„…out of the frying pan and into the fire“: Rassismus und Geschichtsmetaphysik – Rezension von Peter Staudenmaier
Ansgar Martins, Rassismus und Geschichtsmetaphysik: Esoterischer Darwinismus und Freiheitsphilosophie bei Rudolf Steiner (Frankfurt: Info3, 2012)
Reviewed by Peter Staudenmaier
Ansgar Martins has written a perceptive and provocative book about a topic many prefer to avoid: Rudolf Steiner’s racial teachings, a perennial bone of contention between anthroposophists and their critics. It is a sober and discerning account, by far the best to appear from an anthroposophist publisher, and a noteworthy contribution to the historical literature on Steiner and his movement. The book’s approach is nuanced, complex, and sophisticated, taking heed of the contrasting motifs in Steiner’s thinking about nation and race, what Martins aptly terms “Steiner’s wavering between universalism, individualism, cultural chauvinism, and racist stereotypes” (143). His method combines critique and empathetic comprehension: The task, as Martins sees it, is “to identify the ambivalent strands in [Steiner’s] thinking, and to understand how Steiner came to make racist statements, without forfeiting a critical perspective.” (141)
To this end, Martins traces Steiner’s developing ideas about race in a minutely detailed reconstruction of the various phases of Steiner’s career. One of the strengths of the study is its chronological structure, surveying the transformations and modifications in Steiner’s views across the years without losing thematic coherence. Martins quotes dozens of texts and lectures in which Steiner spelled out his racial views, providing admirably clear explanations of the details of Steiner’s claims about racial evolution: External racial characteristics reflect internal spiritual qualities; different racial groups represent different levels of spiritual development; some racial groups carry evolutionary progress forward, while other racial groups are degenerating and devolving; the “white race” (or “Aryan race” or “Caucasian race” or “European peoples”) are “normal” and “the race of the future,” in contrast to the “colored races”; and the fundamental hierarchy of “lower races” and “higher races” as an expression of spiritual regression or advance. These themes, running throughout Steiner’s published work, are given vivid and informed treatment. Martins argues that, with some exceptions, when it came to the practical forms of anthroposophy developed in the wake of World War I – Waldorf schools, anthroposophical medicine, biodynamic farming, etc. – Steiner gave priority to the universalist strands over the racist and ethnocentric strands in his teachings (121).
The book begins with an overview of debates on Steiner’s racial teachings, then of historical assessments of these teachings. Martins incorporates insights from previous scholarship by Georg Otto Schmid, Helmut Zander, and Jana Husmann (Martins draws on my work as well, and offers several thoughtful criticisms of it). But Martins wants to go beyond prior studies by paying closer attention to the evolution of Steiner’s racial views over time, highlighting the breaks and shifts in his thinking. Martins’ goal is to see how specific historical contexts influenced Steiner’s changing racial beliefs throughout his theosophical and anthroposophical career: What racial theories was he influenced by or responding to, and how did his own racial theories fit into his intellectual biography and his overall teachings? In this way, Martins attempts to account for the discontinuities and contradictions in Steiner’s racial thinking.
Some of the conclusions are bound to be disconcerting even for more open-minded anthroposophists. Martins notes the apologetic tendency of the vaunted ‘Dutch report’ on anthroposophical race doctrines and observes that its focus on legal issues is not especially helpful from a historical perspective (17). He carefully reviews “the full spectrum of antisemitic clichés” in Steiner’s work (29). He is justly harsh on the threadbare rationalizations for Steiner’s racial teachings put forward by prominent anthroposophists like Lorenzo Ravagli, editor of the flagship journal of Waldorf education. The book also includes pertinent reflections on esotericism and its claims to “higher knowledge.” Martins consistently emphasizes the ambivalence running throughout Steiner’s work, oscillating between an individualist message and invidious racial categories, and he systematically punctures a range of tenacious anthroposophical myths. Regardless of what anthroposophists today might prefer, Martins writes: “Though Steiner may have wished otherwise, he has gone down in history not as the author of a Philosophy of Freedom but as the founder of a controversial esoteric movement.” (37)
Martins offers an excellent overview of Steiner’s early deutschnational period, his involvement in German nationalist circles in Habsburg Austria and the concomitant combination of nationalism and individualism which shaped his youthful worldview (21-27). This is a key era for understanding Steiner’s idiosyncratic perspective on nationalism; Martins notes that for Steiner, “national chauvinism” meant the refusal of non-German peoples to recognize the superior German mission (27). The book also points out that in the 1890s Steiner tried to base his individualism on Ernst Haeckel’s social Darwinist theory of evolution (31). This set the stage for Steiner’s adoption of the theosophical theory of “root races” with his conversion to Theosophy after 1900. Here the centerpiece of Martins’ analysis begins.
As Martins recounts, Steiner initially adopted the root race narrative wholesale, without question or commentary, in the course of appropriating the theosophical model of evolution. Steiner soon began re-working various theosophical teachings, in the process often enough contradicting his own prior statements, sometimes within just a few months of each other. In the midst of establishing himself as an esoteric teacher, he was reading Helena Blavatsky’s writings and weaving her teachings into his own statements even while modifying them. Martins also notes the influence of occult authors like C.G. Harrison and Antoine Fabre d’Olivet on Steiner’s thought.
His approach in this central section of the book is painstaking, ascertaining just when Steiner lectured on racial themes, including lectures which do not appear in the Gesamtausgabe, the official edition of Steiner’s complete works. Martins makes the important point that compared to Blavatsky and other theosophists, Steiner’s race concepts at this time were in some ways more biological and less abstractly cosmic (57). He sees Steiner’s often neglected 1904 text “Ueber die Wanderungen der Rassen” (On the Wanderings of the Races) as Steiner’s most thorough explication of the root race theory, with its attendant “sub-races” and similar trappings. Martins remarks that Steiner distanced himself from the ‘sub-race’ terminology in 1905 and 1908, but Steiner was still using the terms “root race” and “sub-race” (Wurzelrasse and Unterrasse) in writing as late as 1916: several such manuscripts are reproduced in Steiner, Zeitgeschichtliche Betrachtungen vol. III (Dornach 2011), 367-77.
The core of the book is a detailed reconstruction of Steiner’s evolving racial views from his theosophical period onward and his efforts to build these ideas into his overarching system of esoteric teachings. Martins offers a number of insightful interpretive hypotheses. He draws connections, for example, between Steiner’s depiction of the white race as representing the balanced and harmonious contrast to the black and yellow races, who had developed the ‘I’ either too weakly or too strongly, and Steiner’s model of Christ as the balanced and harmonious contrast to Ahriman and Lucifer. This is a plausible and illuminating interpretation.
Martins has a good brief chapter on the intra-theosophical conflict over Krishnamurti, the final straw in Steiner’s escalating clash with the India-based leadership of the Theosophical Society which led to the split-off of the Anthroposophical Society in 1912/1913. He sees 1910 as the date of a major expansion of Steiner’s racial theory and provides a thorough examination of Steiner’s book on The Mission of the Folk Souls, observing that Steiner held various spiritual entities responsible for the existence of racial differentiation, from the “abnormal spirits of form” to Lucifer to Ahriman. On Steiner’s efforts to distinguish his own racial teachings from those of mainstream Theosophy, Martins comments: “through his new race metaphysics, he jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire as far as racism is concerned.” (105)
The book’s discussion of Steiner’s perspective in World War I is refreshingly demystified, though there are occasional small lapses. At one point Martins says that Steiner’s statements about the war did not represent the principal focus of his lectures from 1914 to 1918. But we do not yet have a definitive record one way or the other; most of Steiner’s lectures from the first year of the war, for instance, have never been published. Martins nonetheless gives an accurate portrait of Steiner’s stance, noting that his war-time statements “fit almost seamlessly into the pan-German and propagandistic positions common during those years” (113). Steiner’s claims about the war shifted in the aftermath of the German defeat, and Martins observes astutely and caustically that eminent latter-day anthroposophists have not followed Steiner’s lead, clinging instead to the utterly groundless notion that Germany bore no substantial responsibility for the war.
Delineating the impact of the war, Martins describes Steiner’s model of “social threefolding” as oscillating “between theocracy and emancipation,” pointing out that in his threefolding lectures Steiner varied his message from audience to audience (121). The book includes an illuminating comparison of Steiner’s threefolding proposals to Édouard Schuré’s earlier conception of a threefold social order, which in turn drew on the ‘synarchy’ ideas of occultist Alexandre Saint-Yvesd’Alveydre. Departing partially from the work of historian Helmut Zander, Martins also traces the indebtedness of Steiner’s threefolding model to his esoteric evolutionary narrative, with occasional racial overtones (123).
This is one of the more provocative and illuminating parts of the book, but also one of the places where the study’s historical contextualization, in my view, falls somewhat short. Steiner’s teachings about “social threefolding” emerged in a particular historical moment, and the contours of that historical moment are crucial to understanding the import of Steiner’s tenets. The 1917-1920 period in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere was one of great lability, with many proposals for sweeping democratization of social life in response to the hierarchy and authoritarianism of the Imperial era. In light of this background, Steiner’s proposals appear as an attempt to stem the democratic tide and keep it within limited boundaries while recuperating significant hierarchical and authoritarian aspects of the social order. Hence Steiner’s insistence that in a threefold society, democratic principles and procedures were to be restricted to the relatively attenuated political realm and were not to be applied to the spiritual-cultural or economic realm.
Steiner was quite vocal on this point, declaring unambiguously: “For God’s sake, no democracy in the economic sphere!” (Steiner, Vom Einheitsstaat zum dreigliedrigen sozialen Organismus, 165, from a 1920 speech on “Threefolding and the Current World Situation”) Statements like these were a direct rebuke to the movements aspiring toward economic democracy and a “council republic” in post-war Germany, movements proposing a much more dynamic vision of grassroots democracy, a vision decidedly at odds with Steiner’s own. In this sense as in others, the elitist conception of a spiritual aristocracy was fundamental to Steiner’s ‘social threefolding’ framework. Within the specific historical context of the 1917-1920 interregnum, this was not an emancipatory but a conservative model. The illiberal implications of this approach profoundly shaped anthroposophist responses to the Weimar Republic as well as to the National Socialist regime.
But these issues are not central to Martins’ analysis and do not detract essentially from the value of his study. The saga of anthroposophical race doctrine did not end with Steiner’s death in 1925 or even with the end of World War II in 1945. Martins characterizes leading anthroposophist Guenther Wachsmuth’s 1953 book The Evolution of Mankind as “a racist account of prehistory which went far beyond Steiner.” (137) The same could be said for works published after 1945 by anthroposophists Ernst Uehli, Sigismund von Gleich, Fred Poeppig, Richard Karutz, Wolfgang Moldenhauer, Max Stibbe, and others. Martins comments that both apologists for Steiner and critics of Steiner often tend to acknowledge only one side of Steiner’s Janus face and ignore or deny the other sides. A historically adequate view requires taking its several sides into account, contradictory as they may be.
Though Martins often has harsher words for Steiner’s apologists, he does offer an important and well-founded admonition for critics of Steiner as well, noting that it is pointless to reduce Steiner as a whole to his racist utterances. The indispensable alternative to both of these one-sided approaches, Martins concludes, is critical historical reflection. (144) He reserves his sternest remarks for anthroposophists, warning that the refusal to engage with Steiner as a historical figure threatens the positive achievements his followers have made.
Martins’ book tries to get to the bottom of the central paradox in Steiner’s thinking about race, its combination of racist and universalist strands, its contrasting biological and spiritual poles, simultaneously opposed to one another and intertwined around one another. If the book does not entirely succeed, the fault lies not with Martins’ analysis but with the irreducible contradictions in Steiner’s thought. While there could be more attention to Steiner’s contemporary scientific sources, Martins provides important contextual material on the range of racial theories which influenced Steiner, from Linnaeus to Kant to Blumenbach to Carus. He overemphasizes the latter figure, in my view, but it is a historically informed and informative discussion. Since Steiner’s racial doctrines represented a continual effort to negotiate between esoteric and scientific approaches, historical consideration of both is necessary.
On that score, another modest disagreement with one of Martins’ claims may be in order: He says at one point (56) that to his knowledge the planetary names Saturn, Sun, Moon, Earth, Jupiter, Venus, Vulcan did not appear in earlier theosophical literature, and that Steiner thus introduced them. In reality, this is an example of Steiner’s reliance on previous theosophical concepts. The notion of a planet named Vulcan, for example, was a common element in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Theosophy and still plays a role in some esoteric versions of astrology. The scheme of Vulcan, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune appeared in a variety of theosophical texts from Steiner’s era. Like other theosophists, Steiner offered an esoteric synthesis of science and spirituality and was concerned to integrate scientific advances into his system. Entities like Vulcan, Lemuria, and Atlantis each had scientific defenders in the nineteenth century and were taken up in theosophical contexts as a marker of sophistication. A similar dynamic helps account for the role of various racial theories within theosophical and anthroposophical thought, an insight eminently compatible with Martins’ argument.
Though these sorts of details are a minor concern overall, I have several further disagreements to register. In my estimation, Martins does not adequately contextualize Steiner’s bitter tirades against “Wilsonism” after the German defeat in World War I. This is where Steiner’s conception of nationalism returned to its Habsburg roots. What Steiner denounced as “nationalism” in the wake of the war was what others called national self-determination. In Steiner’s eyes, this sort of “Wilsonism” was an illegitimate imposition of abstract Western notions on Mitteleuropa or Germanic Central Europe. There are many reasonable criticisms to be lodged against Wilsonian, Leninist, and other versions of national self-determination, but Steiner’s polemics strikingly echoed his youthful condemnations of ‘chauvinism’ in the context of the Habsburg Empire, dominated as it was by ethnic Germans.
This is a decisive aspect of Steiner’s thought, central to his perspective on ‘nationalism’ and on ethnicity as such: the essential element of German cultural hegemony as ostensible guarantor of universal spiritual values against illicit forms of particularism. It is not accidental that national self-determination after World War I was supposed to benefit smaller national groups, particularly in the formerly Habsburg and German-controlled East, against the longstanding sway of German dominance.
Similar themes were just as prevalent in the Imperial era. Peter Walkenhorst’s study Nation – Volk – Rasse: Radikaler Nationalismus im Deutschen Kaiserreich 1890-1914 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007) offers a thorough examination of the adoption of ‘race’ vocabulary from the 1890s onward, painting a picture of utter semantic confusion, with the terms “Rasse,” “Volk,” and “Nation” constantly weaving in and out of one another, and with ample instances of convergence between biological and cultural discourses. The unstable and extremely broad character of the concept of ‘race’ allowed enormous leeway in applying it, and the putatively biological aspects of the race idea did not restrict its wide applicability but in a sense enabled the opposite: via ‘race’ any cultural or spiritual characteristic could be invested with biological significance and thus cast as inherent, naturally ordained, and so forth.
This context is important for a fuller comprehension of what was distinctive and what was derivative in Steiner’s teachings. Martins misses, for example, the profound ambivalence in Gobineau’s stance toward ‘race-mixing’ (78). A less consequential disagreement: In his review of Steiner’s 1923 lecture on “Color and the Races of Mankind,” Martins discerns strong parallels to the work of Carus in 1849 (132). But the five race scheme that Steiner outlined in the 1923 lecture, with three primary races (white Europeans, yellow Mongolians, black Africans) and two branching off races (brown Malayans and red American Indians), almost exactly recapitulates Blumenbach’s seminal race system from 1795. This does not, to be sure, undermine Martins’ broader argument, but it is an indication of how much more historical work there may be to do in moving toward a more comprehensive assessment of Steiner’s racial beliefs.
One last concern, albeit a subordinate one in a book as richly meticulous as this, has to do with the themes that are not included. Martins might have mentioned, for example, Steiner’s instructions to the first generation of Waldorf teachers to include “knowledge of races” and “the different races and their various characteristics” in the elementary years at the original Waldorf school (Steiner, Discussions with Teachers, 23), or Steiner’s recommendation that Waldorf faculty teach children about “the worst Oriental peoples” and their “Mongolian-Mohammedan terror” which had supposedly threatened Europe for centuries (Steiner, “Pädagogisches Seminar” Erziehungskunst February 1933, 241-53).
These were not isolated comments; the first Waldorf schools did in fact incorporate Rassenkunde or “racial studies” within their curriculum, determining that “racial studies” were to be introduced in the seventh grade, along with discussion of “the contrast between Northern and Southern ethnic types” and the cultural impact of “foreign national souls” (Caroline von Heydebrand, Vom Lehrplan der Freien Waldorfschule, Verlag der Freien Waldorfschule, 1931, 25, 41, 47). As Ida Oberman points out, “Racial theory has a place in the Waldorf curriculum as designed by Rudolf Steiner.” (Oberman, The Waldorf Movement in Education from European Cradle to American Crucible, 1919-2008, 132)
Other gaps include some of the more dramatic of Steiner’s proclamations on racial themes. Throughout the book Martins devotes considerable attention to the anti-Jewish strands in Steiner’s thought and the way they intersected with his racial doctrines. But he does not examine Steiner’s repeated invocations of the antisemitic myth of Ahasver, passages which are important to Steiner’s overarching racial theories. And while Martins quotes extensively from Steiner’s 1911 book on The Apocalypse of St. John, he does not cite the passages about a coming “War of All against All” and the emergence of a “race of good” and a contrasting “race of evil.”
More striking, in his discussion of Steiner’s 1915 lecture on “the mission of white humankind” Martins does not quote Steiner’s insistence that “the transition from the fifth cultural epoch to the sixth cultural epoch cannot happen in any other way than as a violent battle of white humankind against colored humankind” (Steiner, Die geistigen Hintergründe des Ersten Weltkrieges, 38). These facets of Steiner’s racial teachings merit attention not least because they represent a sharp counterpoint to the model of a gradual disappearance of racial difference.
In summing up the book’s argument, Martins writes that as Steiner’s views developed he increasingly distanced himself from theosophical conceptions of racial evolution and posited an “anthropological-biological” model of race in contrast to Theosophy’s “cosmic” model of race (142). In historical perspective, this contrast was by no means straightforward, since many theosophical thinkers readily combined both “cosmic” and “anthropological-biological” components into their racial theories. Steiner’s works were not exceptional in this regard.
Martins concludes from this argument that racial categories eventually became marginal to Steiner’s cosmology. In my view, this conclusion misunderstands the ongoing significance of race within Steiner’s mature worldview, a significance underscored again and again by the evidence presented in this book. But Martins points out a sentence later that Steiner continued to elaborate and intensify his racial teachings after his initial theosophical period. In some ways, the interpretive differences at stake here come down to a matter of emphasis and framing more than substantive disagreements. What is perhaps lacking is a more consistent recognition that racial categories and the shifting narrative of racial evolution played a central role in anchoring Steiner’s conception of karma and reincarnation, a theme which receives relatively little attention in the book.
A study this lucid and incisive can withstand such criticisms. Despite its welcome emphasis on temporal and conceptual distinctions and the shifting attitudes at different points in Steiner’s life, the book at times makes a bit too much effort to find explanations for Steiner’s various inconsistencies and self-contradictions. It can be helpful to recall that the sources minutely examined here were frequently extemporaneous lectures given over the course of many years, rather than texts which Steiner could revisit and revise over time. It is not surprising to find any number of incongruities in that sort of material – it would be surprising if this were not the case, in view of all the other demands on Steiner and all the other subjects he addressed.
Martins has undertaken the demanding job of appraising Steiner’s contentious and sometimes rebarbative views on race in a fair and historically responsible manner. His study stands as a rebuke to anthroposophists who continue to ignore this sizeable portion of their own past and its ongoing repercussions in the present. It also offers challenging but fruitful lessons for critics of anthroposophy tempted to simplify Steiner’s teachings on a volatile theme, lessons that can make a difference to historical evaluation of Steiner and his ideas and the activities of his followers. The intricate relationship between the racist features and the cosmopolitan features of Steiner’s esoteric system defies easy elucidation, but it is not hopelessly inscrutable or eternally enigmatic. This book demonstrates that it is possible to make historical sense of what Steiner taught about race and why it matters.
In his concluding remarks, Martins notes that engaging with Steiner’s racial and national ideas can be a thankless task (141). That is often true, alas, and is one more reason to be thankful to Martins for such a thoughtful, careful, and insightful study of this daunting topic.
Peter Staudenmaier ist Juniorprofessor für Neuere deutsche Geschichte an der Marquette University (Milwaukee, Wisconsin). 2010 promovierte er an der Cornell University zum Thema “Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945.”