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March 11, 2008

Is Wolfgang Treher a reliable author?

Peter Staudenmaier is certainly the master of spin. Consider a post to the Waldorf Critics list that someone forwarded to me recently. In this post Peter Staudenmaier discusses the obscure 1966 self-published book “Hitler, Steiner, Schreber” by the psychologist Wolfgang Treher. Treher attempted to link Daniel Paul Schreber (d. 1911) with the very notorious Hitler and the obscure Steiner by their supposed symptoms of a common psychological illness.

When Peter Staudenmaier first trotted out Treher’s book in his poorly researched “Anthroposophy and Ecofascism” it was to suggest that Steiner’s ideas about cultural progression were the basis for Hitler’s concentration camps, a perverse insinuation made by Treher in 1966 which any historian ought to be able to find problematic. After all, Steiner was on a right wing hit list in the early 1920s and there was an intense mutual dislike between Steiner in the early fascists. Staudenmaier ignored the remainder of Treher’s book, including its central thesis, that Steiner was schizophrenic. When I first published my criticism of Staudenmaier’s article in 2005, here is what I wrote:

This “important” work [Treher’s book] was considered so scholarly that it was unable to find a publisher, so it was self-published by the author. That Staudenmaier finds it so compelling is an indication of the degree of critical thinking he brings to his investigation. Treher's thesis is that both Steiner and Hitler suffered from schizophrenia; that a mania, a physiological disturbance was at the root of both of their worldviews. Like Staudenmaier, Treher admits he is uninterested in understanding Steiner's views; they are sufficiently odd to him to automatically indicate mental illness. According to Treher, the onset of Steiner's psychosis started already when Steiner wrote his Ph.D. thesis in philosophy. Steiner tackled one of the oldest problems in philosophy: epistemology, or how the thinking mind comes to terms with outer reality. Treher takes this as evidence of schizophrenia – a split in Steiner's mind between reality and delusion. This conclusion, by someone who admittedly never read the work in question, is mind-bogglingly moronic. Perhaps this is the reason why no publisher would touch it. Further "evidence" is demonstrated by a statement by a friend of Steiner's that once Steiner started lecturing on Theosophy, he was "changed" and no longer had time for old friends. This supposedly proves that Steiner was a full-blown schizophrenic the moment he started lecturing on esoteric subjects. If Staudenmaier can find Treher "incisive" this can only be because he is either so predisposed to believing anything negative that he finds about Steiner as to completely overlook Treher's considerable problems, or he knows of this book only by reputation among anti-anthroposophist writers, and has not actually read it himself. I suspect the latter, since none of Treher's points are mentioned in the biographical overview of Steiner offered by Staudenmaier.

Years later Staudenmaier is still trying to defend Treher’s posthumous retroactive psychoanalytic forensics. The main difference is that he appears at this point have actually looked at the book. He does admit that he does not care much for Treher’s central thesis; that is, Steiner does not appear to of been an insane schizophrenic. But that will not stop him from arguing that the book is important, especially for the part where Treher attempts to make links between Steiner’s philosophy and Hitler’s National Socialism.

So how does Staudenmaier spin Treher’s influence? First, he argues for the books broad availability. I had called it obscure and very difficult to find. Staudenmaier counters that “dozens” of libraries carry it. From what I was able to determine, exactly six research university libraries have a copy in Germany. That is, six university libraries that have between 10 and 30 million volumes each have a single copy on the shelf. These libraries are accessible to university students, professors, and visiting scholars such as Peter Staudenmaier. Under certain circumstances, the volume is available through interlibrary loan. In addition, a couple large municipal library systems list a copy as available, including New York, Toronto, Frankfurt and a few others. So I suppose that dozens of libraries have access to it, through an interlibrary loan system. And arguably, that means it is fairly “easy” to get. Unless you are not in Germany or do not have a German student ID, in which case it’s virtually impossible (unless you happen to live in New York City, or Toronto). I asked several people in Germany to find me a copy, and the only person was able to was a friend who is enrolled in the University there. And he was only able to get it because he photocopied the whole thing for me; actually purchasing a copy was not possible (the book is, after all, over 40 years out of print).

Now, why is the book even in university libraries in Germany? Because it is a landmark volume in the history of Rudolf Steiner scholarship? Actually, no. The part of the book that has kept it available is the section on Daniel Paul Schreber. Schreber was a German judge who later in life succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia, was institutionalized and died. Along the way he wrote an autobiography memoir of his descent into madness. But what really kept his name alive in history was the fact that Sigmund Freud used him as a case study. As Freud’s theories aged and started to attract widespread criticism, Schreber became a point of interest because of his connection to Freud. That is, scholars attempting to discredit Freud went back to look at Schreber’s experiences in order to re-examine Freud’s theories. And thus Treher’s book is occasionally useful, and occasionally cited in this context. The fact that it contains Hitler and Steiner is actually incidental. This is demonstrated by all of the citations Staudenmaier he brings up to show the book’s importance. The citations are primarily in articles that reference Freud and Schreber; none of them mention Steiner.

Staudenmaier provides the following list with comments:

Ellen Gibbels, "Hitlers Nervenkrankheit: Eine neurologisch- psychiatrische Studie", Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte vol. 42 no. 2 (1994) pp. 155-220.
Gibbels discusses Treher's book on p. 219, disagreeing with its diagnosis of Hitler as schizophrenic.

Zvi Lothane, In Defense of Schreber (London 1992) discusses Treher's book on p. 373, criticizing its treatment of both Schreber and Hitler. Neither Gibbels nor Lothane dismisses the book; instead they explain why they do not share its conclusions.

Gerhard Grimm, "Führung, Struktur und Aussenpolitik des "Dritten Reiches": Ein Literaturbericht", Politische Studien no. 198, vol. 22 (1971) pp. 423-434. Grimm reviews Treher's book on p. 424, a more thorough discussion than Gibbels or Lothane. Grimm's review is very positive, and briefly mentions the material on Steiner.

Fritz Redlich, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (Oxford 1999) cites Treher's book respectfully on p. 333 and disagrees with its diagnosis of schizophrenia.

James Webb, The Occult Establishment (Chicago 1976) discusses Treher's book on p. 493, particularly its "detailed and convincing comparison of the private worlds of Rudolf Steiner and Adolf Hitler." Webb's appraisal of The book is very positive. On p. 515 Webb again mentions Treher's book and especially highlights its treatment of Steiner, remarking aptly: "I would not accept it all, but there is much of great interest in Treher's account."

Six citations in 40 years are supposed to indicate a book is important? And virtually all of these citations disagree with the author and find his conclusions misguided if not silly? This is supposed to establish that we should take the book seriously when it talks about Steiner, even though scholars do not pretend to take it seriously when dealing with the retroactive diagnosis of schizophrenia in the case of Hitler? And Schreber scholars find it misguided in its treatment of Schreber? We are supposed to accept that an author who is wrong on two counts is actually right on the third? Now that is an example of spin.  If the best scholarly endorsement of the Steiner section is that “I would not accept it all, but there is much of great interest in Treher’s account” then this is indeed a profoundly insightful scholarly book.

So is it fair to call Treher’s book obscure and unbalanced? Well, first it is never been translated out of German and to any other language. Second, it was self-published and exists only in a few university libraries and other very large collections. Third, it is fairly easy to access if you are a scholar physically in Germany, but if you are anywhere else except New York or Toronto, good luck. What about the balanced portion? Every single author to cite it disagrees with the least part if not all of the portions they looked at. Most of them skipped the Steiner part. And overall, very few authors cite it (six in 40 years).

 Obscure and unbalanced? Or incisive mainstream scholarship? We report, you decide.

Posted by Daniel at March 11, 2008 2:05 PM