nefarious influence of occult forces, either of astrologers or "in some versions of the story anthroposophists..." While it was already well known that Hess was interested in both astrology and anthroposophy, these accusations "mostly served as a convenient rationalization of the embarrassing episode, as well as a pretext for a final settling of accounts by Bormann and his allies with the occultisms they despised." But even with the attack on occult doctrine in full force, anthroposophists often slipped through the net, and "anthroposophist authors continued to write and publish long after June 1941" and the campaign against occult doctrines was subsequently wound down later in the summer. Emblematic of this trend, "the chief anthroposophist publisher in Germany, the Verlag Emil Weises Buchhandlung in Dresden, was not shut down until August 1943..." (10)

As Staudenmaier's study make eminently clear, German anthroposophists were hardly guilt-free victims of the Nazi regime, yet it is exactly this "one-sided narrative of their movement's history during the Third Reich" that "has deterred a meaningful internal consideration of and confrontation with the less reassuring aspects of anthroposophy's past." This is a serious and very real issue that needs to be addressed with urgency, all the more so because "the movement today is principally associated with tolerant, progressive, and cosmopolitan tendencies." Arguably it is precisely this inability to critically reflect upon their movement's history that "has in turn contributed to the ongoing presence of far-right elements within anthroposophy." (11)

Theosophy and anthroposophy preached a message of universal brotherhood and tolerance. These teachings were sincere. But theosophy and anthroposophy also posited a distinctive set of racial doctrines and instilled them with great cosmic significance. Those doctrines are built around a stratified framework of racial hierarchy and mapped onto a sweeping narrative of evolutionary progress to yield a potent racial mythology combining elements of Aryan superiority, cyclical processes of racial advance and decline, and a version of spiritual eugenics leading to the emergence of higher racial forms at the expense of lower racial forms. For the most part, these ideas remain part of theosophy and anthroposophy today, largely unexamined and unchallenged. Although it may be comforting to think that such ideas pose little current danger because they are part of marginal occult worldviews, and dismiss them as belonging to the past, this response ignores just how popular and widespread anthroposophical beliefs are within various alternative milieus in the present. (p.502)

"Burgeoning interest in alternative spiritualities and unorthodox approaches to science" demand that activists committed to materialist Enlightenment principles concern themselves with the philosophical problems associated with anthroposophy, a movement which for all intents and purposes "appears to be moving steadily from the margin to the center." (12) Dealing with the intellectual problems posed by this movement are all the more important now that "Many anthroposophists have shed the nomenclature of the 'occult' and refurbished their teachings as a sophisticated framework for engaging questions of personal growth and social responsibility." For instance, what should we make of the "significant role" that German anthroposophists played in the formation of the Green Party? (13)

A number of observers note that these tendencies within the nascent Green milieu represented 'right' currents as much as 'left' ones, and once the Greens overall moved toward the left, several of their more conservative founders, along with part of the anthroposophist wing, broke with the Greens to form a series of small right-wing ecological parties. In this sense, anthroposophist participation in the early stages of the Greens may be seen less as a shift from right to left and more as a continuation of the left-right crossover that has marked anthroposophical politics from the beginning. (pp.508-9)

Finally, it is worth recalling that the "racial ideas expounded by pre-war anthroposophists did not simply disappear from the movement's publications after 1945, and figures like [Richard] Karutz and [the anti-semitic Italian fascist Massimo] Scaligero continued to be honored." Similarly, "anthroposophist perspectives on political topics can be markedly at odds with non-anthroposophist perspectives, as when anthroposophist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the late dictator of Georgia, is cast as a hero and martyr." (14) As Staudenmaier himself concludes in an online essay published in 2009:

I think very many anthroposophists, today as in the past, are profoundly confused about politics and routinely mix together left-wing and right-wing viewpoints, and when they get involved in progressive efforts they often end up representing the least emancipatory and most conservative elements within those milieus. I further argue that this pattern is not accidental but flows from Steiner's own reactionary political assumptions... (15)


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1.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.185, p.186. "After 1933 an array of anthroposophist projects, from Waldorf schools to biodynamic farming to anthroposophical medicine, found crucial backing from high-level Nazi representatives. The most important of these was Rudolf Hess, the Deputy of the Führer, as well as his staff, above all two of his chief lieutenants, Ernst Schulte-Strathaus and Alfred Leitgen, who actively intervened time and again on behalf of anthroposophical efforts. A further high official in the Interior Ministry, Lotar Eickhoff, worked with Hess and his staff to promote and protect anthroposophist undertakings. In addition to these figures, Nazi philosopher Alfred Baeumler used his position as head of the Office of Science in the so-called Amt Rosenberg, the agency which oversaw ideological education within the Nazi party, to help sustain anthroposophist publishing and other enterprises. SS general Otto Ohlendorf, finally, was a consistent advocate for anthroposophist interests from his position as department head within the SD or Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi 'security service' and intelligence agency.18 Without endorsing Steiner's doctrines as a whole, these Nazi leaders considered aspects of anthroposophy, both ideological and practical, to be compatible with and complementary to National Socialist principles." (pp.186-7)

"In August 1933 Rudolf Hess established a new department of public health in the Reichsleitung of the NSDAP, the nominal leadership body of the Nazi party. The new division was charged with overseeing health care and medicine, or the 'people's health,' Volksgesundheit in Nazi parlance. Among other fields, it had responsibility for "natural healing" and 'racial hygiene.' Hess named party member, a prominent Lebensreform advocate, to promote and coordinate 'reform movements' within health care. Müller was among the earliest members of the Nazi movement and a strong backer of biodynamics." (p.217) "Anthroposophical medicine also had the backing of Julius Streicher, Gauleiter of Franconia and propagandist of radical antisemitism. Streicher was a rival of [Gerhard] Wagner's for leadership of alternative health tendencies within the Nazi movement, and was a particularly fervent opponent of immunization." (p.221)  (back)

2.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.289, p.290, p.294. "Building an esoteric account around a spiritually determined postulate of racial inequality, he found far-reaching common ground with Nazi racial theorists, invoking not just figures like Clauss, Rosenberg, or Günther but also Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz." (p.289)

"Even while holding out the possibility of assimilation into genuine Germanness and Christian salvation, Steiner's followers stressed that Jews who were excessively attached to Jewish characteristics would be unable to achieve redemption, as another German anthroposophist argued in 1937. Claims like these were echoed in harsher form in Karutz's work as well. Similar arguments could be found in anthroposophist journals as late as 1943." (p.296)  (back)

3.  Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, p.170, cited in Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.263.  (back)

4.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.303, p.187, p.188. "In several cases these achievements continued in the face of setbacks imposed by the SD or Gestapo, and at times even resulted in reversals of the restrictions ordained by Heydrich and his allies." (p.188) "The SD's fixation on occultism and other perceived 'ideological enemies' can be traced in part to its own uncertain status within the complicated apparatus of the Nazi party-state." (p.357)  (back)

5.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.226, p.227. "Anthroposophist Carl Grund, leader of the 'Information Office for Biodynamic Agriculture,' was a member of both the NSDAP and the SA and in 1942 was made a commissioned officer in the SS, where he worked as a specialist for agricultural questions. Biodynamics and National Socialism appeared to be eminently compatible." (p.236) "Even Hitler's vegetable garden at Obersalzberg was farmed biodynamically..." (p.244) "From 1941 onward the Dachau operation was overseen by anthroposophist Franz Lippert, a leader of the biodynamic movement from its beginnings and head gardener at Weleda from 1924 to 1940." (p.248)  (back)

6.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, pp. 196-7, p.202. "After the dissolution of the Anthroposophical Society, the most visible organized grouping of Steiner's followers in Germany, with roughly 6000 members in 1935, was the Christian Community headed by Friedrich Rittelmeyer." (p.207) "The Christian Community fared relatively well compared to other small religious groups in Nazi Germany, enduring for the first eight and a half years of Hitler's twelve year reign." (p.209) "The Christian Community was dissolved by Gestapo order in July 1941." (p.216)

"Both Hess and Rosenberg supported less stringent regulations for anthroposophists." (p.205)

It is true that "a series of anthroposophists who applied for [Nazi] party membership after 1935 were turned down, despite otherwise positive political evaluations"; but even here "notable exceptions" made to this rule. (p.205)  (back)

7.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.277, p.354. It is notable that Martin Bormann was "technically Hess's subordinate but in significant respects his de facto equal in terms of practical power, influence, and access to Hitler. Bormann was a confirmed opponent of occult organizations and a crucial ally of the SD..." (p.354)

For details of the disaffection of German liberals, Staudenmaier cites Eric Kurlander's study, Living with Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich (Yale University Press, 2009).  (back)

8.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.366, p.367, p.368.  (back)

9.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.368, pp.368-9, p.372. "By 1933 Schwartz-Bostunitsch was no longer a mere anti-masonic author and agitator. He had become a protégé of Himmler, and began working for the SD in 1934..... But Schwartz-Bostunitsch did not last long at the SD; he was forcibly retired by Heydrich in January 1937." (p.372)  (back)

10.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.384, p.385, p.396, p.397. "With anthroposophists, ariosophists, astrologers and others under tight supervision, and with attention shifted to the new war in the East, the 'Campaign against occult doctrines and so-called occult sciences' wound down in the summer of 1941." (p.398)  (back)

11.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.507, p.503, p.507.  (back)

12.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, pp.502-3, p.502. "The movement Steiner founded a century ago has proven remarkably successful in the contemporary world. There are now more than one thousand Waldorf schools worldwide. Biodynamic products form a preponderant portion of the extensive organic foods market in Germany and other European countries. Anthroposophical physicians represent an established branch of complementary medicine. Weleda is the leading brand in holistic pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and Demeter products and biodynamic wines fetch premium prices. Theosophical and anthroposophical ideas circulate throughout the New Age milieu and within various new religious movements." (p.502) To take Weleda as just one example, the single environmental organization singled out on their Web site to signify their commitment to sustainability is the highly problematic free-market environmental outfit, Conservation International (see "When Environmentalists Legitimize Plunder").  (back)

13.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.503, p.508. On this point Staudenmaier cites Andrei Markovits and Philip Gorski, The German Left: Red, Green and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 1993), p.105; and Gayil Talshir, The Political Ideology of Green Parties (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.91.  (back)

14.  Staudenmaier, Between Occultism and Fascism, p.504, p.505. Although not examined in this article, chapters seven and eight of Staudenmaier's thesis outlines how Italian anthroposophists (most notably Massimo Scaligero) "were directly involved in Fascist racial policy." Indeed, he adds: "One of the possibly surprising findings of this study is that occult race ideas had a more immediate influence on Fascism than on National Socialism." (p.521)  (back)

15.  Peter Staudenmaier, "The Art of Avoiding History," Institute of Social Ecology, January 7, 2009. In this essay Staudenmaier points out that "Steiner's book Cosmic Memory remains to the present day a primary source for anthroposophy's cosmology, with no distancing whatsoever toward its racist elements."  (back)


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Published October 22, 2012