Critics and the Internet
Originally published in the Autumn 2005 Newsletter of
the Anthroposophical Society in America.
In a short space of time, the Internet has become a large part of our culture. For many it has gone from obscurity to necessity in less than five years. There are still quite a few people, both in our culture at large and among anthroposophists, who get along fine without ever venturing onto the Internet. But this number becomes smaller every year. The Internet is often the first place to which people turn for information when something piques their curiosity.
The Internet has also ushered in a new era of communication, where anyone can become a publisher and reach a global audience for a cost that approaches zero. A veritable Wild West of information has sprung up, where verifiable facts and the most outlandish speculation mingle freely (often in one article). Anyone can agitate for any cause, and there are no editors checking facts and quotes. The reader is left entirely to their individual judgment in determining the veracity of anything they read. This has always been true, of course. Because not everyone is an expert in all subjects, we often use context to help us determine what is true and what is untrue. An article printed in the Encyclopedia Britannica we will give the benefit of doubt. An unsigned pamphlet handed out on a street corner will be treated with greater skepticism. The Internet, because it is such a new phenomenon, presents us with unfamiliar difficulties. How does one judge the relative reliability of different web sites? By how well-polished the graphic design appears? By how well the author uses the English language? A complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica looks impressive – 8 feet of leather-bound volumes. The cost to produce it is also comparatively high. The Encyclopedia Britannica website also looks very nice. However, you can buy a design of similar quality for $2.50. For less than a cup of coffee your website can look as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica online. To this site design you can add articles pursuing any agenda you like.
Combine the fact that the Internet is the first place the average person in our society turns to learn about something new, with the fact that anyone can publish anything online, and you have the makings of a problem. What happens if opponents of anthroposophy aggressively pursue their propaganda campaign on the Internet? Could they successfully change the public perception of anthroposophy? Could they succeed in damaging the entire movement?
The Problem: Anthroposophy and the Internet
Among many of us there exists a sort of love-hate relationship to technology. And there even exists within our anthroposophical movement certain anti-technological biases. A full discussion of the proper role of technology in our modern times is beyond then scope of this article, but one result has been that anthroposophy is underrepresented on the Internet relative to its role in the world. Few anthroposophists spend extensive time publishing online. The profile is different among critics of anthroposophy. Many seem to spend hours per day, for years on end, publishing a relentless torrent of vitriol attacking anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, and Waldorf education. They are also clever in their methods of promoting their views, going to great lengths to gain maximum exposure for their opinions. The result? Consider an ordinary person researching anthroposophy on the Internet. They might read a little bit about anthroposophy from one of the several sites on the subject, and being naturally a little skeptical (in a healthy way) might look around to see what people say against it, much in the way they look at product reviews before buying a digital camera. At that point they are hit by a tidal wave of misinformation, repeated relentlessly in minor variations on numerous forums.
If as an anthroposophist you spend enough time online reading outlandish negative portrayals of anthroposophy, you will go from frustrated to angry to disheartened. Stick with it for a while and you will start to notice certain patterns. Most of the active opponents of anthroposophy online are self-identified skeptics. They are skeptics in their attitude of soul, and are almost allergic to any imagination of a spiritual world, whether it be Christian, Buddhist or Anthroposophical. This mood of skepticism quickly transforms into sneering cynicism towards anyone and everyone who holds a vision of a higher reality. They become people who enjoy exposing the stupidity of their fellow human beings. Their thinking is not highly developed. Some are extraordinarily clever (though many are not) but none are deep thinkers. And their efforts are never to construct anything of value for their fellow human beings, only to tear down what they see as the misguided lunacy of others. When confronted with logical contradictions, they simply ignore them.
How do such people portray anthroposophy? The approaches are quite various, but the themes are the same. First they identify the most inflammatory statements that will attract the most attention, and then they show how anthroposophy represents these universally despised values. Never mind if anthroposophy actually opposes all that it is accused of promoting; in propaganda, truth is irrelevant. The charges, repeated frequently in various guises, include: Anthroposophy teaches racism, Steiner was a proto-Nazi, Waldorf schools harm children, anthroposophy is a cult, Steiner was a schizophrenic (and the corollary, anthroposophy is born of mental illness), anthroposophy precipitated the Holocaust, Steiner was a raving German nationalist, etc. The methods of spreading these ideas include pseudo-scholarly papers, complete with copious citations and footnotes, websites that make the assertions without supporting documentation, paid placement in search engines, and an incessant chatter on public discussion boards. All of this activity, and particularly the volume, are designed to lead the casual observer to conclude that there are serious problems with anthroposophy and Waldorf education.
To the average reader of this Newsletter, the charges above must appear preposterous. Anyone who has spent the least amount of time actually reading Rudolf Steiner’s works would be instantly suspicious of this type of allegation. However, to the larger public these accusations can seem perfectly plausible, especially if they are presented in a scholarly manner. The problem of public perception is compounded by the fact that anthroposophy works best in human encounter. So far in the history of our movement, most people have come to anthroposophy after encountering anthroposophists in various contexts, such as personal meetings in the real world, study groups, and visits to locations where the practical fruits of Steiner’s philosophy are evident, such as at Waldorf schools, Camphill Villages, or biodynamic farms. However, in the artificial world of cyberspace these very real accomplishments are but a shadow, a reflection. They exist only in the form of digital photographs and web sites, which might include the occasional testimonial. Their reality does not readily transfer to the Internet. Reality becomes an abstraction.
Background to Anthroposophy and Criticism
Criticism of anthroposophy goes all the way back to the beginning, and beyond. Theosophy had critics 25 years before Steiner became the General Secretary of the German branch of the Theosophical Society. Steiner was in turn criticized by theosophists and non-theosophists from the outset. He addressed many objections in general terms during lectures. Most he ignored. A few warranted direct rebuttals, such as are found in the book of “Von Seelenrätzeln” (“About the Riddles of the Human Soul”, published in English as “The Case for Anthroposophy”; several English editions omit 3 chapters of such rebuttals). As Steiner’s work gained momentum, the opposition from leading members of the Theosophical Society became such that the Anthroposophical Society was formed in 1912. From that point on Theosophists (mostly English-speaking, and based in India) ignored the goings-on in Germany for the most part, while local criticism of anthroposophy escalated.
Criticism of anthroposophy during the teens of the last century took several forms. Much of it was essentially empiricist-materialist objections towards any form of idealist philosophy. That is, many people objected to any description of a spirit or spiritual worlds, and to them Steiner was merely one more deluded person talking about things that didn’t exist. Others objected that anthroposophy contradicted the formal dogmas of this or that established religion in various minutiae. But there were still many who even back then went beyond reasoned objections and simply misrepresented anthroposophy before attacking the easy target of their misrepresentation.
Then as the First World War came to an end, Steiner proposed reorganizing Central European political, cultural, and economic life into a new configuration he called the Threefold Social Order, and exerted great effort to see it adopted. This raised his public profile considerably, but not all the attention was positive. Opposition sharpened, and organized. In 1921, an “Association of Steiner-Opponents” was founded in Darmstadt, Germany and in 1922 an organization calling itself “The Non-Anthroposophical Experts on Anthroposophy” was formed in Berlin. (see volume 255 of the Complete Works, titled Die Anthroposophie und ihre Gegner 1919 – 1921 [Anthroposophy and its Opponents 1919 – 1921; in German only]) These circulated a number of libelous statements, claiming, among other things, that Steiner practiced sexual magic in elaborate rituals with concubines at Dornach. They even held an academic conference from October 29-31, 1922, on these topics. (see volume 259 of the Complete Works, pages 795-809, titled Das Schicksalsjahr 1923 in der Geschichte der Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft [The Decisive Year 1923 in the History of the Anthroposophical Society; in German only]) Steiner was also attacked in print by the relatively unknown Adolf Hitler, accused of foisting Jewishness on the German people in the form of the Threefold Social Order. It was against this background that the first Goetheanum was burned in an arson attack.
Rudolf Steiner occasionally defended himself, and pushed forward with his work while ignoring the critics as much as possible. Privately, he complained to a number of people that anthroposophists were not doing enough to defend anthroposophy, expecting him to do all the work. Some did step up to the task. A young anthroposophist by the name of Karl Hayer, who obtained two Ph.D.’s (one in history and the other in jurisprudence) started writing articles in defense of anthroposophy in 1921, and subsequently published a entire book on the theme in 1931 entitled Wie man Gegen Rudolf Steiner Kämpft (How They Oppose Rudolf Steiner). Many others were also active. Reading Hayer’s book today reminds you of how little has changed in the criticism of anthroposophy. Dozens of exactly the same allegations that Hayer addressed in 1932 are still being made, in more or less the exact same form, on the Internet today. It is almost as if the modern critics have been going back to look at what has been said earlier. And actually, by all indications they have.
The Story behind the Internet “Critics”
A little research into the source of this misinformation leads back to a just a few major sources, and this is where the story gets interesting. In 1995 a German Marxist by the name of Peter Bierl wrote a book titled Wurzelrassen, Erzengel und Volksgeister (Root Races, Archangels and Folk Spirits). Bierl is a journalist with a reaction to religions of any form that can best be described as almost allergic. His exposé of anthroposophy stirred up a lot of discussion and received a lot of criticism for falsifying sources. He further lost credibility when he backed out of a public debate on his book at the last minute. But he continues to be used as an expert source by critics of anthroposophy. In 218 pages with 1024 footnotes Bierl manages to consistently misrepresent anthroposophy in the most egregious fashion, while maintaining the appearance of a meticulous, disinterested scholar. Consider the following passage, selected at random from page 200:
“The Waldorf teacher Ernst Blümel (1921) maintained that the Arabs had assumed the traditions of Aristotelian science and philosophy, but had incorrectly understood them. Later ‘this misunderstood Greek-Arabian science that had become abstract penetrated through Africa, Spain, France, and England, mostly on detours through the monasteries of middle Europe’. His colleague Herbert Hahn (1922) combined this defamation of Arabic culture with a strong aversion towards France.”
What is wrong with this passage? Well, Blümel was simply repeating a thesis of Steiner’s – expounded in numerous places in the lectures on Karmic Relationships from the year 1924. Blümel condensed the concept into one sentence, making it an easier target. How the idea thus expressed constitutes an actual “defamation” of Arabic culture is somewhat of a puzzle, but Bierl is not working with logic. Instead, his aim is to put the words into proximity and convey the impression that anthroposophists hate other cultures. This is compounded in the next sentence, where Herbert Hahn is summarily accused of hating France. Hahn’s four-volume survey of the major cultures of Europe contains a sensitive, highly appreciative section on France and the French in the first volume. But you wouldn’t know this from Bierl; according to Bierl, Hahn not only defamed Arabs, but also hated the French (which, given the context, is designed to make him look like a German nationalist and possible closet Nazi sympathizer). I picked this page truly at random. You can imagine 218 pages of similar misunderstandings and misrepresentations, with the accompanying 1024 footnotes and disdainful tone.
Bierl scoured many sources from the early history of anthroposophy, looking for raw material he could use for his project, and is also familiar with all the criticism from the early days. And while his book has never been translated, it is the source of much of the pseudo-scholarly criticism of anthroposophy in English today. Several writers, taking advantage of the fact that very few people in the United States read German, have repackaged Bierl’s opinions and borrowed his often misrepresented sources. Peter Staudenmaier, formerly an anarchist activist with a Marxist bent, and currently a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, wrote an essay on anthroposophy without apparently ever having read a single book by Steiner. Using Bierl and a small collection of other hostile secondary literature, most of it available only in German, he wrote a devastating polemical article that received wide internet circulation entitled “Anthroposophy and Ecofascism”. The article also received many responses, not all of them well formulated, and although Staudenmaier handily obfuscated most of the argumentation, once he started researching the actual sources it became difficult for him to defend. Typical of many hard-core critics, however, he continued to write articles making the most outrageous claims against anthroposophy, and only his recent affiliation with an academic institution with real standards has caused him to be more responsible.
The Internet critics are closely networked. They share sources and allegations freely and generously with anyone who shows hostility towards anthroposophy. One result is that when an individual anthroposophist steps up to defend anthroposophy in an Internet discussion forum, they are quickly overwhelmed by a tremendous volume of allegations that are laborious to counter. Anyone taking it upon themselves to stand up for anthroposophy finds themselves debating not just one individual, but the collective knowledge of the entire body of critics. Further complicating matters, several of the quotes rely on obscure German sources not available in English.
Some Examples from the Modern Misinformation Campaigns
Leaving aside those criticisms that start with the premise that spiritual worlds can’t exist, much of what is said against anthroposophy is based on deliberate misinformation. Either anthroposophy or Steiner’s biography is falsified, and then the false image is attacked. Consider the following examples:
“Steiner was by his own account ‘enthusiastically active’ in pan-German nationalist movements in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century.”
This sentence by Peter Staudenmaier appears in Anthroposophy and Ecofascism, with a footnote pointing to Steiner’s autobiography. Now the German reads: “Nun nahm ich damals an den nationalen Kämpfen lebhaften Anteil, welche die Deutschen in Österreich um ihre nationale Existenz führten.” (Steiner, Mein Lebensgang, Dornach 1925, p. 132) The potentially confusing point for a translator is the difference between the phrases “Anteil nehmen an…” (have an interest in) and “Anteil nehmen…” (take part). The single word “an” makes all the difference. A straight dictionary translation of Steiner’s words would be: “At that time I took a lively interest in the battles that the Germans in Austria were fighting concerning their national existence.” But Steiner has been intentionally mistranslated and quoted as “enthusiastically active” to show him as a nationalist himself. Yet this is clearly not Steiner’s position, not in the grammar and not in the larger context.
This is just one of several such fabrications. Another example is a purported “nordic-germanic sub-race” that Steiner supposedly praised as superior to all other races. The only problem: there is no “nordic-germanic sub-race” mentioned anywhere in Steiner’s complete works, and racial superiority is not one of Steiner’s themes. Besides mistranslation, there are also simple mischaracterizations.
“Steiner’s autobiography provides ample testimony to his German nationalist convictions. … Two pages prior he discusses the impact of Julius Langbehn’s infamous book Rembrandt als Erzieher on his thinking. (Footnote: Langbehn’s book was the bible of the right-wing nationalist völkisch movement, the forerunner to the Nazis, during the period of Steiner’s active involvement in pan-German circles. Steiner offers, of all things, a stylistic critique of the book, never once mentioning its aggressive antisemitism or its baleful political and cultural influence within German-speaking Europe. For an overview of Langbehn’s impact see Peter Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, New York 1964, chapter 25.)”
Peter Staudenmaier and Peter Zegers. Anthroposophy and Its Defenders.
The description appears quite scholarly. The main problem is that Steiner’s actual statements have been grossly misrepresented. Steiner actually wrote:
“It was with sad memories that I made the journey back to Vienna. There fell into my hands just then a book of whose “spiritual richness” men of all sorts were speaking: Rembrandt als Erzieher. In conversations about this book, which were then going on wherever one went, one could hear about the coming of an entirely new spirit. I was forced to become aware, by reason of this very phenomenon, of the great loneliness in which I stood with my temper of mind amid the spiritual life of that period.
In regard to a book which was prized in the highest degree by all the world, my own feeling was as if someone had sat for several months at a table in one of the better hotels and listened to what the “outstanding” personalities in the genealogical tables said by way of “brilliant” remarks, and had then written these down in the form of aphorisms. After this continuous “preliminary work” he could have thrown his slips of paper with these remarks into a vessel, shaken them thoroughly together, and then taken them out again. After drawing out the slips, he could have made a series of these and so produced a book. Of course, this criticism is exaggerated. But my inner vital mood forced me into such revulsion from that which the “spirit of the times” then praised as a work of the highest merit. I considered Rembrandt as Teacher a book which dealt wholly with the surface of thoughts that have to do with the realm of the spiritual, and which did not harmonize in a single sentence with the real depths of the human soul. It grieved me to know that my contemporaries considered such a book as coming from a profound personality, whereas I was forced to believe that such dealers in the small change of thought moving in the shallows of the spirit would drive all that is deeply human out of man’s soul.”
Rudolf Steiner. The Story of My Life. Chapter 8
That you can possibly offer these two paragraphs as actual proof that Steiner was a nationalist – ostensibly because he failed to denounce in even greater detail some specific contents of the book – only shows that references by critics to Steiner’s own writings are often entirely inaccurate, despite the scholarly veneer.
Finally, Dan Dugan, writing mostly without citations, has been repeating variations of a purported Steiner-Hitler link for almost a decade.
“Anthroposophy, as it was then, and as it is today, is “proto-Nazi,” that is, it is part of the foundations of the National Socialist world-view.”
Dan Dugan to the Waldorf Critics mailing list, June 12th, 1996.
“Steiner’s teachings are pervaded by a racial mythology that he and the Nazis derived from Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Though he differed with the Nazis on nationalism and tactics, Steiner also made much of the superiority of the Central European soul and of the German spirit, in comparison with other ethnic groups. Early Nazi ideologists drew inspiration from Steiner’s teachings.”
Dan Dugan. The Roots of Racism in Waldorf Schools. <http://www.waldorfcritics.org/active/articles/Racism_intro.html>
“Steiner, preaching truth, beauty, goodness, and Aryan racial superiority, appealed to intellectuals and mystics, and Hitler, preaching hate, revenge for the humiliation of Germany after World War I, and Aryan racial superiority, appealed to the lowest instincts of the largest number of people.”
Dan Dugan to the Waldorf Critics mailing list, March 7th, 1997.
Obviously, Steiner never talked of Aryan racial superiority, and any link to National Socialism is entirely circumstantial. When the Nazi state formally analyzed Steiner’s work, it declared Anthroposophy to be “fundamentally incompatible” with National Socialism. But Dugan won’t let the facts get in the way, even after dozens of people have pointed them out to him.
These are just a few of the many examples of how Steiner is deliberately distorted in order to portray him as the opposite of what he actually was. It is often very cleverly done. If you don’t carefully check every last quote, every last citation, you might easily be fooled. If you do check them all (I once spent six months running down every last reference in one paper – which included sending to Germany for over 20 obscure books – just to be completely clear on the matter) you will find that virtually all of them are distortions and misrepresentations in one form or another.
What is being done about this?
It is clear that today, as in the past, lies and slander against anthroposophy must be met. Among many of those working actively on these issues there is a feeling that anthroposophists in general are asleep to the issue as a whole. And this, too, is not new. Several early anthroposophists wrote in their memoirs that they felt Steiner would have wished that his followers do more to defend him. Steiner himself had the following to say:
“It is natural for one who wishes to be a quiet member to say, for example, ‘I cannot concern myself with the statements of opponents about the Society’. But this is changed the moment he goes outside the sphere of silent participation. Then at once it becomes his duty to pay attention to the opponents and to defend all that is worthy of defense in Anthroposophy and the Anthroposophical Society. … To the very best of his ability he must keep in close contact with other active members of the Society; and it must be far from him to say, ‘I am not interested when Anthroposophy and these who represent it are placed in a false light, or even slandered by opponents’.” (The Life, Nature and Cultivation of Anthroposophy, pages 22-23).
Several websites work actively to expose the misinformation. Sune Nordwall in Sweden and Tarjei Straume in Norway have worked with their websites to counter the outrageous claims for years. And many other individuals have participated vigorously in various online debates and discussions over the years. I have put together a website called www.defendingsteiner.com that goes into depth on a number of issues. It is also important to get as much positive information as possible about Rudolf Steiner onto the Internet; a search on his name should not return more hostile websites than positive ones. And while there are quite a few positive, high-quality websites on the Internet, there could always be more.
My purpose in writing this article was to raise awareness of the issue. Anthroposophy is under attack on the Internet, and the Internet is increasingly the preferred source of information, especially for younger people. I have attempted to characterize these attacks, explain their background, and give some sense for how the attackers operate. At the very least, should you meet someone who knows nothing of Rudolf Steiner beyond the fact that he was a racist Nazi, you will least know how they came to this understanding. And while it might seem dubious that such people exist, they are out there, and I have even met a few. For this reason, I find it important that we as anthroposophists be aware of the overall situation.