Waldorf and the "national community"
von Peter Staudenmaier
To a large extent, the complicated struggle over Waldorf education in Germany from 1933 onward can be understood as a series of conflicts about the true nature of the "Volksgemeinschaft," the people’s community or national community, a theme which played a conspicuous role in anthroposophical as well as Nazi contributions to the Waldorf debate. This debate involved competing factions within both the Nazi movement and the anthroposophical movement, and since much of it was carried out via written texts, we have lots of evidence about the various positions. To make sense of this evidence, it helps to keep in mind that the notion of the Volksgemeinschaft or national community was a central element in Nazi rhetoric that also had distinct roots within anthroposophical doctrine.
Across a broad spectrum of Waldorf documents, from official submissions for government agencies to internal reports and published texts, a considerable degree of consensus emerged around the Waldorf movement’s commitment to the German national community as constituted by the Nazi ‘revolution’ of 1933. With the rise of the Nazi movement to power in 1933, Waldorf officials began to highlight those aspects of Waldorf thinking that had all along provided a measure of common ground between anthroposophical worldviews and their National Socialist counterparts. Thus Waldorf spokespeople from 1933 onward consistently emphasized Waldorf education’s commitment to "the German cultural mission" and firmly distanced Waldorf from "international pedagogical reform tendencies" while repeatedly invoking Waldorf’s deep roots within the German Volk, the German people or nation. (Quotes from the official Waldorf memorandum "Denkschrift der Freien Waldorfschule" published in the Waldorf journal Erziehungskunst in June 1933, signed by Ernst Uehli “on behalf of the faculty of the Free Waldorf School.”)
In March 1935 the League of Waldorf Schools sent another lengthy memorandum to Rudolf Hess, one of the Waldorf movement’s most prominent supporters within the Nazi hierarchy. Under the title “Nature and Tasks of the Waldorf Schools,” the memorandum declared unequivocally: “Waldorf schools educate for the national community.” According to the 1935 memorandum, Waldorf schools “realize on a small scale that which the national community strives for on a large scale in the National Socialist state.” The memorandum stressed Waldorf pedagogy’s dedication to “the soul-spiritual and physical renewal and recovery of our Volk and our spiritual life” while emphasizing the integral connection between physical and spiritual health. A section on “Waldorf schools in the new Germany” boasted of the schools’ essential ability to educate pupils toward “national convictions” through “cultivating the national idea and accentuating the essence and the duties of the German spirit” (die Pflege des völkischen Gedankens und die Betonung des Wesens und der Aufgaben des deutschen Geistes). Waldorf education, the memorandum proclaimed, is “in harmony with the fundamental attitude of the National Socialist state.”
Another 1935 document from the League of Waldorf Schools, titled “On the Nature and Method of the Waldorf Schools,” similarly stated that Waldorf pedagogy aimed to educate its pupils so that they would be “integrated into the national community,” in order to “overcome the damage from the Marxist-materialist era.” Drawing on the depths of the “German essence,” Waldorf schools were eager to “join in the work on the present and future national goals and tasks of the German people.” (League of Waldorf Schools, November 18, 1935)
A year later, in 1936, a series of texts sent to the Nazi Ministry of Education by various Waldorf schools around Germany emphasized similar themes. The Hannover Waldorf school, for example, affirmed that Waldorf education “raises young people to become strong in character and ready for sacrifice and to be active members of the national community.” The Waldorf school in Hamburg-Wansdbek, meanwhile, boasted that the school had always battled materialism and led “an arduous struggle for the German spirit against the corrosive contemporary spirit of intellectualism.” The school thus offered an educational approach “that the Third Reich especially can approve.” The Rudolf Steiner school in Dresden employed the same terminology. Waldorf schools, they explained, simply want “to serve the national community.”
While the Waldorf version of the Volksgemeinschaft often differed significantly from Nazi versions, Waldorf conceptions of the ‘national community’ were not simply open to one and all. The March 1935 memorandum to Rudolf Hess from the League of Waldorf Schools forcefully distanced itself from Jews, socialists, and “international tendencies,” among others. Under the heading “Attitude toward Jewry” the memorandum stated: "Because the basic outlook of Waldorf schools is emphatically Christian, and because Waldorf pedagogy rejects the one-sided intellectual element, the Jews show little sympathy for Waldorf schools. The percentage of Jewish pupils is therefore very low."
Later posts will provide more detail on what such statements meant in the context of the Waldorf movement during the Third Reich.