WJ Stein: A Biography
By Johannes Tautz, translated by John M. Wood
Reviewed by Daniel Hindes
Walter Johannes Stein was a major figure in the early anthroposophical movement. A close pupil of Rudolf Steiner’s, he also wrote an important book of original historical research titled The Ninth Century. Stein was born and grew up in Vienna, and his mother was an anthroposophist. At age 21 he found Steiner’s book “Occult Science” on his mother’s desk and started reading it. He was immediately fascinated by the contents and wanted to know more about the anthroposophical movement. Towards this goal he attended a conference where he met Rudolf Steiner, and later had a private audience. Stein was occupied with the questions of the nature of consciousness and of epistemology in his university studies, and from Rudolf Steiner he received indications for how to proceed in his research. His studies were interrupted by the First World War, in which he fought for Austria on the eastern front. He experienced the full horrors of the modern battlefield and survived. Shortly after the end of the war he completed his Ph.D. in philosophy and was called to teach history at the first Waldorf School in Stuttgart where he established the high school history curriculum under Rudolf Steiner’s guidance. Steiner’s death in 1925 was difficult for everyone connected to Anthroposophy, and in 1928 Stein ceased teaching at the Stuttgart Waldorf School in due to disagreements with other Anthroposophists about his lecturing activities. As the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, Stein, who had a Jewish background, moved to London in 1933. He would remain in England until the end of his life in 1951, though he continued to travel widely, lecturing on Anthroposophy. Among some interesting high points of his life was his collaboration with Belgium’s King Leopold on a plan to avert the Second World War through the implementation of the Threefold Social Order. Another time, when traveling in Turkey, Stein arranged an audience with Kamel Ataturk where he lectured the founder of modern Turkey on the anthroposophical worldview. Stein also experienced his past life as a result of his dedication to meditative exercises. The details of this and much more are all inside this book.
The book is fairly well organized, and Tautz benefits from having access to a considerable amount of archival material. Yet the best materials on Stein are the quoted passages written by Stein himself, either from his letters or from an incomplete autobiographical sketch. For those wanting to know something about Walter Johannes Stein, this book will provide a lot. For those truly wishing to understand him, the book falls short. It suffers, as do many historical books that touch on the early history of the Anthroposophical Society, from too much tact. Human beings are far from perfect, and anthroposophists are no exception. Stein, for example, was married, divorced, and then remarried. These facts are mentioned, but no material is really given that would explain why this came about. A few things are delicately hinted at, such as that Stein and his first wife never really love each other. But Tautz has not pried any deeper. And so we have detailed descriptions all of Stein’s successes, while his failures are merely hinted at. This applies equally to contemporary anthroposophists with whom Stein had contact. The Anthroposophical Society went through great upheavals during this time period. Stein was forced from his teaching position at the first Waldorf School. The issues are explained, but what it was really about is not adequately detailed in the book. Mistakes were made, things happened, but what really went on is left for those who were there to know, and the rest of us to wonder. Apparently, it would be indelicate to actually discuss life’s real difficulties and people’s shortcomings.
Another point that is not addressed is Trevor Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft’s book The Spear of Destiny (1972) claims that Stein met Hitler in Vienna before and after the First World War. Ravenscroft credits Stein as the source of all the fantastical information contained in his book, going so far as to say that Stein would have written the book himself if he had lived longer. Now it may be that all the claims in Ravenscroft’s book are so patently ridiculous as to require no serious investigation. But their existence ought to be mentioned in the only biography of Stein, if only to dismiss them.
But despite these criticisms the book remains quite interesting, and the only one cover much of the subject matter. The book was published in 1989. This translation, from 1990, is fairly poor, with many awkward passages, and does not flow well. But it is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the early history of anthroposophy.