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Rudolf Steiner and Heinrich von Treitschke

Rudolf Steiner and Heinrich von Treitschke

Rudolf Steiner did not admire Treitschke. Far from it, he was quite critical of him in several places. Steiner did find one or two ideas that Treitschke put forth that he liked, but these were certainly not the controversial ideas of Treitschke's.

The primary source for understanding Rudolf Steiner's thoughts about Heinrich von Treitschke is Rudolf Steiner's autobiography - Mein Lebensgang (The Course of my Life). In this Steiner describes the circumstances of his one encounter with von Treitschke. There is no evidence that they met or otherwise corresponded on any other occasions.

Among the visitors to Weimar was Heinrich von Treitschke. I had the opportunity of meeting him when Suphan included me among the guests invited to meet Treitschke at luncheon. I received a deep impression from this very comprehensive personality. Treitschke was quite deaf. Others conversed with him by writing whatever they wished to say on a little tablet which Treitschke would hand them. The effect of this was that in any company where he chanced to be his person became the central point. When one had written down something, he then talked about this without the development of a real conversation. He was present in a far more intensive way for the others than were these for him. This had passed over into his whole attitude of mind. He spoke without having to reckon upon objections such as meet another when imparting his thoughts in a group of men. It could clearly be seen how this fact had fixed its roots in his self-consciousness. Since he could not hear any opposition to his thoughts, he was strongly impressed with the worth of what he himself thought.

The first question that Treitschke addressed to me was to ask where I came from. I replied that I was an Austrian. Treitschke responded: “The Austrians are either entirely good and gifted men, or else rascals.” He said such things as this, and one became aware that the loneliness in which his mind dwelt because of the deafness drove him to paradoxes, and found in these a satisfaction. Luncheon guests usually remained at Suphan's the whole afternoon. So it was this time also when Treitschke was among them. One could see this personality unfold itself. The broad-shouldered man had something in his spiritual personality also through which he impressed himself upon a wide circle of his fellow-men. One could not say that Treitschke lectured. For everything he said bore a personal character. An earnest craving to express himself was manifest in every word. How commanding was his tone even when he was only narrating something! He wished his words to lay hold upon the emotions of the other person also. An unusual fire which sparkled from his eyes accompanied his assertions. The conversation touched upon Moltke's conception of the world as this had found expression in his memoirs. Treitschke objected to the impersonal way – suggestive of mathematical thinking – in which Moltke conceived world-phenomena. He could not judge things otherwise than with a ground-tone of strongly personal sympathies and antipathies. Men like Treitschke, who stick so fast in their own personalities, can make an impression on other men only when the personal element is at the same time both significant and also interwoven deeply with the things they are setting forth. This was true of Treitschke. When he spoke of something historical, he discoursed as if everything were in the present and he were at hand with all his pleasure and all his displeasure. One listened to the man, one received the impression of the personal in unmitigated strength; but one gained no relation to the content of what he said.

Rudolf Steiner.The Course of My Life. New York 1951, pages 164-165 (Chapter 15), also online.

Steiner was invited to a luncheon that someone else had organized, where he briefly met von Treitshke, then stayed the afternoon and observed the man. It is interesting to compare Steiner's observations with those of Fredrich Paulsen:

Treitschke carried his hearers away by the pompous force of his words. Hearing his monotonous and hollow voice for the first time, one could not help wondering why or how. I heard him lecture... at Berlin. Unfortunately, he was just speaking about England, and the invective he poured out in his blind hatred of English philosophy and the whole English mode of thinking became so intolerable to me that I walked out of the lecture room. His ungovernable temperament rendered him peculiarly insensitive to historical justice. He knew only two categories: for against the good cause; and in order to put down anything that warred against the latter he regarded any means as justified - the good cause being the cause of Prussia. I wonder how England had really managed to incur his undying hatred, a hatred that knew no bounds. I can still hear his voice in the professor's room in Berlin, when, on hearing of the fall of Khartoum and Gordon's death, he gave vent to his feelings in loud jubilation. "Just what ought to have happened!" he exclaimed. "Every one of them ought to meet with the same fate. "His deafness made it impossible to reply; his own voice was the only voice he ever heard, and this increased the intemperance of his emotions.

Fredrich Paulsen, An Autobiography New York 1906, cited in Gordon Craig, Germany 1866-1945, New York 1978, p. 205

Fundamentally, Paulsen and Steiner have come to the same conclusion, and neither one could be called admiring. Steiner, as was characteristic of him, was sensitive in his description; it is certainly not an attempt at character assassination. But it is quite clear that Steiner felt Treitschke had many faults, both in interpersonal relationships and in his manner of thinking.

Steiner mentioned von Treitschke in his book Riddles of Philosophy. The context is a discussion of Max Stirner's book The Only One and His Possession. There he accuses Treitschke of grossly misunderstanding Stirner:

There must be much evil depravity at the bottom of the souls of these “moral persons,” according to Stirner, because they are so insistent in their demands for moral prescriptions. They must indeed be lacking love because they want love to be ordered to them as a commandment that should really spring from them as spontaneous impulse.

Only twenty years ago it was possible that the following criticism could be made in a serious book:

Max Stirner's book, The Only One and His Possession, destroyed spirit and humanity, right and state, truth and virtue as if they were idols of the bondage of thought, and confessed without reluctance, “I place nothing above myself!” (Heinrich von Treitschke, Deutsche Geschichte, Part V, pp. 416; 1927.)

This only proves how easily Stirner can be misunderstood as a result of his radical mode of expression because, to him, the human individual was considered to be so noble, so elevated, unique and free that not even the loftiest thought world was supposed to reach up to it.

Rudolf Steiner, Riddles of Philosophy, Chapter Nine, also online.

Steiner did speak favorably of certain aspects of Treitschke's works in a number of places, but his praise was always narrowly directed. And Steiner was careful not to praise Treitschke's person, only aspects of his work. Thus I do not feel that it is accurate to call Steiner an admirer of Treitschke.

Daniel Hindes
February, 2004


03/20/2008: I have followed up on this article, responding to some criticisms, in a blog post.

Copyright © 2004-2007 Daniel Hindes