„Reichsbürger“ – Waldorf Schools and the German Right: Past and Present
by Peter Staudenmaier
Twenty years ago, in an interview with the German newspaper die tageszeitung, anthroposophist Arfst Wagner warned against the influx of far-right currents within the anthroposophical movement. Though his comments raised some eyebrows among Rudolf Steiner’s followers, there was little noticeable effect on anthroposophy and its institutions or worldview. Two decades later, in January 2015, the official leadership of the German federation of Waldorf schools seems to have suddenly started paying attention. A new brochure has appeared offering an analysis of the appeal that Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, and other anthroposophist endeavors continue to have for segments of the far right. Although it is a welcome step in the right direction, it is a small step, and there is a long way still to go.
The twenty-four page brochure has already attracted attention from Der Spiegel and other media; a number of sarcastic commentaries have appeared online. Its focus is on the so-called Reichsbürgerbewegung or “Reich citizens movement,” an amorphous collection of disaffected Germans who claim that the old empire or Reich – dismantled in 1918 and destroyed in 1945 – still exists. Thus the current German state, in the eyes of these would-be “Reich citizens,” is illegitimate. In this old-new ideology of the Reich, as the brochure points out, esoteric beliefs and right-wing radicalism go hand in hand.
Why would Waldorf officials care? A few months ago there was a minor media scandal when the principal of a Waldorf school in northern Germany was fired because of his involvement in the Reich citizens movement. The incident led to headlines announcing “Nazi suspicions at Waldorf school.” This is by no means the first such case at a Steiner school, but this time Waldorf leaders have responded differently: They have offered a substantive critical engagement with the ideological roots of the affair, attempting at last to discern the latent affinities between anthroposophy and the far right. From this perspective, the brochure is an encouraging if overdue departure from previous practice.
Delineating the Reich citizen ideology is no simple task. The newspaper Die Zeit has captured it aptly as a mixture of “conspiracy theory and antisemitism in the name of peace.” The new brochure provides the following description: “a marketplace of mismatched ideological components” combining “antisemitism, vegetarianism, belief in UFOs, conspiracy theories, and feel-good esotericism,” in which “proclamations of humanist sentiment and populist nationalism can merge together.” This is not a uniquely German phenomenon. In a US context, the movement is comparable in some ways to the “sovereign citizens” subculture with its anti-government resentments, who dream of “freedom from taxes, unlimited wealth, and life without licenses, fees or laws,” in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its more extreme versions, such as Posse Comitatus organizations or the notion that Americans live under a “Zionist Occupation Government,” are often intertwined with regional and ethnic-racial separatism.
In Germany, beliefs like these fit readily with anti-American antipathy. The historical reasons for this are important to keep in mind. Purveyors of Reich ideology mix these elements with Nordic mythology and invocations of Atlantis, with enthusiasm for alternative currencies, skepticism toward globalization, and a longing for peace and harmony in a world marked by violence and upheaval. It is an unsurprisingly inconsistent worldview. While much of the Reich citizens’ literature is obsessed with the Allies (above all the US) as supposed occupying powers in Germany, their ire is largely reserved for the European Union. Nebulous denunciations of the evils of global capitalism rub elbows with hymns to the inviolability of private property.
Like its counterparts elsewhere, the Reich citizens movement is a classic instance of left-right crossover and a symptom of profound political confusion. Its adherents recycle hoary antisemitic legends and even anti-Masonic conspiracy myths from the era after the First World War. There are numerous esoteric connections. Waldorf schooling as well as biodynamic farming remain especially attractive within this segment of the far-right milieu. Perhaps the most important part of the brochure is thus the section on Waldorf, anthroposophy, and Nazism.
Here the brochure makes a clear call for taking history seriously, for understanding the past in order to understand the present. Even if this is framed self-interestedly as the far right posing a danger to the Waldorf movement, it represents a notable advance over the usual anthroposophist strategy of avoiding the issue. Still, the brochure’s version of the history of Waldorf schooling in Nazi Germany continues the familiar line, strongly emphasizing Nazi persecution of Waldorf while neglecting the many points of collusion between Waldorf leaders and the Nazi regime. Though the brochure cites the important research of Karen Priestman, Ida Oberman, and Wenzel Götte on Waldorf education in the Nazi era, it fails to include the critical findings these studies helped bring to light. And when the brochure does mention Waldorf cooperation with Nazi officials, it is solely under the rubric of “compromise”; there is no mention whatsoever of the enthusiasm within the Waldorf movement for Nazism’s new order.
Beyond these historical inadequacies, the brochure suffers from a myopic perspective on the current salience of right-wing themes within the Waldorf world. As a striking example, it does not mention former Waldorf teacher and neo-Nazi leader Andreas Molau by name (though it does refer to him obliquely and defensively), despite the fact that Molau’s career as a Waldorf teacher who was simultaneously active in the radical right – for eight full years, from 1996 to 2004 – perfectly embodies the very problem the brochure is meant to confront. Nor is there any mention of the role of Lorenzo Ravagli, a current prominent Waldorf leader and editor of the major Waldorf journal, in nursing such links to the far right, whether in the case of Molau or of anthroposophist Holocaust denier Gennadij Bondarew.
Needless to say, there is no examination anywhere in the brochure of Steiner’s own considerable contributions to the same myths propagated by the Reich ideology. Conspiracy narratives loom large in Steiner’s works, as well as in the publications of his follower such as Karl Heise, and there is a lengthy and unfortunate history of anthroposophist antisemitism. Although the brochure makes appreciable strides toward a more historically informed and politically aware treatment of the topic, the aversion to a full and honest reckoning persists, reflecting the longstanding Waldorf allergy against tracing these dynamics back to Steiner himself.
These failings are hardly peculiar to anthroposophy. Similar critiques have been lodged, with reason, against followers of Silvio Gesell and of C. H. Douglas and social credit. Steiner was not the only would-be world savior to draw on dubious sources, and his latter-day disciples are not the only ones to ignore their own troubled legacy and blithely disregard its ongoing repercussions. But the standing of Waldorf schools within the broader field of alternative education indicates why such concerns arouse greater attention. The problem is not one of potential embarrassment. The problem is not that Waldorf’s carefully cultivated image might be damaged. It is not a matter of image at all. The problem is that the underlying partial compatibility between Waldorf values and the ideals of the far right has gone unnoticed and unaddressed for far too long.
However fitfully, that has begun to change. A younger generation of anthroposophists and Waldorf supporters is starting to challenge the traditional historical complacency of their forebears. New perspectives are opening up in which a sober assessment of anthroposophy’s unsettled past no longer induces anxiety and hostility. The new approach faces intense opposition, and a lot of difficult work lies ahead if the Waldorf movement is ever going to deal straightforwardly with its own history. A brochure like this one demonstrates that such an approach is possible, while also showing how much more still needs to be done.
Peter Staudenmaier (Foto: privat) 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.”, erschienen bei Brill.
Entry filed under: Anthroposophie und Nationalsozialismus, Hintergründe, Lorenzo Ravagli, Nachrichten, Peter Staudenmaier, Reichsbürger, Verschwörungsdenken, Waldorf & Rechtsextremismus, Waldorf-Tradition.