Peter Staudenmaier: The „Frankfurt Memorandum“
As promised, here is my analysis of the recent 'Frankfurt Memorandum' on Steiner's racial teachings. I'd like to reiterate that the text is the product of a genuine effort by anthroposophists to come to terms with Steiner's race doctrines, and as I mentioned yesterday in introducing the memorandum, its authors are among the more progressive and historically interested anthroposophists in Germany today. My personal interactions with Info3 and with Jens Heisterkamp, one of the two authors of the memorandum, have been positive, respectful, and fruitful.
For reasons I explained last year, however, when we first discussed the memorandum in its original German version, I have many criticisms of the general approach that the memorandum takes toward Steiner's ideas about race. From a historical perspective, much of the memorandum remains constrained by a series of unexamined and unwarranted assumptions about Steiner and his teachings, as well as misperceptions about the historical and intellectual contexts of these teachings. These assumptions and perceptions, which are widespread among anthroposophists today, present a major obstacle to the otherwise admirable aims of the memorandum itself. I will do my best to summarize here my central concerns.
The Frankfurt Memorandum begins as follows:
"The claim that the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925), was a racist or held views tinged with racism has for a number of years repeatedly been advanced in critical publications as well as reports in the media. In making such claims, anthroposophy as a teaching and a socio-spiritual movement is also often fundamentally called into questions. These charges are countered by staff working in anthroposophically-based institutions and facilities all over the world who class irritating remarks by Steiner on the issue of race as irrelevant and – as far as the central anthropological contributions by Steiner are concerned – totally marginal. Any reasonable dialogue between these two groups has so far tended to be prevented by a fundamentalist and emotional approach on both sides: the one party demands the complete “renunciation” of an allegedly obsolete founder figure while on the other side every utterance of Steiner’s is apologetically defended however bizarre it might appear. A dialogue is urgently required here if the recurring debate is to be put back on a factual foundation."
This introductory passage sets up the basic parameters of the memorandum: an attempt to re-establish a factual foundation for dialogue between anthroposophists and non anthroposophists on Steiner's racial teachings. Just how limited the basis for such a dialogue is emerges from the introductory paragraph itself, beginning with the memorandum's evident anxiety over the possibility that anthroposophy might be fundamentally called into question. From an external perspective, this worry is irrelevant. There is nothing wrong with calling any particular worldview, spiritual or otherwise, fundamentally into question. Dialogue between utilitarians and non-utilitarians, for example, is not hindered by the fact that many non-utilitarians fundamentally call utilitarianism into question. This is a normal part of philosophical disagreement. Calling such positions fundamentally into question is not the same thing as calling for the complete rejection of every aspect of a given worldview, however, and recognizing the difference between the two is an essential aspect of meaningful dialogue.
The memorandum further confuses this issue with the notion that non-anthroposophists ostensibly demand the complete renunciation of Steiner as an obsolete founder figure. There are certainly critics of anthroposophy who call for this sort of complete rejection of Steiner as such, but it is hardly a categorical demand of non-anthroposophists as a whole, much less of those non-anthroposophists who have examined Steiner's racial doctrines in detail. For analysts such as Helmut Zander, Georg Otto Schmid, Jana Husmann-Kastein, and myself, the point of the endeavor is not wholesale condemnation of anthroposophy as such, but historical understanding of the role of racial discourse within anthroposophy. This may indeed be coupled with the hope that anthroposophists will eventually come to repudiate the racist facets of Steiner’s teachings, but that is hardly the same thing as renouncing Steiner in toto. A productive dialogue on the question will be difficult if these sorts of distinctions are ignored.
The memorandum goes on to explain what it sees as the advantages of its chief inspiration, the Dutch Report on anthroposophy and the question of race:
"Some years ago, important preliminary work in this respect was undertaken in the Netherlands, a country particularly sensitive to issues of discrimination, when in 1996 a specialist commission chaired by the human rights expert Dr. Th. A. van Baarda examined the whole of Steiner’s work for racist content. The resultant study is the only one so far which seeks to explain Steiner’s statements not just in the context of his work but also measures its effect by means of objective legal and ethical criteria. In its final report, the Dutch commission notes that a “racist teaching” in the sense of a theory which postulates the alleged superiority of one group of people over another does not exist in Steiner."
The phrase "racist teaching" in the above passage is a mistranslation; in the original the memorandum actually refers to "Rassenlehre" or racial doctrine of any kind, not just to racist doctrines. The mistranslation is significant, since the Dutch report does in fact conclude that Steiner's work contains no racial doctrine whatsoever, not merely that Steiner's work contains no racist teachings. It is not true that all racial doctrines as such posit the superiority of one group of people over another. Only racist doctrines do so. Steiner's work, in reality, contains both a variety of racial doctrines and a range of racist teachings. Some of Steiner's racial doctrines are racist, and some are not. Many of Steiner's statements about race are built around the contrast between higher and lower racial forms. Thus the Frankfurt memorandum is hobbled at the start by a false initial premise. If we begin from the assumption that Steiner's work includes no racial doctrines of any sort, it will be hard to analyze Steiner's racial views.
The memorandum's ill-considered reliance on the Dutch report indicates several additional serious problems. The claim that the Netherlands as a country is particularly sensitive to issues of discrimination, whatever we may make of it as an empirical assertion, is immaterial to the question at hand. Here as elsewhere, the memorandum simply mixes up racism and discrimination, taking the two to be the same thing. This is a fundamental error. Whether Steiner's work comprises partially racist content, and whether Steiner's work is suitable for or conducive toward discrimination, are two very different things. Hence the memorandum’s focus on legal criteria is entirely beside the point. Dutch anti-discrimination laws of the 1990s are inapplicable to statements made in Switzerland or Germany in 1905 or 1923.
It is also noteworthy, and unfortunate, that the Frankfurt memorandum does not mention that the Dutch commission consisted solely of anthroposophists. The Dutch report is not a 'study' in the sense that non-anthroposophists expect, but an extended apologia for Steiner's statements about race. The memorandum continues:
"But according to the Commission, there are some few places in the approximately 89,000-page complete works of Steiner – the Commission counted 16 quotations – which, if they were uttered by an author today, might even provide grounds for criminal charges. The Commission judged another 66 quotations to be less serious cases of discrimination or statements open to misinterpretation. In making its judgements, the Commission applied the principle that, with regard to the question as to whether a quotation was insulting or not, the key issue in line with generally valid principles was not the intention of the speaker or author but rather the effect on the target."
This is a forthrightly ahistorical approach to the subject. Steiner's statements about race were not uttered by an author today, they were uttered by Steiner a century ago, and the specter of criminal charges has nothing to do with assessing those statements in their historical context. In addition, the questions of whether any of these statements might have been insulting, or of what effect they might have had on their 'target' (it remains quite unclear to whom this might conceivably refer), or of what Steiner's intentions may have been, could all perhaps be relevant to Dutch discrimination law, but they are not pertinent to the stated subject of the memorandum, namely whether some of Steiner's statements include racist content.
The memorandum then sorts Steiner's statements into five categories:
1. Apparently racist theosophical terminology
2. Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism
3. Discrimination through attribution of decadence
4. Discrimination through unclear formulation and creation of stereotypes
5. Racist remarks
In its analysis of the first of these categories, the memorandum claims that Steiner stopped using the 'root race' terminology after 1905, and that the theosophical root-race idea was not racist in any case. Both of these claims are false.
Regarding the second category, the only antisemitic statement by Steiner that the memorandum examines, or even mentions, is his 1888 defense of Robert Hamerling's antisemitic satire 'Homunculus'. The memorandum unequivocally labels this 1888 passage antisemitic, indeed it declares that "this statement could not be a more classic expression of anti-Semitism". (It is also worth noting that the English version of the memorandum correctly translates Steiner's phrase "nichts weniger als günstig"; perhaps anthroposophists such as Frank Smith and Detlef Hardorp will have another opportunity to re-think their stated views on the matter.) The memorandum then claims, falsely, that Steiner later disavowed this antisemitic remark. More importantly, while the memorandum discusses Steiner's philosemitic period around the turn of the century, it says nothing at all about his mature antisemitic statements during his anthroposophical career.
Addressing the third category, the memorandum tries to shift responsibility for Steiner's views about racial decadence onto Haeckel, but nonetheless concedes that "Steiner did, however, share a number of the racist preconceptions of the science of the time according to which some ethnic groups, for instance, were fundamentally deemed to be culturally inferior." This section of the memorandum is perhaps the least historically informed part of the whole document; there is virtually no context for this aspect of the memorandum's argument, even though there is a very large and readily accessible literature on exactly this topic.
Moving onto the fourth category, the memorandum discusses Steiner's 1910 lectures on the Mission of the Folk Souls, characterizing some of Steiner's statements in these lectures as "extremely bizarre". But the memorandum’s analysis of such statements is trivializing, focused on Steiner's terminology rather than the content of his claims, and preoccupied with whether his remarks might cause insult or irritation, rather than examining what they tell us about Steiner's conception of race and its spiritual significance.
The same is true of the memorandum's comments on Steiner's 1923 lecture about race; while noting his reliance on "stereotypical racist clichés" and other evidently embarrassing factors, all the memorandum has to say about these sorts of racial caricatures is that they "exceed the limits of what is acceptable." This is a retrospective normative judgement on Steiner's racial views, not an assessment of their historical meaning, their genesis within Steiner's broader intellectual development, their influence on his followers, or their place in the overarching ideological edifice of anthroposophy as a whole.
The section devoted to the fifth category, finally, which the memorandum itself labels "racist remarks," describes Steiner as "a member of a late colonial and Eurocentric age" who "took it as a given that 'the Caucasian race' represented 'the actual civilised race'." The memorandum notes than some of Steiner's assertions "express disregard for people with a black skin." They offer this diagnosis: "Steiner probably allows himself to be induced by personal emotion to see people with a black skin indirectly as a synonym for 'unlikeable'."
Aside from being purely speculative, these sorts of claims refer to Steiner's supposed emotional motivations rather than to his stated ideas about race. And a moment later, after quoting a truncated version of Steiner's pronouncement on the link between skin color and intelligence, the memorandum says simply: "The bizarre nature of the connection implied here between skin and hair colour and intelligence does not need further comment." But further comment is exactly what the passage needs; as in so many other instances, the memorandum fails to explore Steiner's statementswithin their ideological and historical context.
Even when the memorandum makes some effort to engage in this sort of historical analysis, it falls notably short, reverting to moral adjudication instead of critical and informed assessment. Here is one of the more laudably forthcoming passages in the document:
"There is no evidence in Steiner that he justified racist aggression. It is, nevertheless, very regrettable that Steiner made such racist remarks in the wider sense. Neither does the attempt, made every so often, to put these quotations in a context make them any more palatable. [...] The quotations in this category are also more than a mere problem of the historical use of language, which could be tackled by “translating” what he meant into a “contemporary” form of expression. As far ahead of his time as Rudolf Steiner was with regard to many educational, medical and, indeed, social issues – the remarks cited above are documents of an obsolete way of thinking and time which are no longer acceptable or “translatable” in any way today. The argument, sometimes put forward, that those quotations were spoken in a different time does not make such views more valid because they were widespread in our cultural sphere some 100 years ago. They remain just as discriminating. Gross intentional or negligent discrimination was already hurtful before the ban on discrimination was codified, for example, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948."
As refreshing and welcome as such a summary might be for non-anthroposophists used to nothing but flat denial from anthroposophists, the above passage thoroughly misunderstands what is at issue in the discussion of anthroposophical race doctrines. The question that the memorandum is supposedly centered on is not whether Steiner's statements are a form of discrimination or whether they might have retroactively fallen afoul of the 1948 declaration. The notion of applying such standards backwards in time is historically nonsensical. Rudolf Steiner had been dead for over two decades by the time of the 1948 declaration, and the intervening experience of Nazi racial barbarism had substantially altered both popular and scientific conceptions of race. Steiner was not subject to Dutch discrimination law from the 1990s. None of those criteria can be sensibly invoked in order to understand what Steiner taught about race and why he taught it.
Moreover, the memorandum fails to make use of the relatively few scholarly sources about the history of racial thought that it cites. The first such work quoted is Christian Geulen's brief 'Geschichte des Rassismus' (History of Racism) from 2007. There are a number of problems with Geulen's book, including some conspicuous failures of judgement (e.g. regarding Kant), but on the whole it is a solid study, especially for such a concise account. Geulen's analysis directly undermines many of the memorandum's own assumptions. Throughout the book, for example, Geulen emphasizes the historical interplay between racial theory and actual violence. He is particularly lucid in examining racism not just as hatred or prejudice, but as a "Weltdeutungssystem", a system for understanding the world. One of the book's central themes is that racism wants to improve the world, wants to make the world better. He gives considerable attention to the role of ideas about universal brotherhood in the rise of modern racial thought. All of these facets of Geulen's analysis could have provided a much more historically informed and much more critical cast to the Frankfurt memorandum's survey of Steiner's racial views.
By looking at Steiner through an anthroposophical lens rather than a historical lens, the memorandum ends up offering an incomplete and tendentially exculpatory portrait of Steiner's racial teachings. For instance, the memorandum claims, wrongly, that the notion of a "clash of races" simply "plays no part" in Steiner's anthroposophy. The memorandum thus does not refer to, much less quote, much less analyze, Steiner's various statements about a "clash of races" either in the past or in the future.
Indeed many of Steiner's most important claims about race do not appear at all in the memorandum. This neglect of Steiner's actual race doctrines, among other things, leads the memorandum to a number of severely inaccurate historical claims, such as: "Nationalist ideology has always treated Steiner and anthroposophy as opponents." The term translated here as 'nationalist' is "völkisch"; in reality, the relationship between anthroposophy and the völkisch milieu was quite complex, with definite instances of outspokenly positive approval in both directions. None of this history receives any mention in the memorandum.
Similarly, the extensive scholarly literature on the variety of historical race ideologies seems to be largely foreign to the memorandum, resulting in the odd complaint that criticism of Steiner's racial doctrines is an example of "selective outrage." Thus the memorandum often appears to be engaged in a precarious sort of balancing act, trying on the one hand to concede that yes, there are certain questionable features in Steiner's thought, but no, they're not really all that important if you just don't pay them much mind. This leads to passages like the following, from the penultimate section of the
"Steiner's view of human development as an evolutionary process which in the course of history leads from lower to higher stages of culture and consciousness does not, however, by itself contain racist or chauvinistic implications, as some critics like to imply, provided the dimension of “race” is expressly excluded."
But that is precisely what Steiner's evolutionary theory so often does not do: the dimension of race is not expressly excluded, it is expressly included by Steiner himself, in numerous cases, and is indeed made central to Steiner's evolutionary narrative as a whole. The fact that Steiner on other occasions downplayed or denied the importance of race does not change such statements about racial-spiritual evolution and its cosmic function. The same is true of the memorandum's repeated plea that potentially racist elements in anthroposophy would "contradict Steiner's own individualistic ethic." This is beside the point; there is nothing unusual about the various strands in a given author's works contradicting one another.
The same sort of confusion runs throughout the text of the memorandum. One of its underlying premises amounts to an unfounded and unargued identification of anthroposophy as such with those aspects of anthroposophy which the memorandum authors, according to their own relatively liberal and progressive interpretation, find most appealing, most sensible, and most worthy of defense and elucidation. This is a hazard of any internal analysis; it is always a difficult challenge for those committed to a particular worldview, or a particular variant of that worldview, to achieve an objective viewpoint on that worldview. Thus the memorandum asserts:
“The social initiatives throughout the world based on anthroposophy, including in South Africa and Namibia, in the Philippines, Egypt and Israel, would not be plausible on the basis of a racist ideology.”
The world might be a nicer place if this were true, but as it stands, the claim is wishful thinking. Historically speaking, all sorts of social initiatives have been undergirded by racist ideologies. Pointing out this fact does not, in itself, discredit these initiatives. Not a few opponents of slavery, colonialism, and imperial exploitation were themselves beholden to a range of racist ideologies. Coming to terms with the complex history of racial thought means acknowledging this fact.
This is among the most conspicuous failings of the memorandum, and accounts for many of its least convincing formulations. In the final section of “Summary and conclusions” we read:
“There is no racism in Steiner as defined by historical research, no systematically espoused ‘theory of race’, and no ideology of a ‘clash of races’.”
These claims are untrue. As defined by historical research, there are both racist and non-racist elements in Steiner’s work. Steiner elaborated a complex theory of race as part of his conception of cosmic evolution and spiritual progress. He posited a clash of races as part of this evolutionary narrative. All of these elements are part of anthroposophy as Steiner taught it, regardless of whether they appeal or do not appeal to particular anthroposophists today.
The memorandum also claims: “One singular anti-Semitic remark from 1888 is countered by Steiner's public opposition against anti-Semitism in the period around the turn of the century.” This does not, alas, tell us anything about the other antisemitic remarks Steiner made, either before or after the turn of the century, and does not address the overall development of Steiner’s views on Jews and Jewishness, much less examine how these views fit into his broader teachings on race and ethnicity. The memorandum then states:
“Fundamentally, the subject of race is of no relevance to the anthroposophical structure of ideas either quantitatively or qualitatively. […] Neither the anthroposophical literature of the present nor, for example, the curricula of the Waldorf schools contain any remarks like those investigated here.”
These claims are inaccurate and unsupported by the memorandum’s own evidence. Since the memorandum does not present or analyze even a significant fraction of Steiner’s hundreds of overall statements about race, there is no basis on which to reach a quantitative conclusion, even if such a quantitative approach were not historically wrongheaded. Moreover, the racist aspects of Steiner’s teachings continued to be extended and elaborated by many of his followers for decades after Steiner’s death, and quite a few of these anthroposophical race theories are still current within parts of the anthroposophist milieu today. The memorandum authors seem to have once again mixed up their own preferred version of anthroposophy (which is indeed greatly preferable to many other versions currently on offer) with anthroposophy as such. This is an unreflected conflation of normative and descriptive claims which severely undermines the memorandum’s usefulness for public debate.
To sum up the issues at stake, from my perspective as a non-anthroposophist historian of anthroposophy:
The Frankfurt memorandum gives extensive attention to a series of irrelevant legal matters and simultaneously neglects many central historical matters. From the point of view of public discussion, the pertinent question is not whether some of Steiner's statements about race are offensive or discriminatory, but whether they are racist. The question is not whether readers today might be offended by some of Steiner's statements; the question is what Steiner's statements say about the spiritual significance of race and what these statements have to do with anthroposophy as a whole.
The memorandum authors prevent themselves from even asking this question, however, by positing from the outset that there simply is no racial doctrine to be found in Steiner's work. This will immediately strike non-anthroposophist observers as preposterous, particularly if they are familiar with the existing scholarship on Steiner's racial teachings. Nor is this approach likely to help anthroposophists themselves deal with the subject in a meaningful way.
In this regard, against the evident aims of its authors, much of the memorandum represents a case of retrenchment, of circling the wagons, of deflecting external scrutiny and of re-assuring other anthroposophists that the problem has already been dealt with after all. Like the Dutch report that forms its chief frame of reference, the memorandum insists that Steiner's work contains no racial doctrine and that any racist statements by Steiner are extraneous to anthroposophy as such. The Memorandum also characterizes public discussion of Steiner's racial theories as "attacks” on anthroposophy, and declines to engage substantively with the various critical analyses of these views that have been put forward by non-anthroposophist scholars. This stance underscores the defensiveness that still characterizes anthroposophist responses to external inquiry, even after years of effort by outsiders to get Steiner’s followers to take his racial teachings seriously.
Thus my concern is that the Frankfurt memorandum, having reduced itself to an annotation of the gravely flawed Dutch report, will in large measure serve to keep anthroposophist heads in the sand regarding Steiner's race theories, and the history of racial thinking as such, despite its authors hopes to the contrary. What is particularly disconcerting is that the authors of the memorandum belong, in general, to the more open and progressive strand of internal anthroposophical culture. If even these comparatively reflective and informed anthroposophists still have not succeeded in grappling head-on with Steiner's doctrines on race, it is a dire warning sign for the movement as a whole.
Steiner’s complex racial doctrines are a topic on which anthroposophists in general have even farther to go toward a meaningful historical understanding than on the similarly charged topic of the anthroposophical movement’s history during the Nazi era. Steiner's statements about race contain all sorts of inconsistencies and contradictions, but there is no reason not to characterize them collectively as a set of racial doctrines. Disputing the very existence of the object of inquiry is not a helpful way to begin the inquiry itself.
By focusing their assessment on judicial factors rather than historical contextualization, the memorandum ends up adopting an ahistorical perspective. For external observers, it is hard to see why it would matter whether some of Steiner’s pronouncements could be liable to prosecution today. Steiner is dead. Current discrimination laws did not exist in the times and places he lived. We do not look at Hegel's racial doctrines, for instance, in order to see if they might violate Dutch legal codes in 1999 or 2009; we look at them to see what Hegel taught about race. Anthroposophists today would do well to attempt the same thing with Steiner’s works.
The memorandum’s focus on legal opinion is decidedly misplaced, in my view. It is apparently a response to the various legal challenges that anthroposophist publishers have faced recently, challenges which would not have arisen if there were a critical anthroposophical discussion about the content of Steiner's teachings. That sort of discussion will be hindered as long as anthroposophists engage in special pleading regarding Steiner's status as a historical figure.
In closing, I will reproduce the concluding paragraph from my 2008 article analyzing Steiner’s theory of racial and ethnic evolution:
The historian’s task is not to pronounce a verdict on the past, but to provide material for informed assessment in the present. In this regard, the continued popularity of Anthroposophical institutions and ideas demands critical attention from outside of the movement itself; such critical attention may in turn be occasion for historical reflection on the part of Anthroposophists. Unconventional claims about Atlantis, etheric forces, and cosmic evolution are the prerogative of any religious sub-culture, but spiritual assertions about race and ethnicity typically take on a different kind of cultural valence. Without overstepping the bounds of scholarly discretion, then, it may be appropriate to observe that unless thoroughly revised or rescinded, the racial doctrines promulgated by Steiner and his followers will remain incompatible with Anthroposophy's self-image as bearer of spiritual wisdom and cosmopolitan tolerance.