There are over 250 Waldorf schools in Germany. The private institutions give off a hippy image: students stage elaborate theatre productions and learn to dance their names in a practice called Eurythmy. In the press, they are described as “progressive” or “left-leaning.”
But as you look closer, the vibe gets stranger and stranger. It’s more than just that the buildings have rounded edges and all the toys are all made of wood. Students are educated according to their “seven-year life cycles” and judged according to their “four temperaments” (do you feel more “phlegmatic” or “sanguine”?).
As one former teacher reported to Süddeutsche Zeitung, when teachers were discussing why a particular student was jumpy, it was decided they must have experienced trauma between their previous life and this one.
Waldorf Schools are run according to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. To understand Steiner, imagine a German version of L. Ron Hubbard. Both men spread esoteric ideas at times when science was all the rage, so they claimed they explored the spiritual realm according to scientific principles. Both considered themselves experts on every imaginable topic, from music to botany to how to wash your car. Their constant lectures — 5,965, in Steiner’s case — were preserved as the ultimate wisdom on everything.
Both Steiner and Hubbard have been frequently accused of racism. But while Hubbard embodied an American ideal of the 1950s, with rugged individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and whatnot, Steiner was a product of imperial Germany with its ethno-nationalist pulse. So while Hubbard based his teachings on the Marcab Confederacy in distant galaxies, Steiner was more interested in Atlantis beneath the waves.
Steiner’s Anthroposophy is every bit as complex and weird as Hubbard’s Scientology — the former calls itself “the science of knowledge,” while the latter is “the wisdom of the human being.” To any outside observer, both seem like ravings of delusional narcissists.
Scientology, while it gets lots of coverage in the tabloids, is limited to a few Hollywood actors and the downtown of Clearwater, Florida. Steiner’s followers are less well-known, but far more powerful. Supermarkets sell fruit from Demeter, which is presented as organic, but in fact follows the principles of Steiner’s “biodynamic agriculture.” Besides avoiding pesticides, this calls for a cow horn to be buried in the field to harness astral and ethereal energy. The cosmetics manufacturer Weleda uses water prepared in Steinerian rituals. Retailers like dm-drogerie and Alnatura are run by anthroposophists. Otto Schilly, Germany’s Interior Minister from 1998 to 2005, even belongs to the cult.
To make an analogy with the United States: Can you imagine if Scientologists owned Walgreens, ran hundreds of schools, and even had a seat on the cabinet?
And as I wrote a few weeks ago, the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing Germany to reckon with a large esoteric minority that prefers hocus pocus to science. The anthroposophists naturally have eccentric views on medicine. Similar to homeopathy, Steiner-inspired alternative healing enjoys a special carve out in German law. They are allowed to sell their “medicines” without any evidence of effectiveness.
It’s no wonder that they are skeptical about vaccines. As a former Waldorf student explains in an autobiographical essay in Der Spiegel, Steiner believed that illness was like karma, punishing people for bad deeds in previous lives. Diseases would thus help children grow (through their “seven-year life cycles,” of course), and vaccines would therefore stunt their development.
Like with any cult leader, of course, Steiner’s messages about vaccination are confusing and contradictory, and his followers draw different conclusions. What is clear, though, are the numbers. Wikipedia describes Waldorf schools as “epidemic hotspots,” with high rates of both measles and Covid-19 due to low vaccination rates (the New York Times called them a “bastion of anti-vaccine fervor.”). State authorities have had to intervene due to the number of students with doctor’s notes for mask exceptions — seven times more than at public schools.
There are even anthroposophist hospitals supported by public money. As The Guardian has reported, some of these are treating Covid-19 with ginger chest compressions and sugar pills infused with meteoric dust. Shockingly, sedated ICU patients have been transferred into these hospitals and treated with snake oil without being able to give consent.
Of course not everything at Waldorf schools is bad. An emphasis on theater and gardening will be great for some kids. But should we let cults run schools? As the former teacher quoted above explained, many parents and even some teachers will have no idea about Steiner. But it’s the most dedicated followers of Steiner who set the tone.
I believe strongly in freedom of religion. And I wouldn’t say that the Steiner Cult can hold a candle to the Catholic Church in terms of destructiveness. But religious freedom means that people should be able to follow their beliefs on their own time and on their own dime. No cult deserves special privileges or public funding. Above all, education and health care need a scientific basis and democratic control.
No one would want Scientology running schools in Germany. So why give other cults that right?
Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.