Anthroposophy, Nazism, and other bad ideas
I've had a number of more or less amicable discussions on social media with parents and educators alarmed by the crisis in Steiner schools. Here are a couple of excerpts from comments I've made on facebook.
Nazism and Anthroposophy
There are very obvious similarities between the worldviews of Rudolf Steiner and Adolf Hitler. Both Steiner and Hitler insisted that humanity is divided into mutually antagonistic races, and maintained that some races were destined to usurp and exterminate their rivals. Both Steiner and Hitler were grotesquely fascinated by the conquest and near-extermination of indigenous peoples like the American Indians by European imperialist powers, and saw this process not as an evil but as the working out of a natural process.
During the discussions I've had with them on facebook, Steiner's followers have often countered suggestions of a parallel with Hitlerism by claiming that the Nazis persecuted Anthroposophists, and by suggesting that German followers of Steiner came to New Zealand and promoted liberal, anti-racist ideas here after World War Two. But scholarly research shows that this sort of defence doesn't fit with the facts.
Peter Staudenmaier's book Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era, which was published last year, examines the relationship between Hitler's regime and the Steiner movement in great detail. Staudenmaier, who is a professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee with a PhD from Cornell, reveals that the Nazis encouraged rather than banned Steiner schools, and also supported Steiner's theory of biodynamic farming. Steiner's books were, Staudenmaier says, popular amongst senior Nazis.
Staudenmaier wrote his book after extended doctoral researches in the archives of Europe, and he is able to display many pieces of primary evidence in support of his arguments. He shows off, for example, a friendly letter that the German Anthroposophical Society sent to Hitler in 1934. The letter pointed out the similarities between Steiner's and Hitler's ideas about race, and passed on the Anthroposophical Society's best wishes to the Fuhrer.
Some devotees of Steiner have responded to Between Occultism and Nazism by accusing Staudenmaier of systematically falsifying documents, and of being part of an elaborate conspiracy designed to tarnish Anthroposophy. I think Staudenmaier's supervisors at Cornell University and his publishers at Brill probably have better things to do with their time.
In a Masters thesis that was recently published on the website of Massey University, Garth Turbott documents the early decades of the Anthroposophical movement in New Zealand. Although Turbott writes sympathetically about Steiner and Anthroposophy, his narrative cannot help but show the influence of race-based thinking on some of Steiner's first followers in New Zealand.
Turbott shows that the Anthroposophical Society headquarters in Havelock North sheltered, before and just after World War Two, a disciple of Steiner's named Alfred Meebold, who believed fanatically that the German people were superior to all others, and represented the highest point yet obtained in spiritual evolution. There were uncomfortable similarities between these views and those of the man who tore Europe apart and gassed millions of Jews.
Dismayed by the ideology being propounded in Havelock North, other followers of Steiner founded their own small groups, which put forward much more liberal, cosmopolitan ideas. A group of Steiner admirers in Auckland was led by Ernst Reizenstein, a Jewish escapee from a Nazi concentration camp, who hung out with cultural movers and shakers in Auckland like the writers Frank Sargeson and ARD Fairburn, bought tapa for the walls of his flat, and tried to learn the Maori language. Reizenstein sounds like the complete opposite of Meebold, and it is a delight to read about his escape from Nazism and his culturally adventurous life in Auckland.
Sadly, as Turbott's narrative shows, the Havelock North Teutophiles were endorsed as the official representatives of Steiner's thought in New Zealand.
Who's teaching philosophy at Michael Park School?
A lot of advocates of Steiner schools argue that the era when those schools were tools for promoting a quasi-religious cult of Steiner is over. Auckland's Michael Park Steiner School has issued a statement distancing itself from racist ideas, and has assured parents of its students that its commitment to rationality and secularism.
When I visited Michael Park during its 2012 open day, though, I encountered some evidence of an unhealthy attitude towards Steiner.
In one corner of a room where samples of students' work was laid out, a small number of essays written by students in Michael Park's philosophy class were displayed. All of the essays discussed Rudolf Steiner, and all of them characterised him as one of the great philosophers, if not the great philosopher, of the twentieth century.
Whoever was teaching philosophy at Michael Park in 2012 failed his or her students in at least two ways. In the first place, and most basically, the teacher failed to instruct the students about what philosophy is and isn't. Steiner is not and never will be considered a philosopher, because he doesn't use reason, which is the basic tool of philosophers.
If any of Michael Park's philosophy students continue to pursue the subject at university, then they will search in vain for Steiner's name on their reading lists. The University of Auckland's philosophy department teaches several papers on German-language philosophers, but Steiner's accounts of astral journeys to Mars and to the core of the earth and his conversations with the Archangel Gabriel don't find a place alongside the intricate arguments of Kant and Hegel.
Michael Park's philosophy teacher also failed his or her students by not getting them to, or perhaps not letting them, think critically. There was not one single critical remark about Steiner in any of the essays that the school had displayed. They read like the hagiographies of medieval saints, listing one of Steiner's virtues after another. When I looked through those essays I had the queasy feeling that I was viewing the results of quasi-religious indoctrination. If Michael Park wants to leave the racist religion of Anthroposophy behind, then it may have some work to do.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]