The heavens rumble

By Michael Birnthaler, July 2015

Why do most violence prevention measures for young people fail? Michael Birnthaler, Waldorf teacher and teacher of experiential education follows up a suggestion from Rudolf Steiner who explained the occurrence of violence as the unsatisfied hunger for “true images”.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

First the good news: according to police statistics, the number of crimes in the last ten years has fallen by 20 percent. There are fewer serious crimes, murders, robberies and sexual offences. Germany has become safer. The bad news: violence among young people has risen by 400 percent in the same period. Every fifth 15-year-old has at least once beaten up someone so badly that they had to be taken to hospital. There is probably no other social area in which there are so many prevention programmes: confronting education; Glen Mills education; anti-aggression training; anti-violence training; hot seat; compassionate, outreach, accepting approaches; anomy concepts; boot camps … We might assume that social education had the subject of violence under control. Far from it. Results have emerged from meta-studies about its effectiveness which can make your blood freeze. Only a tiny fraction of the 160 analysed violence prevention programmes were effective: a whole eleven.

Why might that be? It appears that the basic philosophy about violence, which apparently underlies all these programmes, fails to take account of some crucial things. Let us recall the classic theories about aggression and violence: instincts (Lorenz), drives (Freud), environment (Skinner), frustration-aggression (Dollard) or model learning (Bandura). If we look more closely at them, it is apparent that they are all “pressure theories”. The boiler of the drives is at too high pressure leading to a (violent) explosion. The pressure of society on the individual is so great that the individual “strikes back”. The number of frustrations creates internal emotional pressure which at some point spills over into aggression. Pressure generates back-pressure. In addressing young people, Rudolf Steiner on one occasion surprisingly started to talk about the causes of violence. In contrast to the prevalent theories, he said that it was precisely not pressure which led to violence. Violence was not primarily a pressure phenomenon but one of negative pressure. Violence always arose when there was a vacuum inside a person. Emotional emptiness led to the psychological processes of implosion and collapse.

It was not until the 1950s that science and psychology recognised that this factor is of crucial importance in the occurrence of violence. Researchers such as Frankl, Galtung, Sutterlüty and Heitmeyer discovered that inner emptiness, the feeling of powerlessness, of a lack of meaning and prospects are key factors in triggering violence. “Deadly boredom” means red alert. A study at the University of Cologne confirms that the factor of “boredom” is one of the strongest triggering factors of aggression and is even the strongest factor in some types of secondary school.

Hunger for and nourishment through images

Yet how does such inner emptiness come about? In a lecture about social development Rudolf Steiner says: “And now there starts – and therein perhaps lies the reason for the upheavals in our time – now there starts the time in which souls bring images with them from the spiritual world as they descend into physical life through conception and birth. Images, when they are brought along from spiritual life into physical life, must without fail unite with the astral body (the soul entity, M.B.) if they are to be of benefit for human beings and social life …” He then goes on to describe that there are many opposing forces in the modern world which prevent the pictorial, imaginative, experiential element from entering the souls of young people. “Sober-mindedness … is a basic characteristic of modern times and there are broad currents today which resist education ensuring that the things which arise in souls and want to assert themselves in the astral body can really do so. There are dry, sober people who want to exclude fairy tales, legends, the things which are illuminated by the imagination, from education.”

Yet what happens when “dry, sober people”, when overly intellectual teachers at our schools manage to prevent the living inner images from rising out of the depths of the children’s souls? Steiner urgently warns against such a thing: “… Children have forces in their body which will tear them apart if they are not brought out in pictorial form. And what is the consequence? These forces are not lost; they spread, they gain in existence, they enter into the thoughts, the feelings the will impulses. And what does that make people? Rebels, revolutionaries, dissatisfied people (…) When the world is in revolt today, it is the heavens which are in revolt, in other words, the heavens which are held back from the souls of people and which then come to appearance not in their own form but in its opposite, which come to appearance in conflict and bloodshed instead of imagination.” The expression of such an inner hunger for images, which Steiner referred to 100 years ago, is the hunger today for moving images, films, interactive adventures in the virtual media world. In its origins, this is the longing for “nourishment” through a connection with good and true images – “designed by heaven”.

Millions of young people today have come under the spell of the media world of experience. The hunger for adventure, action and fun is, however, only offered virtual fast food. It only appears to satisfy our hunger. It is used to kill time in order to prevent “deadly boredom” arising. Yet it is possible to read in surprising detail in the mirror of the virtual worlds what kind of spiritual images and forms of experience are today “siphoned off”. The Herculean task of education in the present time is to divert the external powerfully suctioning stream of images and experiences, which is making the inner reservoir of our young generation today dry up, into real, powerful and vitalising inner image and experience worlds. Perhaps this is also reason why Steiner never tired of swinging Waldorf schools round on to a tack of artistic experience. He even encouraged the teachers to start their own youth group. He appears to have been aware that the hunger for images and experiences could not be sufficiently satisfied in ordinary lessons. Perhaps violence prevention programs do not “work” because they do not really satisfy this inner hunger. What is needed, are “programmes” which give our growing young people images and experiences which through the “power of heavenly imagination” can bring about profound peace and satisfaction in the depths of young people’s souls. Kurt Hahn, the founder of experiential education, put it like this: “It is doing violence to force children into an opinion. But it is neglect to keep experiences from children through which they can become aware of their own being.”

About the author: Dr. Michael Birnthaler, Waldorf teacher, founder and director of EOS-Erlebnispädagogik (; holiday camps, class trips), EOS-Freiwilligendienste (, Allerheiligen conference centre in the Black Forest national park (www.eos-allerheiligen)

Links: Polizeiliche KriminalstatistikPlanet Wissen | Schülerbefragung Uni Koeln