Anthroposophy and right-wing extremism? The conduct of the Waldorf schools in the “Third Reich”

By Peter Selg, February 2021

After the demonstration against the coronavirus measures in Berlin on 29 August 2020, various magazine articles appeared once again accusing anthroposophy and Waldorf schools of being close to right-wing extremism.

Photo: © photocase 109320

“Homoeopaths” and “anti-vaxxers” had demonstrated with neo-Nazis and Reichsbürger [translator’s note: Reichsbürger are groups who deny the legitimacy of the post-war German state], zeitonline reported on 1 September, trying to show how Rudolf Steiner, anthroposophy and anthroposophists had always had an affinity with the right-wing fringe of the political spectrum, and therefore also with National Socialism (Annika Brockschmidt [1]).

In September, Johannes Creutzer, writing in the left-wing magazine konkret, published his article “Hogwarts for the Unvaccinated” about the “dangerous nature” of Waldorf schools – dangerous for the “mental state” of the school children and for their “health”, and thus also for society. (2) In his article, Creutzer once again offered many of the defamations, distortions and absurdities that Peter Bierl and Helmut Zander – his only literature sources – have been claiming and spreading for decades, from racism and Rudolf Steiner’s “generally known” anti-Semitism, in the words of Creutzer, to the allegedly highly “ideologised” Waldorf schools of the present day which, among other things, “karmically” transfigure serious infectious diseases with their deviant teaching content and therefore also cultivate measles.

For the authors of konkret and zeitonline, anthroposophists and Waldorf schools belong to the dangerous “extreme right” spectrum of German society. In 2019, the Skeptiker author André Sebastiani wrote, following Zander: “Anthroposophy is at its core an egalitarian, dogmatic, irrational, esoteric, racist, anti-enlightenment worldview. Anyone who stands up for a truly free society should oppose it.” (3)  

In what follows, I would like briefly to summarise what, according to the current state of knowledge, can be said about the German Waldorf schools during the National Socialist era – as basic information in a time of emotionalisation and defamation, polarisation and demagogy bringing with it a high degree of uncertainty, something which may, however, also be intended. (4,5)

The Stuttgart Waldorf School was founded in 1919 as part of a reformist model in civil society that intended to make educational and cultural institutions autonomous from the influence of the state and the economy (“social threefolding”), and it began as a school for the children of the workers at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory with great methodological flair and educational and social enthusiasm. (6) The focus was on knowledge of the child and how to support their development on the basis of a differentiated understanding of the human being and an intensive relationship – as well as on the development of social skills.

The right-wing nationalist, ethnic populist, anti-Semitic and racist groups of the Weimar Republic pursued Steiner’s humanistic and liberal approach with sharp criticism and hatred as early as 1919, as set out in detail by Lorenzo Ravagli. This also affected the Waldorf schools. (7) Hitler wrote as early as 1921 in the Völkischer Beobachter about the dangerous “gnostic” and anthroposophist Steiner, the “supporter of the threefolding of the social organism and what all these Jewish methods for destroying people’s normal state of mind are called”. (8) – “If these gentlemen come to power, I can no longer set foot on German soil”, said Rudolf Steiner in November 1923, in the days after Hitler’s “March on the Feldherrenhalle” (9). 

Four years earlier, shortly before the opening of the school, he had already warned the teachers of a coming time of totalitarianism in which the Waldorf school would have an extremely difficult time: “The politics, the political activity of the present will come to expression in that it will treat the human being like a template, that it will try to a much greater extent than ever before to harness the human being into templates. The human being will be treated like an object that has to be pulled on strings and will imagine that this means the greatest progress imaginable,” Steiner told the teaching faculty. “We will face a hard struggle and yet we must do this cultural deed. [...] Everyone must use their personality in full from the beginning.” (10) And elsewhere: “This school, once it has been established, will endure any jolt to the left but not a decisive jolt to the right.” (11)

Immediately after the Nazis seized power in January 1933, the Anthroposophical Society and many anthroposophical institutions came under intense political pressure. The Tübingen scholar of religion Professor Jakob Wilhelm Hauer, who as a self-proclaimed “expert” in anthroposophy was subsequently in close contact with Himmler, as early as autumn 1933 wrote in an expert report to the Minister President of Württemberg and Minister of Education, Christian Mergenthaler, that the Waldorf schools represented a “tremendous danger to the development of a genuine German education”. (12)

A year and a half later, on 7 February 1935, Hauer again emphasised in a statement for the security service that anthroposophy denied the two “fundamental pillars” of the National Socialist world view and the Third Reich – the “idea of blood, race, people” and the “idea of the total state”. (13) Mergenthaler forwarded Hauer’s expert opinion to Reich Education Minister Rust; the text banning the Anthroposophical Society, which Reinhard Heydrich signed in November 1935 after a long period of preparation, explicitly states: “The teaching methods based on the education system of Steiner, the founder, and applied in the anthroposophical schools still in existence today pursue an individualistic education oriented towards the individual human being, which has nothing in common with the National Socialist educational principles.” (14)

It is possible to describe in detail how the Waldorf schools tried for years after 1933 to prevent their imminent closure; the routes of rhetorical accommodation and diplomacy, of compliance and partial opportunism that were taken in the process do not seem very heroic or attractive from today’s perspective. (15) The Waldorf schools submitted to the enforced “conformity” and formed the required “Reich Association of Waldorf Schools” (short after: “Association of Waldorf Schools”), which as such had to join the “National Socialist Teachers’ Association”. On the orders of the authorities, they dismissed their Jewish teachers – just like all the other schools.

Individual school representatives sent humble declarations to the authorities in which they tried to prove the compatibility of Waldorf schools with the “new Germany”. At various schools, National Socialist parents (who demonstrably made up only a small fraction of the total parent body) became involved and tried to take charge of negotiations with the authorities. The principal of the Dresden Waldorf School, Elisabeth Klein, held many talks on her own initiative – later also with a mandate from the “Association” – with high-ranking Nazi politicians and ideologues such as Alfred Baeumler and Otto Ohlendorf, who radically rejected the spiritual core of anthroposophy but wanted to exploit individual results of its work for the Nazi state, including Demeter products or the methodological elements of Waldorf education. (16)

Klein obtained exemptions for her Dresden “pilot school”, which was not banned until 1941, the same time as Klein’s arrest. From today’s perspective, one can condemn all these strategies and argue that the nine Waldorf schools should have closed down in 1933 and sent their 2,500 pupils to the Nazi state schools. But that is precisely what the teachers did not want to do for the sake of the children and young people.

On the other hand, the historical documents show that the rhetorical statements of conformity made by individual Waldorf school representatives were in no way believed by the authorities, the NSDAP (Nazi Party) and the SS (as late as 1941, a final report by the Reich Security Main Office stated that the anthroposophists had “quite deliberately made themselves appear harmless” but had not changed their way of thinking) (17). The documents further show that the strategic compromises were highly controversial in the colleges of teachers – many teachers reacted to the submissions of their “representatives” to the authorities with horror and protest.

The documents also show that there was great unease among the teachers about Elisabeth Klein’s actions and that this eventually resulted in a complete break with her. They show that the small but active faction of Nazi parents ultimately had no chance in the schools and had to withdraw. They show that although the Jewish teachers handed in their resignations in order to protect the school, they remained in close, friendly contact with their colleagues who worked to ensure that they could continue their activity in Waldorf schools abroad and for their financial security.

They show too that, according to current academic knowledge, not a single one of the 159 Waldorf teachers at German schools was an avowed National Socialist. The Waldorf teachers had understood the humanistic and cosmopolitan core of anthroposophy – unlike Peter Bierl, Helmut Zander and their journalistic acolytes. Even more important than all this, however, is the fact, also very well documented, that the teachers succeeded in keeping the inner educational space of their teaching and the school atmosphere free of Nazi ideology, including in Dresden at Elisabeth Klein’s school.

The reports from the authorities, evaluated by Nobert Deuchert and later Wenzel Michael Götte, paint a striking picture: the inspectors were appalled that the Waldorf schools did not adapt to the regime in any way – neither in their teaching, nor in the organisation of the school (“Not a single drawing, not a single song, not a single poem, nothing betrayed anything of what is going on in Germany today”, wrote the shocked reporter from the Nazi Teachers’ Association after the inspection of the Wandsbek Waldorf School on 6 March 1937) (18).

The inspectors’ reports reveal the creative resistance of the schools, their liberal diction and educational moral courage in a dangerous situation. The documents of the school closures of 1936-1941 are also remarkable for the tone and content with which the teachers addressed the parents and especially the pupils at the end (six of the eight Waldorf schools still in existence closed themselves in the years from 1936-1940 because they no longer wanted to continue working under the given conditions). The surviving addresses of the Stuttgart teachers were published in full for the school’s 100th anniversary in September 2019. (19) An impressive educational power and morality live in their words, the breath of moral courage and the future. (20)

No, the Waldorf teachers of the Nazi era were definitely not political resistance fighters, but they were creative humanists and individualists for whom one can have respect. And as far as Berlin and our so different present are concerned, I think that there were indeed some Waldorf teachers and parents among the hundreds of thousands at the corona demonstration, peacefully standing up for the preservation of basic rights, for individual responsibility and a free civil society in times of dramatic environmental destruction, authoritarian health policies and forced biotechnology.

In contrast, they will not have been among those right-wing extremist and other groups who – far from the corona gathering – called for the “storming of the Reichstag” (German parliament) and became the focus of media interest. Insinuations of such a connection between anthroposophy and right-wing extremism, as spread by zeitonline and konkret, are as false as they are strategic; they are obviously intended to have the effect that differentiated and critical views on the various aspects of the coronavirus crisis (21) are left unsaid for fear of defamation, and that instead of moral courage the opposite is and remains the determining factor for action.

Notes:

1 Cf. Erziehungkunst: “Anthroposophie ist in ihrem Wesen und ihrer Praxis antirassistisch

2 Cf. konkret 9/20, p. 50-52.

3 A Sebastiani: Anthroposophie. Aschaffenburg 2019, p. 164.

4 Cf. P Selg: Rudolf Steiner, die Anthroposophie und der Rassismus-Vorwurf. Arlesheim 2020.

5 Cf. P Selg: Erzwungene Schließung. Arlesheim 2020. The study, which was published for the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Stuttgart school, investigates the conduct of the Waldorf schools in the Nazi period, following on from the nuanced historical work of N Deuchert, U Werner, Chr Lindenberg, WM Götte, K Priestman and V Frielingsdorf.

6 Cf. T Zdražil: Freie Waldorfschule in Stuttgart 1919-1925. Stuttgart 2019.

7 Cf. L Ravagli: Unter Hammer und Hakenkreuz. Der völkisch-nationalsozialistische Kampf gegen die Anthroposophie. Stuttgart 2004.

8 Ibid., p. 123.

9 Quoted from A Samweber: Aus meinem Leben. Basel 1981, p. 44.

10 R Steiner: Allgemeine Menschenkunde als Grundlage der Pädagogik. GA 293. Dornach 1992, p. 332.

11 Quoted from: Der Weg, der mich führte. Stuttgart 1969, p. 665.

12 Quoted from WM Götte: Erfahrungen mit Schulautonomie. Das Beispiel der Freien Waldorfschulen, Stuttgart 2006, p. 564.

13 Quoted from U Werner: Anthroposophen in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus. Munich 1999, p. 67.

14 Ibid., p.76.

15 Cf. P Selg: Erzwungene Schließung, p. 103ff.

16 Ibid., p. 124-142 and p. 247-274.

17 Die Anthroposophie und ihre Zweckverbände. Berlin 1941, p. 56.

18 Quoted from A Wagner (ed.): Dokumente und Briefe zur Geschichte der Anthroposophischen Bewegung und Gesellschaft in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus. Vol. 2. Rendsburg 1991, p. 28.

19 In: P Selg: Erzwungene Schließung, p. 25-88.

20 Cf. P Selg: Zivilcourage. Die Herausforderung Freier Waldorfschulen. Arlesheim 2020.

21 Cf. i.a. Ch Eisenstein, T Hardtmuth, Ch Hueck, A Neider: Corona und die Überwindung der Getrenntheit. Neue medizinische, politische, kulturelle und anthroposophische Aspekte der Corona-Pandemie. Stuttgart 2020; U Hurter, J Wittich (eds.): Perspektiven und Initiativen zur Coronazeit. Dornach 2020.

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