Defending Steiner Rudolf Steiner  
Home Biography Allegations Misconceptions Refutations Articles About this Site Links
Allegations and Aspersions

Was Rudolf Steiner a German Nationalist?

Nationalism: ideology based on the premise that the individual's loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. (Britannica)

Rudolf Steiner was Austro-Hungarian by birth, born at the periphery of the empire, in Kralevic, of present-day Croatia. Thus Steiner was not a German national. Being Austro-Hungarian does not preclude Steiner from adopting a German nationalist stance, however he never did this.[1]  Steiner was ethnically German and spoke German as his native language. Quite a few German-speaking Austrians during his lifetime yearned for a union of Austria with German to form a greater German empire comprising all German-speaking peoples. But Steiner never called for a political union of Austria and Germany or any sort of German empire, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor did he ever so much as intimate that this might be desirable. On the contrary he explicitly praised the multi-ethnic aspect of the Austro-Hungarian State.

Steiner's lack of a German passport became an issue during World War One. He spent much of the later part of the war in Switzerland, unable to cross into Germany for fear of arrest for spying. His work placed him in the center of an international group of people interested in his spiritual insights. But precisely these international connections would have caused the authorities in Germany to suspect espionage. Steiner decided not to take the risk, and was thus unable to travel in German during the war.[2] Meanwhile in Dornach, Switzerland, a large international group of volunteers worked on building a theatre and lecture hall to support Steiner's anthroposophical movement. This building was called the Goetheanum.[3]

Many of Steiner's contemporaries have commented on the absence of any national chauvinism in their perception of Steiner's work, as well as all of his efforts to overcome the nationalistic tendencies among his followers. For example, Andrei Belyi, a Russian, writing about 1928 or 1929 recalls:

"The first reaction [among Anthroposophists in Dornach] to the [outbreak of the First World] war: we must commit ourselves more emphatically to our common cause; all of us - Russians, Germans, Austrians, French, Poles - we are all brothers in misfortune, we are all victims of criminal politics; our "politics" was devotion to the common cause, determination to continue building. When Strauss, the Bavarian, was drafted and had to join the services as a medical aide, he noted down as many Russian words as possible so he would be able to help wounded Russian prisoners." (Belyi, Turgenieff, and Voloschin 53)

Belyi continues:

"The outbreak of the war brought Steiner new, special problems; he had to guide the outbreaks of nationalistic sentiment into sensible directions. Three weeks [after the outbreak of the First World War] the first momentum of our spontaneous solidarity was quite evidently broken. All through September and through all of October the storms in the canteen did not abate: the British and the Russians gathered together in little groups, the Germans insisted very tactlessly that the war had been instigated by the provocative attitude of England; the Russians countered with the statement that a breach of neutrality amounts to barbarism. Soon, theoretical debates changed to concrete incidents and endangered the whole life of Dornach. Schuré's withdrawal from the Anthroposophical Society, the nasty rumors that filtered out of France via the French part of Switzerland, the duplicity of some Poles - all this had very negative effects. All eyes were on the Doctor; one secretly hoped the he would at least state: "Germany is in the right!" or "Germany is to blame for all the catastrophes!" However he did not accuse a single country, only the mendacity of the press; and he recommended that one not believe the sensational news reports and instead work undauntedly on the aspect of true culture.. Everybody waited tensely for an unequivocal gesture.
One such gesture lay for me in his five lectures concerning the essence of culture which he held in our Schreinerei in November. They contained living representations from Italian, French, English, and German culture Campanella, the 17th century in France, the German "Frenchman" in Steiner's depiction, Leibnitz, Shakespeare, Newton, Schiller and Goethe. An image of Russia arose - the Russia that is striving towards the future, the kingdom of the spirit. Everyone was enthused - the French, the Austrians, the Germans and Russians. The Doctor had succeeded in smoothing the waves of nationalistic passion by pointing out the unity that all great culture has in common. In light of his words we once again turned to one another; the oppressive atmosphere was transformed. Later on other infections appeared, but the nationalistic fever was once and for all overcome; from then on, the members of the various nations at war with one another lived in peace." (Belyi, Turgenieff, and Voloschin 55-56)

Belyi's reference to the Schuré incident casts light on some of the original sources for claiming Steiner as a German nationalist. Eduard Schuré was a French writer interested in spirituality in general and Theosophy in particular. One of his famous works was a book called "The Great Initiates". Schuré met Steiner some time around 1904 and became a fried and admirer. During the war, however, Schuré, a Frenchman, became convinced that Steiner's work was pro-German, and he publicly repudiated Steiner's work on the grounds that Steiner was advocating the German side. They reconciled in 1922 and Schuré apologized. But the charges, widely repeated during the war, remain to this day.

Since the events surrounding the Second World War exposed the darker side of the German national character the accusations are plausible. The simple fact that Steiner spoke German is frequently a starting point for claims that he somehow embodied this darker side, even that he inspired it. In fact Steiner's anthroposophy is fundamentally opposed to nationalism. But that has not stopped anthroposophy's opponents from claiming that it inspired Nazism, or at the very least that sprang with Nazism from a common source. This point of view has been stated very clearly by Peter Staudenmaier in an article originally published in Norwegian, titled the "Anthroposophy and Ecofascism."[4] While sounding quite scholarly, it relies almost entirely on hostile secondary sources, and makes the cardinal sin of willfully misrepresenting primary sources. Even in the context of propaganda this is called slander.

Works Cited

Belyi, Andrei, Aasya Turgenieff, and Margarita Voloschin. Reminiscences of Rudolf Steiner. Ghent, NY: Adonis Press, 1987.

"Nationalism." Encyclopedia Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition. CD-ROM. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002.

[1] Steiner is more vulnerable to the charge of being a German cultural chauvinist. Particularly in certain early writings he emphasized the special nature of the pan-German cultural movement. He did this, however, as part of a firmly anti-Nationalist stance. Opposition to all forms of nationalism is a consistent and recurring theme in Steiner's work.

[2] Steiner's inability to even visit Germany during part of this high point of German nationalism belies any claim of partisanship on his part.

[3] The original Goetheanum, built of wood, was burned to the ground by an arsonist in 1923. The second Goetheanum, made out of cement, stands in Dornach today.

[4] See Anthroposophy and Ecofascism.

Copyright © 2004-2015 Daniel Hindes