Outside of Germany, the term “anthroposophy” and the name Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner will be unfamiliar to many readers. Even those who have some experience with the public face of anthroposophy — through Steiner Waldorf schools, biodynamic farming, Camphill Communities, Weleda or Demeter products, and so forth — are sometimes surprised to learn that these phenomena are manifestations of an esoteric worldview. If the external trappings of anthroposophy are not always widely recognizable, its occult underpinnings are still less well known. Many anthroposophists today are apprehensive about “occult” vocabulary, though Steiner and the founding generation of the movement used it freely. For Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner’s present followers, what is often important about anthroposophical principles is not so much their historical pedigree but their practical application and anthroposophists have earned respect for their contributions to pedagogical reform or their commitment to ecological sustainability or their work with developmentally disabled children and adults. By placing these activities and the ideas that inspired them into historical perspective, this article will show how complicated and conflicted their development was, in ways which may alter our understanding of their present image.
My reconstruction of this contested history will not provide an exhaustive account of anthroposophy in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, and inevitably it will not do full justice to the complexities involved. One primary task will be to trace the circuitous path that led from “spiritual science” to “spiritual racism.” Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner described anthroposophy as a “spiritual science,” staking a claim which his followers took very seriously and endeavoured to expand and establish as an alternative to what they viewed as the shortcomings of mainstream science. At the heart of this ambition was the belief that materialism had degraded scientific thought, and indeed all of the modern cultures, and that a thoroughgoing spiritual renewal was necessary in order to revive humanity’s relationship with both the natural and supernatural worlds.
Anthroposophist efforts in this direction took a wide variety of forms in many different fields, but the central focus here will be on esoteric conceptions of race and nation. By the time Germany and Italy embarked on a world war and elevated racial principles to centrepieces of their regimes, some of Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner’s followers had gone from exploring spiritual science and spiritual renewal to propagating “spiritual racism” as the solution to the modern crisis. The factors that took them down this unforeseen road did not reflect the trajectory of the anthroposophist movement as a whole, but making sense of the evolution of occult racial thought under fascism entails understanding the transition from spiritual renewal to spiritual racism in its starkest form.
The interpretation proposed here is premised on the idea that anthroposophy embodied a contradictory set of racial and ethnic doctrines which held the potential to develop in different directions under particular political, social, and cultural conditions. In spite of anthroposophists’ insistence that their worldview was “unpolitical,” my argument will identify an implicit politics of race running throughout their public and private statements, a body of assumptions about the cosmic significance of racial and ethnic attributes that shaped their responses to fascism. Many of Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner’s followers considered their own views to be anti-nationalist and anti-racist, and there was no straight line that led inexorably to the extreme and explicit formulations of spiritual racism. What emerged were racial and ethnic stances that were frequently ambiguous and multivalent but that in several cases found a comfortable home in fascist contexts precisely because of their spiritual orientation, one that did not deign to concern itself directly with the distasteful realm of politics. The resulting history reveals the limits of a spiritual renewal approach to individual and social change, and of an unpolitical conception of new ways of life, even with the loftiest of aspirations. For some anthroposophists, such discourses of enlightenment and emancipation became bound up with authoritarian aims.
These developments did not take place in a vacuum. Anthroposophy was part of a broader stream of “life reform” movements that held considerable appeal in early twentieth-century Germany and brought together tendencies which seem like strange bedfellows today, such as groups combining vegetarianism and holistic spirituality with Aryan supremacy. One way to understand cultural and political phenomena like these are as instances of left-right crossover, a recurrent pattern in Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner’s era. Much of what made occult racial thought so volatile derived from this fusion of left and right. Similar dynamics emerged in other parts of Europe as well and fed into the diffuse discontent with modern social life which helped pave the way for the rise of fascism. This combination of modern and anti-modern sentiments is characteristic of several of the movements examined here. A leading scholar of fascism’s history has recently argued for “seeing both the European occult revival that produced Theosophy and Anthroposophy, and the ‘life reform movement’ which cultivated alternative medicine, neo-paganism, and yoga, not as symptoms of a peculiarly German malaise, but as local manifestations of pan-European forms of social modernism bent on resolving the spiritual crisis of the West created by materialism and rationalism.”
Particularly in English-speaking contexts, the historical background to such trends is not always well known. The juxtaposition can be jarring when ideas that seem more at home in a New Age retreat than a fascist dictatorship are traced back to their sources. For scholars interested in the history and politics of esotericism, it is important to allow space for heterodox beliefs, even when those beliefs have a compromised past. The task is to understand movements like anthroposophy and try to make historical sense of them, not to marginalize or denigrate them as irredeemably tainted by their unacknowledged origins. It is also important to maintain a sense of the countervailing possibilities and potentials latent within these heterodox movements, even while noting the political naiveté and historical oblivion they sometimes display. The seductive character of fascist culture and politics and the longing for a new and revitalized world led more perspicacious contemporaries astray as well, and the path that turned from spiritual science to spiritual racism was not built by occultists alone. Rather than an indictment of the follies of esoteric wisdom seeking, the history recounted here can serve as a reminder of the ambiguities of modernity in both its unconventional and familiar forms.
Examining the fortunes of occult ideas and movements in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy not only reveals unexpected aspects of occultism; it also brings to light important features of Nazism and Fascism themselves. My article gives critical attention to institutional factors in both the German and Italian contexts and shows the extent to which debates over racial theory was embedded in power struggles between competing factions within the Nazi hierarchy and the Fascist apparatus. The polycentric nature of the National Socialist bureaucracy and its hybrid of party and state offices went hand in hand with fundamental and longstanding disputes between different agencies, and between different groupings within the same agencies, about central components of Nazi doctrine. Like Fascist race thinking, Nazi racial thought was far from homogeneous, and the intricate interplay of institutional exigencies and ideological affinities sometimes yielded unanticipated consequences for Nazi officials and esoteric organizations alike. Similar dynamics applied to the concept of the German nation. Even stronger disagreements arose in areas where anthroposophists played a prominent part, including the role of alternative medicine, organic agriculture, and non-traditional schooling within Nazism’s new order. The ensuing clashes among disparate elements in the Nazi leadership illuminate an often overlooked facet of Adolf Hitler’s regime.
By focusing on the fate of a relatively small group devoted to idiosyncratic beliefs, and by approaching the matter from the margins rather than the center and from the bottom up as much as from the top down, a changed viewpoint begins to emerge that offers new ways of understanding esoteric ideas as well as fascist policies, practical pursuits as well as committed worldviews. This article challenges a number of perspectives that still find proponents in some scholarly quarters and in public consciousness. It challenges the image of the Nazi regime as a totalitarian monolith and shows instead how polycratic it was, with Adolf Hitler’s lieutenants often enough working at cross purposes to one another. It challenges the notion that the crucial relationship between occultism and Nazism was one of ideological influence and looks instead at the complex institutional frameworks within which these ideologies were embedded and the complicated relationships that emerged from them. It challenges the belief that Nazi officials simply rejected occultist groups across the board, as well as the belief that the Nazis themselves were fundamentally indebted to occult precepts or practices. It challenges the conclusion that Italian Fascism reluctantly adopted racist measures at the insistence of its Nazi ally, and provides a detailed examination of less familiar but highly influential variants of Fascist racial thought. Finally, it challenges the assumption that esoteric race theories were an anachronism or pre-modern or anti-modern and explores the degree of engagement between occult thinkers and modern scientific and cultural trends.
In addition to offering an alternative perspective on previous interpretations, this article (and further ones) introduces several new themes that have not received significant historical attention before. It provides the first extended analysis of the relation between anthroposophical race doctrines and Nazi and Fascist policies and explores the multiple affiliations linking anthroposophists to other occult tendencies and to various political predispositions. It delineates the tenacious opposition to esoteric groups within the Nazi security apparatus and deciphers the underlying reasons for this institutional animosity. It highlights the relevance of racial and ethnic tenets for Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner’s followers and their project of spiritual renewal, presenting anthroposophist arguments in their own original terms. It investigates the degree to which anthroposophists succeeded in making common cause with Nazi and Fascist functionaries across a number of fields, ideologically as well as practically. It shows that Steiner Waldorf schools, biodynamic agriculture, and other esoteric endeavours found admirers in unlikely places, and affords an alternative view of anthroposophy’s past as well as its present. It poses provocative questions about the unexamined history of spiritual reform movements as well as underappreciated aspects of fascism’s rise and fall.
These are controversial questions, and a historically contextualized account can help to forestall both guilt-by-association reasoning and ex-post facto apologetics. A careful and clearly circumscribed investigation of one branch of the modern occult revival in the fascist period provides an opportunity to explore the subject in detail while remaining responsive to broader historical and intellectual concerns. But a sustained focus on anthroposophy as a case study of the interaction between occultism and fascism also presents definite limits. It is difficult to identify any single esoteric tendency that would be representative of the extraordinarily variegated occult spectrum as a whole, and my analysis does not assume that Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner’s movement can stand in for the entire modern occult scene. What makes anthroposophy a meaningful example of these broader phenomena is its relatively mainstream status within the panoply of esoteric groupings, an important counterpoint to the marginal image of the occult overall.
Much of these articles revolve around the contrasts and tensions between anthroposophist self-conceptions and the perception of their ideas and activities by others, whether sympathetic or hostile. Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner presented his teachings as an inclusive alternative worldview, a systematic approach offering answers to questions in all areas of life, and this ambitious undertaking won anthroposophy enthusiasts as well as enemies. Anthroposophy’s history can be seen as an instance of a larger contest between esoteric hopes and political possibilities, allowing us to assess occultism as a historical subject in its own right rather than an easily dismissed oddity, a peripheral and fleeting phase from a bygone era, or a mysterious object of speculation and fantasy.
The widespread perception of some sort of connection between National Socialism and the occult, both considered to lie at the outer limits of historical comprehension, feeds the suspicion that there must be a hidden link between them. But the links were rather ordinary and can be explained not through the apparent deviance and oddness of occultism, but through its commonness and popularity, by its participation in and influence by central cultural currents of the era. The consoling thought of fascism and occultism as eruptions of irrationality, as little more than a counterfeit of modern reason and social progress, depends on a simplified view of a complex history; it forgets that “the myths which fell victim to the Enlightenment were themselves its products.” This dialectical intertwinement of myth and enlightenment is central to the unusual manner in which the relationship between occultism and fascism unfolded, at a time when both were on the rise. Spiritual science gave way to spiritual racism not merely through the devious designs of fascists or the oblivious dreams of occultists, but through the attempt to realize goals which still seem alluring and noble in our own time. Recognizing the multifaceted nature of this history can help to comprehend both its emergence and evolution in the previous century and its implications for today.
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