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Steiner's Early Nationalism

By Peter Staudenmaier

Posted to the Waldorf Critics discussion list January 21, 2009

A while ago I told Volker that I'd get back to the topic of Steiner's early nationalism in the Austrian context. Here is my analysis of that subject.

In early 20th century Germany, anthroposophy promised a thoroughgoing spiritual renewal that would bring salvation not only to the German people but to the rest of the world as well. What was necessary to reach this goal, according to Steiner, was a return to Germany's authentic spiritual mission. For a fuller understanding of how these ideas functioned within Steiner's mature worldview, it can help to examine Steiner's early German nationalist period before his turn to esotericism. Steiner's involvement in the German nationalist movement in Austria in the 1880s revealed a number of themes that re-appeared in spiritualized form after 1900 and powerfully shaped his later teachings.

Foremost among these themes was an abiding commitment to the notion of a German 'Kulturmission', a cultural and civilizational mission. To appreciate the full extent of this fundamental conviction, a review of its origins in the ethnic German communities of Austria-Hungary is in order. Steiner described himself as "German by descent and racial affiliation" and as a "true-born German-Austrian," emphasizing the crucial importance of this German identity within the threatening multinational environment of the Habsburg empire in his youth. (Steiner, From Symptom to Reality in Modern History, 162-63) This retrospective self-assessment is consistent with Steiner's activities during his Vienna period.

Throughout the 1880s, Steiner participated actively in the somewhat nebulously defined 'deutschnational' movement in Austria, a tendency that is usually rendered in English as 'pan-German.' These youthful pan-German sympathies are attested in Steiner's early correspondence as well as in his student activities, and are recalled in his autobiography. Christoph Lindenberg's biography of Steiner notes that already in the early 1880s Steiner considered himself a member of the pan-German movement and that his involvement in pan-German organizations went well beyond the usual level of commitment typical for Austro-German university students at the time (Lindenberg, Rudolf Steiner: Eine Biographie, 61-62).

Above all, Steiner's nationalist convictions are displayed in the dozens of articles that he wrote for the pan-German press in Austria between 1882 and 1891. Steiner's pan-German journalism from the 1880s and 1890s is collected in volumes 29, 30, 31 and 32 of the Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe, his Complete Works. Among other outlets, Steiner contributed articles to the Deutsche Zeitung, the Nationale Blätter, and the Freie Schlesische Presse. Steiner first published in the Deutsche Zeitung in 1884, and may have published in the Freie Schlesische Presse as early as 1882 and 1883.

The Nationale Blätter were the organ of the "Deutscher Verein" in Vienna, while the Freie Schlesische Presse was the organ of the "Deutscher Verein" in Troppau, a city in the Sudetenland. By the mid-1880s the Deutscher Verein was one of the major political organizations within the German nationalist movement in Austria, alongside parliamentary factions such as the Deutscher Klub and the Deutschnationale Vereinigung, both of which Steiner wrote about positively. (On the political development of the Deutscher Verein see William McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria, 199-202; McGrath notes that during the period of Steiner's association with the group, the Deutscher Verein "placed the strongest emphasis on German nationalism," which was the major unifying factor of the group.)

The Deutsche Zeitung was originally founded by the German Liberals and came to be considered "the organ of German nationalism in Austria" (Kurt Paupié Handbuch der österreichischen Pressegeschichte 1848-1959, 158). It was among the most prominent voices of German nationalist politics in the Habsburg empire until the rise of Schönerer and Lueger in the 1890s. For background on the Deutsche Zeitung see among others Pieter Judson, Exclusive Revolutionaries: Liberal Politics, Social Experience, and National Identity in the Austrian Empire 1848-1914, 169, and Hildegard Kernmayer, Judentum im Wiener Feuilleton 1848-1903, 284-86. Extensive information on each of these papers, and on others to which Steiner contributed, is also available in Lothar Höbelt, Kornblume und Kaiseradler: Die deutschfreiheitlichen Parteien Altösterreichs 1882-1918.

While Steiner's writings in these newspapers are forthrightly German nationalist, they do not espouse a state-centered power politics or call for authoritarian solutions to the interethnic conflicts of the Habsburg realm; instead they preach a kind of cultural supremacy in which non-German communities are urged to embrace purportedly German standards of civilization. The culmination of Steiner's pan-German journalism came in 1888, when he took over editorship of the Deutsche Wochenschrift for six months. This weekly paper, which carried the subtitle "organ for the national interests of the German people," was a major mouthpiece of radical German nationalism.

(On the central role of the Deutsche Wochenschrift in promoting the "sharper-key politics" of radicalized German nationalism in Austria see McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria, 201-06. For further background on the Deutsche Wochenschrift see also Helmut Zander, Anthroposophie in Deutschland, 1242-45. Other scholars have emphasized the paper's German nationalist radicalism as well; see e.g. Jacob Toury, "Josef Samuel Bloch und die jüdische Identität im Österreichischen Kaiserreich" in Walter Grab, ed., Jüdische Integration und Identität in Deutschland und Österreich 1848-1918, 55. Steiner first wrote for the Deutsche Wochenschrift in 1885.)

In addition to writing a weekly column on politics and current affairs for the Deutsche Wochenschrift, Steiner contributed substantial programmatic essays with titles such as "The Pan-German cause in Austria." (Rudolf Steiner, "Die deutschnationale Sache in Österreich" originally in Deutsche Wochenschrift: Organ für die nationalen Interessen des deutschen Volkes, Vienna, 1888 vol. VI nos. 22 and 25; reprinted in Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kultur- und Zeitgeschichte, 111-20) Steiner's 1888 articles for the Deutsche Wochenschrift portray the Germans in Austria as threatened by an "onslaught from all sides," referring in particular to "Czech agitators" and "the evil Russian influence" along with Poles, Magyars, and other non-German ethnic groups, while at the same time celebrating "the cultural mission that is the duty of the German people in Austria." (Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kultur- und Zeitgeschichte, 112, 85, 69)

According to Steiner in 1888, "modern culture" has been "chiefly produced by the Germans." He thus condemns not only any accommodation to non-German ethnic groups but indeed any cooperation with ethnically German parties that are insufficiently nationalist, calling these parties "un-German." (ibid., 119) Steiner blames the Austro-German Liberals in particular for failing to insist strongly enough that the Slavs must subordinate their own cultures to German culture; this failure "forced the German people to form a party in which the national idea is paramount" (113), namely the German nationalist party. But even the forthrightly nationalist party, in Steiner's eyes, did not do enough "for the national cause" (114).

Contrary to Steiner's implication, Austro-German liberalism itself had become thoroughly nationalist by the late 1880s; his polemics against it indicate an especially zealous stance on his part at this time. Indeed Steiner's harsh denunciations of the German Liberals for betraying their people reveal a firmly ethnocentric intransigence: "If we must be ruled in an un-German fashion, at least our tribal brothers ought not to take care of this business. Our hands should remain clean." (ibid., 143) Steiner similarly rejected liberalism as un-German in an 1891 article (see Steiner, Methodische Grundlagen der Anthroposophie, 298). For further context see Pieter Judson, ""Whether Race or Conviction Should Be the Standard": National Identity and Liberal Politics in Nineteenth-Century Austria" Austrian History Yearbook 22 (1991), 76-95.

In the young Steiner's view, "the Slavic enemy" both within and outside of Austria-Hungary is marked by an "empty national ego" and "spiritual barrenness," which is why the Slavs "would like nothing more than to annihilate the achievements of our European culture." (Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kultur- und Zeitgeschichte, 117) Steiner also fulminates against "the culture-hating Russian colossus" and condemns the abuse of the Austrian state "for un-German purposes" (140). Portraying Czech demands for political participation as a direct threat to German cultural superiority, Steiner's pan-German essays exclaim:

"The Slavs will have to live a very long time before they understand the tasks which are the duty of the German people, and it is an outrageous offense against civilization to throw down the gauntlet at every opportunity to a people [i.e. the Germans] from whom one receives the spiritual light, a light without which European culture and education must remain a closed book." (ibid., 141-42)

In contrast, Steiner exalts "what the German is capable of, when he depends completely on his Germanness, and solely on his Germanness." (ibid., 113) Finally, Steiner's 1888 articles demand that the Habsburg empire's political agenda be set by "the exclusively national elements of the German people in Austria," namely "the pan-Germans." (143) These arguments did not cease with the end of Steiner's Vienna period, however. In Berlin in 1897 Steiner repeated the same refrain: "The Slavs and the Magyars are a danger to the mission of the Germans; they are forcing German culture to retreat." (214) The same 1897 article rails against the "non-German elements" in Austria and regrets the Austro-Germans' ostensible loss of their "privileged position within the monarchy" while looking forward to the day when "the Germans of Austria regain the position of power which corresponds to their cultural level." (215-26)

Similarly, Steiner's 1898 essay "On Pan-German Poets of Struggle in Austria" describes for his Berlin-based readership "the essence of the German national soul from the viewpoint of the German nationalist-minded Austrian." (Rudolf Steiner, "Über deutschnationale Kampfdichter in Österreich" originally in Magazin für Litteratur 1898, vol. 67, no. 34, reprinted in Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Literatur, 448-49)

Steiner's early German nationalist essays do not merely celebrate the wonders of the German national soul; they develop a specific theory of the relationship between German national capacities and objectives and those of other ethnic groups. This distinction between Germans and non-Germans is central to Steiner's later works on the spiritual significance of race and nation. An 1890 article, for example, extols "the world-historical mission of the Germans" (Rudolf Steiner, "Zwei nationale Dichter Österreichs" from Nationale Blätter 1890, in Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsäze zur Literatur, 127). In the same article Steiner unflatteringly contrasts "the Jewish people" to "the Germans," claiming that the Jews have no appreciation for the "religion of love," in stark contrast to the German people, who "unselfishly live for the ideal." (ibid.)

In 1888, Steiner strongly emphasized "the deep contrast" between "the national idea of the Germans and that of the non-German nationalities," defining this difference as a struggle between a cultural duty incumbent upon the Germans because of their history, and the merely chauvinist strivings of the Slavic peoples: "The Germans are fighting for a cultural obligation which has been granted them by virtue of their national development, and their opponent in this struggle is national chauvinism." (Steiner, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kultur- und Zeitgeschichte, 116; Steiner refers here explicitly to "the Slavic enemy," which he also terms simply "our national enemy," as the bearers of this national chauvinism.)

This position has sometimes been construed as a principled opposition to nationalism as such. Even non-anthroposophist accounts occasionally deny that the young Steiner's stance was German nationalist. Such analyses may be based in part on a foreshortened understanding of the late nineteenth-century Austrian context. The distinctive Habsburg ethnic-political crucible within which Steiner's national views were formed was undoubtedly complex, with numerous rival parties and national groups vying for influence. Within this Byzantine multinational landscape, however, the Austro-Germans enjoyed overwhelming hegemony during Steiner's era. Despite widespread perceptions among ethnic Germans of a 'national' peril from non-German groups within the state, there was no real "struggle for national existence" among the Germans in the Habsburg empire in the 1880s, as Steiner held; on the contrary, ethnic Germans formed the administrative, economic, and cultural elite throughout the Austrian half of the far-flung multiethnic empire.

Germans were not only the largest single ethnic group in the empire, they had successfully established and defended a paramount position across Austrian society. John Mason observes that the Austro-Germans were "the leading national group in the Empire and exercised an influence out of all proportion to their numbers." (Mason, The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1867-1918, 10) Mason further notes that "the modern centralized administration" of the country was "thoroughly German in character" (ibid.). "The official language of the Empire was German and the civil servants were overwhelmingly German [...] Not only was the cultural life of Vienna almost exclusively German, but the capitalist class, the Catholic hierarchy and the press were also the preserve of the Austro-Germans." (11) Robert Kann notes that German nationalism in Austria sought "the preservation and enhancement of a privileged position." (Kann, The Habsburg Empire, 19) For further background see among others Jörg Kirchhoff, Die Deutschen in der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie; Emil Franzel, Der Donauraum im Zeitalter des Nationalitätenprinzips; and Robert Kann, The Multinational Empire.

Slav efforts toward greater access to political participation in the Habsburg framework were indeed perceived as a disconcerting challenge by German nationalists, but these efforts did not pose an immediate threat to widespread German predominance under the monarchy in this period. The Germans had not lost their privileged position within the Habsburg system, and by the late 1880s, moreover, virtually all German political parties and social organizations, with the partial exception of the clerical parties that Steiner despised, had gone through a process of intense nationalist radicalization such that figures who a decade earlier had counted as strident nationalists were now seen as ineffectual moderates. (For a penetrating study of the dynamics of increasing nationalist radicalization among Austro-Germans at the time see Pieter Judson's chapter "From Liberalism to Nationalism: Inventing a German Community, 1880-85" in Judson, Exclusive Revolutionaries, 193-222.)

The context for Steiner's early nationalism was thus a shifting situation in Austria-Hungary that thoroughly unsettled inherited notions of German superiority while giving rise to rival national movements among non-German communities. Many of these inter-ethnic struggles concerned disputes over language politics, particularly challenges to German as the sole official language in a variety of administrative contexts. German anxieties over their predominance within the Austrian half of the empire were exacerbated by the conservative 'Iron Ring' government of Count Taafe, which pursued a policy of mollifying Slav constituencies, particularly Czechs and Poles, thus antagonizing both the German liberal and pan-German opposition. (For a relatively balanced account see William Jenks, Austria under the Iron Ring, 1879-1893.)

Even if the ambitions of the Habsburgs' Slav subjects did not constitute a genuine danger to the privileged position of the Germans at the time, Slav campaigns for increased representation and greater autonomy did appear to be a potential menace to the stability of German hegemony. One outcome of this dynamic was that originally universalist visions of Germanness, seemingly embattled and undoubtedly embittered by non-German resistance to their assumed right to cultural pre-eminence, gave way to increasingly intolerant variants of nationalist defensiveness. Steiner's early works partook of this broader transformation, and his emphasis on the German cultural mission thereby conjoined elements of cosmopolitanism with obstinate avowals of ethnic superiority.

When viewed within this context, Steiner's early foray into national politics takes on a different significance. Much of the impetus for the middle-class variety of nationalism which Steiner adopted came from a deep sense of cultural superiority and entitlement: Germans in Austria often perceived themselves as the bearers of civilization to their supposedly backward neighbors and fellow citizens. Rather than either condemning or defending the young Steiner's views, however, a more fruitful approach may be to re-examine the particular contours of his conception of the nation. Here the Austrian origins of Steiner's national thinking are once again decisive.

But even across the broader framework of German-speaking Europe as a whole, the protean phenomenon of nationalism assumed a remarkable variety of forms. In order to comprehend Steiner's conception of the nation, both before and after his turn to esoteric spirituality, it will be helpful to keep in mind the "wide spectrum of nationalisms" that existed in Germany in the decades surrounding 1900. (Geoff Eley, Reshaping the German Right: Radical Nationalism and Political Change after Bismarck, 168) Steiner's particular version of German nationalist thought may be considered an instance of "informal nationalism" in the terms of Thomas Hylland Eriksen, "Formal and informal nationalism" Ethnic and Racial Studies 16 (1993), 1-25; while formal nationalism focuses primarily on the state, informal nationalism concentrates on civil society, collective events, rituals, beliefs, etc. George Mosse analyzes a similar variety of nationalism as a 'secular religion' in Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses. Also worth consulting are Jost Hermand and James Steakley, eds., Heimat, Nation, Fatherland: The German Sense of Belonging; Reinhart Koselleck, "Volk, Nation, Nationalismus" in Koselleck, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe vol. 7, 141-431; and Dominic Boyer, "The Bildungsbürgertum and the Dialectics of Germanness in the Long Nineteenth Century" in Boyer, Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture, 46-98.

Steiner's interpretation of German national identity and national destiny can perhaps best be understood as a variant of what historian Michael Steinberg has termed "nationalist cosmopolitanism." (See the chapter "Nationalist Cosmopolitanism" in Michael P. Steinberg, The Meaning of the Salzburg Festival: Austria as Theater and Ideology, 1890-1938) This notion is based on "the principle that enlightenment and even more specifically cosmopolitanism are German virtues." (ibid., 86) According to Steinberg, nationalist cosmopolitanism "assumed the cultural superiority of the Austro-Germans" and was intimately bound up with the concomitant conception of a "German mission" in Austria, in Europe, and in the world at large. (ibid., 90, 113) "German culture," in this view, "is superior to other European cultures precisely because it is the only national culture to be possessed of a true spirit of cosmopolitanism. In other words, it is a German cultural virtue to understand foreign nations and cultures." (ibid., 108)

In many ways, this diagnosis coincides with Pieter Judson's examination of the "universalist rhetoric of German nationalism" that came to the fore among Germans in Austria in the 1880s. (Judson, Exclusive Revolutionaries, 270) Judson observes that German nationalists in Austria demanded "a strict assimilation to cosmopolitan German values" by other ethnic communities within the empire. (ibid., 269) Such an analysis can help account for the contradictory aspects of anthroposophical thinking on ethnicity and on national questions, contradictions which are already manifest in Steiner's early works. What emerges clearly from these early essays is that Steiner's espousal of a unique cultural mission for the German people – a thread that runs throughout his mature anthroposophical teachings – was a prominent presence in his public career from its very beginnings.

For further historical context on the 'deutschnational' movement in Austria in Steiner's day, I recommend the following: McGrath, Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria; Höbelt, Kornblume und Kaiseradler; Andrew Whiteside, The Socialism of Fools: Georg von Schönerer and Austrian Pan-Germanism; the chapter on "Deutschnationalismus" in Albert Fuchs, Geistige Strömungen in Österreich 1867-1918; Donald Daviau, "Hermann Bahr and the Radical Politics of Austria in the 1880s" German Studies Review 5 (1982), 163-85; Günter Schödl, "Alldeutsch-deutschnationale Politik in der Habsburgermonarchie und im Deutschen Reich" in Schödl, Formen und Grenzen des Nationalen, 49-89; Kann, A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918, 432-35; Kann, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy 1848-1918, 98-101; Arthur May, The Hapsburg Monarchy 1867-1914, 210-12; Carl Schorske, Fin-de-siécle Vienna, 120-33; and the massive recent study by Michael Wladika, Hitlers Vätergeneration: Die Ursprünge des Nationalsozialismus in der k.u.k. Monarchie (Vienna 2005).

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