We take it very seriously

April 2021

Interview with Henning Kullak-Ublick, board member and spokesperson of the German Association of Waldorf Schools, about racist tendencies in society, the Waldorf schools and in the work of Rudolf Steiner.

Photo: © dioxin / photocase.de

Erziehungskunst | What do you understand by racism?

Henning Kullak-Ublick | What all forms of racism have in common is that they assume innate differences between different ethnic groups.

People are divided into different “races” to which specific collective characteristics are attributed. From this, the superiority of one’s own “race” is inferred – in Europe and the USA above all as “white supremacy” with which the oppression of people of other heritage or skin colour was legitimised and, albeit more covertly, often still is. In addition to overt racism, there are more subtle and socially widely accepted forms of racial discrimination, for example, when people from disadvantaged minorities are accused of being responsible themselves for their individual or social situation because of their work ethic.

EK | Why is the issue of racism currently so virulent again?

HKU | For some time now, there has been an increase in racist, even violent attacks on people of a different skin colour. Likewise, anti-Semitism, which was never completely overcome but had to go into hiding, is on the rise again. The fact that it has recently reappeared openly has many reasons, ranging from the spread of anti-Jewish conspiracy narratives to the propaganda of Islamist extremists and the equation of Jewish life with the policies of the state of Israel.

In many European countries, far-right and openly racist parties are gaining ground. People with a migration history feel threatened more often than they did a few years ago. I believe that this renewed exclusion of “foreigners” stems from the fear that people from countries at whose cost we have lived for centuries will suddenly turn up on our doorstep because the whole system no longer works. One concrete occasion was the murder of the African American George Floyd, which led not only in the USA but also in Europe to a growing sensitivity to racial discrimination at all levels of our social life. This is the counter-movement.

EK | What accusations are made against Waldorf schools or anthroposophists? 

HKU | Waldorf schools are sometimes accused of not having distanced themselves clearly enough from Rudolf Steiner, who is recorded as having made individual racist and discriminatory statements. Reference is also made to the National Socialist era, during which the schools initially tried to keep their doors open for children. In the process, greater compromises were accepted at some schools and fewer ones at others, but after a few years they either decided to close themselves because they were no longer prepared to make further compromises due to the anti-Nazi outlook of anthroposophy and Waldorf education, or they were closed by the Nazis who recognised this incompatibility very clearly.

Anthroposophy was repeatedly accused of being immanently racist because, for example, at the beginning of his anthroposophical lecturing work Steiner used the term “root races” from the language of Helena Petrovna Blavatski’s theosophy. Steiner soon replaced this terminology with “cultural epochs” because he was not concerned with a phenotypical and physical racial doctrine but with the cultural development of humanity, which had to overcome all “blood-based” connections in favour of individual freedom.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that he sometimes used stereotypes about other ethnic groups that are completely unacceptable and cannot be justified by anything. In its entirety, however, Steiner’s life’s work is profoundly humanistic and the exact opposite of systematic racism. The unique individuality of each human being as the constituting and unifying characteristic of all human beings is the pivotal point of anthroposophy.

EK | Are these accusations old or new?

HKU | The accusations are old. What is new is two things: firstly, an increased sensitivity to culturally adapted forms of racist discrimination, which the Waldorf schools are also dealing with. In the Oberufer “Three Kings’ Play”, for example, “the Jews” are badly caricatured. Of course, this is no longer staged in this way today, but this play also is part of our cultural heritage.

Then there is a scholarly debate, also in the opinion pages of the newspapers, in which the truth of the “old” accusations is examined again and again. That is completely legitimate. It gets annoying when one person repeats what someone else says and the sheer number of repeats at some point leads to an allegation morphing into fact. This is the second new development, which is reinforced by the unfiltered viral spread of opinions through the internet.

Unfortunately, we also have to take note of the fact that there are individual people belonging to the right-wing spectrum, for example from the scene of the ethnic nationalist völkisch settlers, who interpret Steiner in a nationalistic “German” or even racist way. This is only possible because they cherry pick precisely those passages that have led to the accusations of racism, but of course this raises the question of who has understood Steiner better: the representatives of a militantly biologistical reduction of the view of the human being or those who, through anthroposophy, take seriously precisely the unique reality of each individual human being as the basis of a free, democratic and fraternal society.

EK | Who is making these accusations and what is their background in terms of ideology, ideas or politics?  

HKU | There is an academic discourse that thrives on debate and in the process also puts forward theses for discussion that are subsequently hotly debated. That is completely normal.

The accusations tend to come from the left spectrum because there is a particular sensitivity to discrimination there. Then there are critics from the institutional environment of the churches, who occasionally have a strained relationship with anthroposophy and sometimes try to substantiate their dislike with clichés. This already began during Steiner’s lifetime.

However, the accusations come particularly aggressively from another agnostic scene, which is almost “religious” again in its dogmatism, and which has been gaining ground for some time and ascribes to itself the sole interpretative authority over what does not hold the world together at its core: every form of spirituality. The protagonists of this scene fundamentally reject everything that counts on the reality of the spiritual world and declare it to be the root of almost all the evils of this world. Anthroposophy with its many fields of activity is just one big provocation in this respect. There are specialists who gather together everything they can use against it, be it facts, rumours, quotations taken out of context or fantasies. Of course, the accusation of racism must not be left out here.

EK | Are their concerns to be taken seriously? 

HKU | Interestingly, the latter critics always imply that all anthroposophists parrot Steiner’s words verbatim and immutable for all eternity as the final truth of the last prophet. Some critics obviously cannot imagine that we are all contemporaries and have been shaped by the same catastrophes and changes of the last hundred years, that one can deal with Steiner’s work, which has meanwhile become historical, in a differentiated way and even distance oneself from some of what it contains without completely demonising him. However, this says more about their methods than about the object of their criticism.

But, of course, we have to take this seriously, on the one hand because Steiner has a huge significance for anthroposophy and we can’t help but critically engage with him, and on the other hand because we can’t just duck away. Unfortunately, there are racist currents in our society. Only vigilance can help against this.

EK | What is the goal of these accusations?

HKU | If they are meant honestly, they are an invitation to match our aspirations with our deeds. If they are meant dishonestly or are ideologically motivated, they serve to discriminate against anthroposophy and its fields of activity.

EK | Do they even aim to ban Waldorf schools or make their existence more difficult? 

HKU | This is the case with some particularly radical groups, but they are countered by the predominantly positive experiences of 90,000 pupils in Germany alone, of their parents, of alumni and not least of those who work with them after school. There are 1,200 Waldorf schools worldwide, all of which have grown out of local initiatives. The fact that Waldorf education has built up the world’s largest network of non-state and non-church schools without any central control is precisely due to its versatility and adaptability to other cultural, religious, socio-economic or political circumstances.

EK | Are other anthroposophical institutions also affected by these attacks?

HKU | Yes, but I suspect that the focus is particularly on the schools because they are about the children. Anthroposophical medicine is being pushed into a sectarian “anti-vaxxer” corner by some critics, although it sees itself decidedly as an extension of conventional medicine and not as its incompatible alternative. And Demeter farmers are being hit because Demeter just happens to be the most popular brand in Germany. The question as to the nature of human beings in their relationship with nature and technology is one of the central questions of our time, if not the central question, and this battle is also fought with no holds barred.

EK | What is the reality in the schools – can a susceptibility to racist ideas be detected?

HKU | There is good reason why Waldorf schools are seen by the public as a liberal, child-focused  form of school that respects the individual. Nevertheless, there have been isolated cases in the past of teachers belonging to the extreme right-wing spectrum. In all cases that have come to our attention, the schools have let them go because of the incompatibility of their convictions with the ideals of Waldorf education.

However, such a way of thinking does not emanate from the Waldorf school but is a phenomenon of our time and therefore it can also happen that someone tries to introduce it to Waldorf schools. But that doesn’t work, although there are individual coincidences with things that, for example, völkisch settlers also approve of, such as organic farming, free schools, the festivals of the year and other things. That is why we published a brochure on the “Reichsbürger” [tr. note: who deny the legitimacy of the post-War German state] in 2015, when no one was talking about them, in order to forestall such attempts at appropriation by providing information about them.

EK | In 2007, the German Association of Waldorf Schools adopted the “Stuttgart Declaration” which clearly distances itself from racist tendencies. Why has there now been a new Stuttgart Declaration?

HKU | In the version at that time, we distanced ourselves from all forms of discrimination. In the version that has now been adopted, we have spelled that out more clearly and explicitly called out racism and racial discrimination by name. We believe that the present time makes it absolutely essential to adopt an unambiguous position. In addition, perhaps some of those who have not yet wanted to acknowledge it will then realise that indeed we take this declaration very seriously.

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