Issue 05/24

Was Steiner a Racist?

Wolfgang Müller

In fact, Steiner assumed that there is a kind of direction in the development of humanity, that individual cultures were pioneers at certain times (such as the Indian, Jewish or Greek), but that there are also cultural declines, sometimes necessary delays or productive side paths. Such an understanding of history undoubtedly tends towards hierarchizations and evaluations. The latter, for example, when Steiner describes certain cultures as decadent or outdated. It is also questionable that he ascribes a particularly forward-looking role to European, especially Central European culture for our era; in the next era, this role will fall to Slavic culture.

Such thinking in categories of «progress» and «backwardness» has been widespread since the 19th century. It can be found in various forms among almost all authors, from Karl Marx, who described national minorities such as those in the Basque Country and Brittany as “waste of nations”, to the much-admired «jungle doctor» Albert Schweitzer, who spoke very condescendingly about the African people in his surroundings. However, even if we ignore prejudices and Eurocentrism – as with Steiner – a fundamental question remains: do we want to claim that, in principle, all peoples and cultures were quasi-synchronous in their development and characteristics at all times? This would be a deviation into a trivial «all-developed-somehow». Or are we trying to make the real processes visible in all their diversity in time and place? Then we would have to speak of extraordinary historical phases (ancient Egypt, the Italian Renaissance...), but also of stagnations and questionable or even catastrophic developments. In any case, there is no getting around clear evaluations and classifications in individual cases. No one would rightly attribute the Holocaust to the whole of humanity – no, it was a product of German history.

Development of humanity as a process

Steiner was obviously concerned with such a process-based, in-depth understanding of human development. Some of his statements are racist and the evaluations he makes with them are unacceptable nowadays. Nevertheless, one can share his basic idea of a multi-layered, richly layered historical-spiritual narrative of history. Steiner was always a thinker of the concrete. He probably also saw this as an epochal learning task: not to blur differences, but to clarify them and to guide matters in a better direction through knowledge.

There is another way of approaching the subject. A central goal of racist ideologies is always to order humanity according to ethnic standards: Each group, each people should remain «for themselves», so to speak. It is characteristic of Steiner that, like everything else, he also views this topic in terms of development. Communities of descent with a clear demarcation between inside and outside had their significance in early phases of humanity. This was expressed in social terms (marriage within one's own group if possible), but also in spiritual terms: Every people had its own world of gods. Universal religions such as Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, strove for a transition to humanity (at least in terms of their claim, they addressed every human being, regardless of origin and descent). According to Steiner, this applies even more decisively in our time: «A person who speaks today of the ideal of races and nations and tribal affiliations is speaking of the impulses of humanity's decline.»

Here we come across a central theme in Steiner's thinking: something that was right and appropriate at a certain time can turn negative and reactionary when its time is over. (In general, he never conceives of negative forces as static-absolute, but as something that is only misplaced in time and place. A notebook entry: «There is no evil. Evil is only a displaced good.») In other words, the formation of a community in our era should no longer be determined by origin, on which racist ideologies are fixated; today, other guiding principles must come to the fore. Steiner: «Humanity mixes in order to group itself from a spiritual point of view.» (This would truly be an unusual sentence for a racist.)

Without distinction of origin

Corresponding principles naturally also applied and still apply to the anthroposophical movement itself, in which, according to Steiner's vision, people should come together without any distinction of origin. Ultimately, it could not be otherwise, given anthroposophy's profound focus on the individual and their freedom to develop. The conscious emancipation of the individual from the imprints of ancestry and socialization is one of the main topics of anthroposophy!

In summary: yes, there are discriminatory statements in Steiner's work about certain cultures and peoples from which we must clearly distance ourselves today. You can read whole cycles of his lectures without coming across such passages, but they do exist. In his fundamental approach, however, in his entire structure and perspective, Steiner's thinking is oriented towards humanity and humanity. There was a reason why nationalist groups repeatedly disrupted his lectures and why Hitler attacked Steiner in an article in the Völkischer Beobachter as early as 1921.


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