Doing what’s necessary. Biography rescues the founder of the first Waldorf school, Emil Molt, from obscurity

By Mathias Maurer, December 2012

There would be no Waldorf schools without the entrepreneur Emil Molt (1876-1936). Through his activities he preserved the “spirit” of the Waldorf school and became the real founder of a worldwide school movement. It was Molt who asked Rudolf Steiner to take over as educational director of a school for the children of his workers. In doing so, Molt risked everything – and almost lost everything.

As an entrepreneur and “educator”, Molt was a person whose life could not have been more modern and who in his work was ahead of his time in an exemplary way. Molt never did anything by halves – as beloved “patriarch” of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory and the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart. He used almost all of his private fortune to get it started and keep it going. He tried to implement ideas of social reform which were then and are still today thought of as utopian. He offered his thousand employees – whom he did not consider as workers but as work colleagues – and their children an education programme during (paid) working hours. He supplied cigarettes to the front free of charge and sent literary works for the soldiers. He gave employment to his returning soldiers although he did not, at that point, need additional workers. 

Molt worked his way up from apprentice to become an internationally known businessman. He knew how to use his elbows, was a tactician and a successful entrepreneur. Molt had many questions regarding the developmental trends of his time. The spirit of departure of the new century led into the catastrophe of the First World War and the turmoil of the Weimar Republic. New social orders were booming. In this historical situation he encountered Rudolf Steiner from whom he found answers and whose ideas on the “threefold social organism” struck a chord in him, the practitioner.

Molt was a man of action. He not only spoke about social reform but also implemented it. He turned his own principles of capitalisms on their head – at first within his company but then also on a larger scale – an admirable transformation. That included promoting associative economics. The “Kommende Tag AG” was founded with a membership of 20 companies whose profits were used to finance institutions in spiritual and cultural life, including the Waldorf school. The aim was to free education from the control of the state. Molt transferred ownership of all the Waldorf-Astoria shares to the “Kommende Tag”, but was then removed from his leadership position and could no longer act except with the consent of Emil Leinhas who had been appointed by Steiner as director of the holding company “Kommende Tag AG”. In economically difficult times, Leinhas – “an enigmatic antagonist and fellow campaigner of Molt” – initiated the sale of the Waldorf-Astoria shares to Reemtsma. Molt had to accept that the fruits of his entrepreneurial life’s work were taken out of his hands, something akin to a breach of trust. His relationship with Steiner, who often stayed with him and with whom he travelled a great deal, suffered – a painful event for Molt.

He experienced a similar “disempowerment” by the teachers who asserted their collegial self-management in the face of Molt’s approachable but patriarchal leadership style. In the early period, Molt himself was a member of the collegium at Steiner’s express wish and attended the teachers’ conferences. Now he was “just” chairman of the Waldorf School Association. He nevertheless remained a fully committed “school parent” and “protector” of his school.

He vehemently opposed the growing pressure to conform which came from the National Socialists after 1933. Jews and “half-Jews” had to leave the school – including the best teachers. When the parent council and some of the teachers argued for greater conformity with the state and called on Molt to resign, he remained incorruptible. He was no opportunist. He did not live to see the inevitable closure of the school in 1938.

Molt’s life is characterised by great sacrifice without ever losing his anthroposophical convictions. He always kept the his eye on the greater good. We might question whether the trust which he was prepared to advance was always justified as he was attacked from within his own ranks. He always tried to mediate in internal disputes – not always with success. The interesting thing is that the core questions of the time are still relevant: can Waldorf education exist without anthroposophy? How as Waldorf teachers can we approach Rudolf Steiner’s suggestions in a modern way? Is political neutrality and abstinence a constituent part of Waldorf schools? Where are the Waldorf schools today with their aim of keeping education free of control by business and the authorities? Does the “threefold structure of the social organism” still play a role?

Emil Molt and his selfless work threaten to be forgotten even in Waldorf circles today. Only two schools have so far been named after him - in Calw, where he served his apprenticeship, and in Berlin. We owe it to Dietrich Es­terl – among the first pupils when the Uhlandshöhe school was reopened on 8 October 1945, and a historian and upper school teacher for many years at the school – that we now have the first biography of Molt which is also a documentation of the time. The book is the result of many years of comprehensive research. The material found by Esterl in the archives has produced a great deal of new information which points to further unexplored matters on which light needs to be shed. “Do what the situation demands” (Stei­ner), that is the motto to which Molt devoted his life. The book should be required reading for everyone who is interested in Waldorf schools.

Dietrich Esterl: Emil Molt, 1876-1936, Tun, was gefordert ist, 344 pages, 118 illustrations, hardcover, EUR 24.80, Verlag Johannes M. Mayer, Stuttgart 2012.

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