Waldorf was something I’d never written about at Smarter Parenting, the website I run as part of my day job. We had a couple of articles on the Montessori system and I’d written a piece on the democratic classroom. But I thought we needed something on the Waldorf education system to round things off. And so I began to research the topic, putting out feelers to speak with teachers and administrators in the Waldorf system.
I reached out to a friend whose wife was a retired educator. She’d taught in a Waldorf school the last five years of her teaching career. I also placed a query at HARO (Help a Reporter Out), where journalists can query other members and set up interviews or get quotes from experts on any topic imaginable for articles they are writing.
Sometimes I get deluged by HARO responses in response to a query, other times, I get nothing. So instead of sitting back and waiting to pick someone else’s brains, I hedged my bets and began to do some independent research on the net.
Now, I’d always known there was something strange, even off about the Waldorf classroom. Some aura of cultishness, perhaps even Nazism, clung to Waldorf like an unpleasant department store perfume sample that won’t be washed away with soap and water. I knew that the system was based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who seemed, to put it frankly, a bit of a crackpot.
My impression of the Waldorf was that the schools wanted to distance themselves from Steiner, to make a distinction between Steiner’s beliefs and the schools that were spawned from them. But the more I dug into the subject of Waldorf schools, the weirder things got. It was worse than I’d thought. And no one from a Waldorf school seemed to want to go on record. I had one publicist contact me to say that she knew of a parent of a child in a Waldorf school and this parent was willing to pass on my questions to the administrator of the school.
This seemed a strange way to conduct business, like buying a watch from a guy in a trench coat in a back alley. I asked, “Can’t you just put me in touch with the administrator?”
The publicist replied only that she was sorry it had to be this way, but that she would eliminate the middle man by giving my questions directly to the administrator.
With nothing to lose, I sent on my questions, but never heard back. Follow-up messages to the publicist went unanswered.
I had thought my questions fairly innocuous. They weren’t confrontational. Were the Waldorf people just sniffing around to see whether I planned a hit piece? (And is there any other school system out there that has need to worry about hit pieces??)
What was with these people? What was with Waldorf??
My friend’s wife, the one who’d taught in the Waldorf system, also failed to respond to my questions. I went back to her husband. He said, “Oh, she never reads her email. I’ll tell her to take a look.”
But I never did hear back from her.
Which seems strange to me: why agree to be interviewed and then never check your email?
Does this say something about Waldorf or only about this woman’s email habits?
I don’t know.
But as I looked into Waldorf on my own, I found some really strange things about their philosophy. There were parents who’d had really bad experiences with Waldorf. And one name kept coming up: Dan Dugan.
Dugan is a cofounder of PLANS (People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools), an organization that was formed to educate the public about Waldorf education. PLANS has been doing just that since 1997, acting as a clearinghouse for information on the mysterious Waldorf school system. I went to the contact page at PLANS, and sent off an email to Dan Dugan, who, as it turns out, was happy to speak with me, and gracious enough to respond in writing, at length, to the ten questions I sent him.
I needed to give my readers a rounded picture of Waldorf. So my questions to Dan ran the gamut. But what interested me most about Waldorf on a personal level, was the Nazi question. I had read that while Hitler was bent on closing down all Waldorf schools, and eventually succeeded, Rudolf Hess managed to stall him for a long time. I wanted to know why Hitler was against Waldorf, while Hess was all for Steiner’s educational philosophy, known as “Anthroposophy.”
Dan explained that Hitler didn’t like Steiner because Steiner was a cult figure with a significant following. That made Steiner the competition: Hitler didn’t want anyone to follow anyone but Hitler.
But Waldorf educators didn’t understand that Hitler saw Waldorf as a competitor. They hoped to persuade the Reich that their philosophy was in line with Nazi philosophy. So Waldorf fired all the Jewish teachers and wrote to the authorities that their program was now a perfect fit for the new regime.
The day after Kristallnacht
While this gambit didn’t succeed, it did put off the inevitable for about six years, until Hess fled to England. That’s when Hitler cracked down on occultism, outlawed Anthroposophy, and closed all the schools. For further information, Dan referred me to “Education for the National Community? Waldorf Schools in the Third Reich,” a fascinating chapter from a book by Peter Staudenmaier that shows how Waldorf tried to adapt to a changing political climate during WWII. The chapter begins:
On the 31st of January 1933, the day after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, a Mrs. Oberstein removed her daughter from the Breslau Waldorf school. Oberstein, a Nazi party member, was upset by the presence of a temporary assistant teacher from a Jewish background, and expressed her strong disagreement with the Waldorf faculty regarding “the race question.” Her daughter’s regular teacher, Heinrich Wollborn, wrote a letter the same day defending his Jewish colleague and explaining the Waldorf attitude toward such matters:
“We teachers place our complete trust in the capacity of every person for spiritual transformation, and we are firmly convinced that anthroposophy provides the possibility for an individual to outgrow his racial origin.”
So there you have it: the philosophy behind Waldorf sees Jewishness as an inborn flaw. It can be “outgrown” to be sure. But in the view of Steiner and Anthroposophy, to be Jewish is to have a racial birth defect. Staudenmaier writes:
The visiting teacher whose presence had sparked the incident, an anthroposophist named Ernst Lehrs, came from a family whose Jewish roots were notably tenuous. Not only was Lehrs himself fervently committed to Steiner’s esoteric version of Christianity, both his parents and his grandparents belonged to the Protestant church. The family had not been Jewish for generations, except in the ‘racial’ sense, and Lehrs exemplified the anthroposophical ideal of spiritual transformation and transcending one’s racial origins—the abandonment of Jewishness as the sine qua non for individuals from Jewish backgrounds hoping to become full members of the German Volk. In anthroposophist eyes, Lehrs had successfully joined the national community, whereas in Nazi eyes he was ineligible to do so.
The response by the Nazi regime to Wollborn’s initial letter was lukewarm. That’s because Hitler didn’t see Judaism as a birth defect, or something that can be outgrown or overcome. Hitler saw Judaism as an infestation of vermin that must be eradicated and shown no mercy. And so it was that Wollborn and the other faculty members thought better of that initial policy position and began again:
Writing to local school authorities in October 1933, Wollborn reversed his earlier standpoint, insisting that in his January 31 letter “nothing was further from my mind than taking a principled position on the race question. I therefore greatly regret formulating the letter in such an unclear manner.” Noting that he wrote the earlier letter when the Nazi government was still forming, Wollborn now declared: “I have placed my pedagogical work entirely on the basis of the government, and have fully expressed this by joining the National Socialist Teachers League in June of this year.”
The Breslau Waldorf school, meanwhile, explained that Jews no longer worked there and that Lehrs had been only a temporary employee who left the school before the new laws regarding Jewish employees were promulgated. The school further noted that many Waldorf teachers had joined the Nazi teachers’ association and that all Waldorf schools in Germany had completed the process of Gleichschaltung, the Nazi term for bringing social institutions into line with the regime.
A local school inspector assigned to investigate the incident completely absolved both Wollborn and the school. His final report confirmed the Waldorf representatives’ claims and declared that the Breslau Waldorf school was indeed free of “Jewish influence,” observing moreover that a number of its core faculty were Nazi party members.
There is much more to the story of Waldorf’s desperate and hopeless bid to be accepted by the Nazi regime. The Staudenmaier coverage of this chapter in the history of Waldorf, is impressive and deserves to be read in full. But the main takeaways are 1) In Rudolf Steiner’s view, Judaism is a racial defect and 2) During WWII, Jewish teachers were fired to make Waldorf acceptable to Hitler (though the gambit failed).
Knowing the history, these facts, it is difficult to imagine that any Jewish parent would consider enrolling a child in the Waldorf school system. One might argue that the Waldorf of today is far from these early underpinnings—that the administrators acted under duress. But having read the record, we now have a keen awareness of the inherent antisemitism of Steiner, his theory of Anthroposophy, and the Waldorf school system. Who then could embrace the system that betrayed us—and sees our Jewish birthright as a defect?
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