Rudolf Steiner and his Jewish milieu

April 2023

In his day, Rudolf Steiner moved in a widely Jewish and very cosmopolitan milieu. Professor Tomáš Zdražil, who has been working in the field of the anthropological and anthroposophical foundations of Waldorf education at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy since 2007, talks about Steiner's connections with Jewish contemporaries as well as his apparently contradictory anti-Semitic statements. Zdražil was born in the Czech Republic and studied history in Prague.

Tomáš Zdražil

Erziehungkunst: Mr Zdražil, from 1884 Rudolf Steiner worked as a tutor with the Jewish Specht family, whose son Otto was considered to have a learning disability. Thanks to Steiner's work with the boy, he was able to attend school after two years and eventually became a doctor. Would you say that this activity was the root of Waldorf education? 

Tomáš Zdražil: I would say so. Steiner returned to this time over and again in discussions about education. For Steiner, this experience meant a real-life and intensive study of psychology and physiology, a training of his powers of observation and a constant weighing of the consequences of his educational actions – as concretely as would never have been possible through theoretical academic studies. Unfortunately, he did not speak much about concrete educational methods. Anthroposophical special needs education also has a root here. The connection to this family was close on a human level and very important for both sides. It continued until the last years of his life. As a result, Steiner also experienced at first hand the socially difficult situation of Jewish fellow citizens in Austria at the time. 

EK: In September 1900 Rudolf Steiner wrote: "For me there has never been a Jewish question; my course of development was indeed such that at that time, when part of the national student body in Austria became anti-Semitic, this seemed to me a mockery of all the educational achievements of the new age. I have never been able to judge people by anything other than their individual, personal character traits." How then are Steiner's anti-Semitic statements explained?

TZ: The first thing the accusation of anti-Semitism refers to is an article he wrote when he was 27 years old. There he criticises the emancipation efforts of the Zionists. And the second thing is an article he wrote when he was 35 for the Magazin für Literatur that he edited. This is related to his conviction that it is right to separate ethnicity from politics and to build on the individual, spiritual and mental capacities of the human being, not on biological or linguistic ones. At the end of the nineteenth century, Zionism emerged as a movement with the aim of founding an independent nation state for the Jewish people. This is what he criticised. Such a demarcation of the nation state may be possible in certain regions, but is very difficult in others, for example in large parts of Europe. It is also extremely difficult in the Middle East. If you look at Steiner's practice in life, you see a great openness towards Jewish people, that at no point his life involves anything that could be called anti-Semitic. But, of course, at the time he expressed himself in these two articles in a way that today must be described as very clumsy and not empathetic.

EK: Rudolf Steiner often contributed to the Mitteilungen des Vereins zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus (Communications of the Association for the Defence against Anti-Semitism). What was the background to this?

TZ: That is connected with the fact that at one stage of his life he had a very important friendship with the Jewish writer and poet Ludwig Jacobowski. Among other things, they worked together in this association. Steiner even went on to publish Jacobowski's literary work after the latter’s early death.

EK: Who else was among the Jewish personalities with whom Steiner maintained contact?

TZ: As far as I know, they were mainly people from Prague. Steiner was regularly in Prague from 1907, when he was general secretary of the Theosophical Society in Germany, and Prague was a city that was very open to theosophy and spirituality. There was also a very rich German-speaking cultural life in Prague during this period. . You found personalities like Franz Werfel, Max Brod, Franz Kafka and others in Prague at that time. There was also a philosophically and artistically interested circle around the intellectual Berta Fanta, who founded a cultural salon. Albert Einstein also frequented it. And Berta Fanta also became chairwoman of the Anthroposophical Society in Prague. She was surrounded by many Jewish personalities who were interested in Steiner's anthroposophy. These Jewish people in Prague were so special because they broke away from the folk traditions, looked for answers to questions of meaning and were very educated. These people experienced a kind of national uprooting, living between peoples. In Prague, it was between the Czech and German elements. They were spiritually very open-minded, liberal-minded people.

During this time, Steiner's lectures in Prague were a real cultural event. The leading anthroposophists were therefore right there in the middle of cultural life. Steiner's events were very well attended and reviewed in newspapers. For example, Ernst Müller, a very well-known Kabbalah scholar from Vienna, who was in dialogue with Steiner, also came to Prague. The Prague philosopher Hugo Bergmann later emigrated to Israel where he co-founded the first university in Jerusalem and made Rudolf Steiner known in Israel. 

EK: Part of the staff of the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart were Jewish. What do we know about the fraught time when the Nazis came to power and the effects on the Waldorf school?

TZ: First of all, there was always a rejectionist attitude among the teaching staff of the Stuttgart Waldorf School towards National Socialism, even if their non-Aryan colleagues had to leave the school and other compromises with the state were also made. And then there was Karl Stockmeyer, the Waldorf teacher of the first hour, so to speak. When Stockmeyer wanted to return to teaching in the Baden school system after the forced closure of the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart in 1938, he included a courageous affirmation of Rudolf Steiner in his curriculum vitae with which he applied: "The work in the Waldorf School, until 1925 under the direction of Rudolf Steiner, the outstanding German philosopher, spiritual researcher and pioneering educationalist, has provided me with incomparably strong and supportive ideas and experiences not possible elsewhere, which I feel obliged to exploit for the public education system in my further life." We have to consider that this happened after the closure of almost all Waldorf schools and also after the banning of the Anthroposophical Society. He risked a lot with it.

A political report on Karl Stockmeyer issued by the Nazis in February 1939 says: "Stockmeyer was a fanatical anthroposophist. He was instrumental in the anthroposophical leadership at the Waldorf School, was a member of the Waldorf School governing council and leader of the hundred local Waldorf School groups. He always adopted a fierce stance against National Socialism, even after it seized power. He bears the main blame for the negative attitude of the Waldorf school teachers. He should be rejected ideologically and politically and is unacceptable as a teacher." There are times and circumstances when it can be a distinction to be called a "fanatical anthroposophist". Today we can be proud of Stockmeyer. His complete anthroposophical library was seized and he never got it back. I found the documents relating to this in the state archives in Freiburg. You can find these events described in my book about the first Waldorf school.

EK: So once again the principles become clear that Steiner stood up for and that the Nazis took exception to, namely the separation of ethnic and political identity.

TZ: Yes, that is connected with individualism and with the rejection of ethnic nationalism.It is nothing new, but I find that if you study Steiner's life, his human contacts, then you can see how he put his worldview and his thoughts into practice. This is an aspect that is often ignored. These critical discussions are often kept too theoretical and often people get stuck on certain conceptual aspects or formulations. It is very essential to examine the lived practice. The lived reality is the decisive factor, not a theoretical argument about formulations from 1887.

EK: Thank you very much for the interview. 

Tomáš Zdražil, born 1973, studied history in Prague and obtained his doctorate in education at the University of Bielefeld on the topic of health promotion and Waldorf education. He was a class and upper school teacher in Semily in the Czech Republic and now teaches at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy. His book Freie Waldorfschule in Stuttgart 1919-1925. Rudolf Steiner – das Kollegium – die Pädagogik was published in 2019. He is co-director of the von Tessin Centre for Health and Education in Stuttgart.


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