Friedrich Benesch, Anthroposophist and Nazi
Von Peter Staudenmaier
This post is about the life and legacy of the prominent anthroposophist Friedrich Benesch, whose Nazi past and its unexpected revelation by non-anthroposophists presents a case study in how Steiner’s followers deal with
their own history.
Friedrich Benesch (1907-1991) was a leading figure in the Christian Community, the forthrightly religious arm of anthroposophy. For thirty years, beginning in the 1950s, he was the head of the seminary in Stuttgart that trains the
Christian Community’s priests. A very large proportion of all Christian Community pastors alive today were trained directly by Benesch. He appears to be popular with English-speaking anthroposophists as well; his book Reverse Ritual:
Spiritual Knowledge is True Communion, for example, was published by the Anthroposophic Press in 2001, and there’s a plug for several other publications by Benesch currently at the website of the Christian Community in Australia andNew Zealand.
In German-speaking Europe, meanwhile, Benesch is a generally revered figure in anthroposophical circles. The quasi-official biography of him celebrates his contributions to religious renewal (see the entry on Benesch in Bodo von Plato,
ed., Anthroposophie im 20. Jahrhundert: Ein Kulturimpuls in biografischen Portäts, Dornach 2003). Not long after this biographical description was published, anthroposophists became aware of Benesch’s Nazi past through an article by historian Johan Böhm, who aside from being a specialist on the region where Benesch lived until the end of WWII also happened to be one of Benesch’s pupils in the high school where Benesch taught in the early 1940s.
Since 2004, when Böhm’s supposedly new revelations (which I’ll survey in a moment) were published, some of Benesch’s former colleagues and admirers have been trying to account for the fact that nobody in the anthroposophical movement
seems to have noticed the rather high-profile former Nazi in their midst. What’s more, Benesch’s extensive period as a militant Nazi did not come before he embraced anthroposophy, but after, and indeed during his intensive engagement with ‘spiritual science’. Several on-line anthroposophical sources (including a brief appendix added to the internet version of the biography cited above) now address the matter in decidedly anguished tones.
The article that broke this unwelcome news within the anthroposophical community is Johan Böhm, “Friedrich Benesch: Naturwissenschaftler, Anthropologe, Theologe und Politiker” Halbjahresschrift für südosteuropäische Geschichte, Literatur und
Politik, vol. 16 no. 1 (May 2004), pp. 108-119. Böhm here reviews Benesch’s early career as a radical Nazi activist in the ethnic German community in Romania. His research shows that from 1934 to 1945 Benesch was a leader in the
more extremist wing of the regional Nazi party, the DVR, which opposed the more ‘moderate’ elements in the Romanian-German Nazi movement. Benesch's Nazi activities continued even while he worked as a pastor (though not yet a Christian Community pastor) and conducted graduate studies with Professor Hans Hahne and his colleagues in Halle, where Benesch focused on racial ethnography.
According to Böhm's very thorough account, during the 1930s Benesch was not merely a member of the ultra-Nazi DVR, he was one of its principal figures. While Böhm dates Benesch's involvement in Nazi politics to 1934, Benesch himself
gave a considerably earlier date in his 1941 dissertation at the Univeristy of Halle. Here Benesch writes: "Since 1928 I have been a member of the National Socialist movement for renewal among the Germans in Romania." (Friedrich Benesch, Die Festung Hutberg: Eine jungnordische Mischsiedlung, Halle 1941, "Lebenslauf")
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Böhm’s 2004 article is his personal testimony about the content of Benesch’s classes in the Romanian-German high school in the early 1940s. According to Böhm, Benesch placed racial theory at the center of his teaching, and emphatically propagated National Socialism to the pupils. (These parts of Böhm’s article are not mentioned in anthroposophist responses.) This is consistent with other historical evidence about Benesch’s activities at the time. For instance, at a 1936 DVR gathering that Benesch
organized, he gave a lecture on the “racial history of the Teutons”. And in 1939 he applied to work with the SS research institute, the Ahnenerbe, on a project about “Trees and forests in Aryan-Germanic spiritual and cultural history”.
The records of the Ahnenerbe, housed at the German Federal Archives in Berlin, contain a substantial file regarding Benesch, which I read through last week.
(The archival signature is Bundesarchiv Berlin, DS / G113: 457-492.) Among other things, these documents show that Benesch joined the SS in July 1939. (Both recent anthroposophist sources and the Böhm article say he joined the Waffen-SS, but in fact the files refer to the regular SS.) In 1941 he was appointed head of the Nazi party organization in his home county in Romania. It was Böhm’s 2004 article that first brought these records to the attention of anthroposophists and Christian Community officials.
Among the more intriguing questions surrounding this sordid affair is: Why did it take this long for Benesch’s friends, co-workers, students and admirers to find out basic information about his early career? His SS files, for example,
have been available for decades through the Berlin Document Center and later the Federal Archives, and are by no means difficult to track down. Moreover, Böhm’s 2004 article was hardly his first mention of Benesch’s Nazi activities. Two of
Böhm’s earlier books – standard works on the community in which Benesch lived and worked in the Nazi era – discuss Benesch’s role as a militant Nazi in detail; see Johan Böhm, Das nationalsozialistische Deutschland und die Deutsche
Volksgruppe in Rumänien 1936-1944: Das Verhältnis der Deutschen Volksgruppe zum Dritten Reich und zum rumänischen Staat sowie der interne Widerstreit zwischen den politischen Gruppen (Frankfurt 1985), pp. 41-42, 53, 138-139; and Böhm, Die
Deuteschen in Rumänien und das Dritte Reich 1933-1940 (Frankfurt 1999), pp. 149, 272-273. These works contain extensive information on Benesch’s position within the DVR and so forth.
In addition, it was no secret that Benesch was married to Sunhilt Hahne, daughter of Nazi academic Hans Hahne, who was also Benesch’s initial doctoral advisor. As my previous post pointed out, the history of Hahne’s intense
engagement with anthroposophical doctrines has been readily accessible for years. Furthermore, Benesch’s own 1941 dissertation not only employs Nazi racial terminology but openly declares Benesch’s commitment to Nazism in the brief autobiographical notice at the conclusion of the text. This dissertation was not hidden away in some university vault; a copy of it has been publicly available at the state library here in Berlin all along.
But even anthroposophist sources noted Benesch’s far-right political inclinations long before 2004, without however making an effort to look very far into their extent and character. In an Afterword to a collection of Benesch’s
lectures published by the Christian Community publishing house in 1993 under the title Leben mit der Erde, Christian Community leader Hans-Werner Schroeder discussed Benesch’s past at some length, including his early involvement in the
radical nationalist and racist völkisch youth movement; his fondness for the ‘Nordic-Germanic’ nonsense of Nazi race theorist Herman Wirth, founding director of the Ahnenerbe; his work with and personal relationship with Hans Hahne; and his participation in the Artamanen, the infamous “blood and soil” group that produced several later Nazi leaders, including Himmler, Darré, and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höß.
It is hard to tell whether Schroeder, writing not long after Benesch’s death, considered these merely run of the mill political commitments for a young anthroposophist, or if he was completely unaware of what these groups stood for.
An equally puzzling conundrum is just what anthroposophist readers of Schroeder’s account made of these biographical facts, and why none of them bothered to inquire further into the matter. Schroeder’s Afterword, by the way, also makes entirely clear that Benesch’s dedication to anthroposophy was central to all of his engagements throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
The lesson to be learned here may not be so much that anthroposophists could easily be Nazis and Nazis could easily be anthroposophists; there are dozens of other examples of that particular circumstance. Nor is Benesch’s own post-war
silence and denial especially surprising. What is perhaps more interesting in this case is the blindness of latter-day anthroposophists to the history of their own colleagues, indeed their own celebrities, their remarkable disinterest in examining this history through commonly available sources, and their pained surprise when the suppressed past finally rises to their attention. In light of these dynamics, the obvious question is how many other Friedrich Benesches are lurking within the ranks of twentieth century anthroposophy.
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