Though shrouded in overtly-romanticised metaphysical and spiritual notions, biodynamics offers little in the form of practical, measurable benefit. Touted as progressive, tolerant, enlightened and ecologically-sound, its roots can be found in anthroposophy. Second only to Waldorf schools, biodynamics is the most widespread example of applied anthroposophy. A worldview invoked by Rudolf Steiner in 1912, anthroposophy is patently racist, it’s origins found at the intersection of nationalism, right-wing populism, and esoteric spiritualism. Having found philosophical affinities with National Socialism, the 1930s saw biodynamics exert a powerful influence on the ‘green wing’ of German fascism. Steiner’s racial and ecological concerns, centred on re-energising the mystical connection between soil and man, were arguably a byproduct of his concern with the wellbeing, and ultimate purity of, what he considered to be the superior race. These concerns, compounded by his mystical take on soil and land, resonated firmly with the Third Reich’s infamous ‘Blood and Soil’ slogan. Facing increasing political polarisation, a resurgence of extreme right-wing populism in Europe, and a heightened need to tackle climate change, the wine industry should acknowledge the perils of pseudoscience and reflect on the political susceptibilities of romanticised esoteric environmentalism and reactionary ecology. In this piece, I explore the need for a move away from mysticism and a shift toward robust and rigorous ecological agricultural practice.
Steiner, anthroposophy and race
Born in 1861, Steiner grew up in a small Austrian town, later spending his intellectually formative years in Vienna and Berlin. Steiner dabbled in a number of unusual causes and around 1900 underwent a profound spiritual transformation. After this, he would claim to be able to ‘see the spirit world’ and communicate with celestial beings. A preoccupation with mysticism, occult legends and the esoteric marked his mature career from 1900 onward. Though often painted as a serious intellectual by followers and himself claiming superior ‘spiritual awareness’ acquired through quasi-clairvoyant ability, Steiner was wrong on almost everything he thought. The vast majority of his core proclamations were little more than pseudoscientific mystical twaddle.
In 1902 Steiner joined the Theosophical Society, quickly climbing its ranks. Theosophy is a strange amalgam of esoteric precepts drawn from various traditions each teaching about God and the world based on mystical insight. George Mosse, in “The Occult Origins of National Socialism”, has pointed toward connections between theosophy and National Socialism.
Theosophy’s founder, Helena Blavatsky, theorised the esoteric concept of root races, a deeply troubling idea which proposed that the evolution of the races took place through several cycles up to the birth of the Aryan race, who she believed to be the final and most advanced stage. This ambiguous and arbitrary notion left a great deal of room for political subversion ignoring its own patently racist groundings. Blavatsky also declared that the extinction of indigenous peoples by European colonialism was a matter of “karmic necessity.” Theosophy is built around the purported teachings of a coterie of otherworldly beings who secretly direct human events, these teachings were interpreted by Blavatsky to their theosophist followers as special wisdom from divine sources, special wisdom which Steiner would later carry over to anthroposophy.
Steiner dedicated ten years of his life to the theosophical movement, becoming one of its best-known spokespeople. However, he would later split from mainstream theosophy after being unwilling to accept a brown-skinned Hindu man as the next “spiritual master’ of Theosophy. Throughout his time in the movement, what had separated Steiner from Blavatsky and the other India-oriented theosophists was Steiner’s insistence on the superiority of European esoteric traditions, distinct ethnocentrism that would become central to anthroposophy.
Shortly after this split, Steiner founded the anthroposophy. Blending theosophical wisdom with his own ‘occult research’. Along with a growing circle of followers, Steiner continued to develop his anthroposophical worldview until his death in 1925. At the core of this worldview is the belief that for humans, spiritual ‘advancement’ of the soul occurs through reincarnation and karma. The likelihood of reincarnation as an advanced soul is supplemented by access to esoteric knowledge, which Steiner sought to infuse into every element of ones being, both spiritually and physically. Building upon racial teachings he had learned from theosophy, as well as other scholarly influences, Steiner established a racial component at the core of his teachings on spirituality, tying this racial component directly to spiritual ‘advancement’ of the soul. This racial component can be fairly considered as a central tenet of anthroposophy, such that Steiner returned to it many times, expanding his thoughts on race late into his life.
Steiner classified different racial groups as more or less advanced according to immutable levels of development. The particulars of this racial theory are so bizarre that it is impossible to take seriously. Steiner described Indians as a ‘degenerated race’, Asians as ‘passive introverted souls’, and Blacks as childish, sensual and primitive. Steiner asserted that these characteristics were neither a source of pride or denigration, instead they were simply the truth, immutable and attributed to localised energies, ‘bad’ karma and a less-advanced soul. Relating this directly to his teachings on spiritual advancement, Steiner taught that through karma and reincarnation the soul ‘progresses’ up through the races across the epochs depending on the individual fulfilling particular tasks, exercises and instructions as outlined by Steiner. This component resembles a sort of karmic racism. According to Steiner, the most advanced race was the Germanic Aryan race whom Steiner believed were endowed with instructing and guiding less-advanced races through the development of the soul external to the body such that they were able to transcend their current race in a future life.
Developing upon this framework of advancing the soul, and thus progression through the races, Steiner instructed exercises for spiritual development. He proposed that the person lives in harmony with the surrounding natural and social world, that they strive to develop a healthy body and soul, that they recognise the true essence of the human being lines in their spiritual existence, and that they are open to new experiences. The individual must by instruction infuse their life with the esoteric, this was not only implicit in Steiner’s work but his aim in the creation of applied anthroposophy, including but not limited to biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamics infuses agriculture with the esoteric, promoting purity of soil and thus purity of body and soul leading to either preserving the souls racial advancement for the next life or progressing it for those ‘less-advanced’ races.
Throughout his life, Steiner propagated a host of racist myths about people of colour. He taught that black people are sensual, instinct-driven, primitive creatures, ruled by their brainstem. He denounced the immigration of blacks to Europe as “terrible” and “brutal” and decried its effects on “blood and race.” Harrowingly similar to the Nazi doctrine of ‘Blood and Soil’ which would later emerge. In 1922 he declared, “The negro race does not belong in Europe, and the fact that this race is now playing such a large role in Europe is, of course, nothing but a nuisance.” Steiner also declared that people of colour could not develop spiritually on their own, teaching they must either be “educated” by whites or reincarnated in white skin. Europeans, in contrast, were considered by Steiner to be the most highly developed humans. Furthermore, Steiner had at one stage declared that syphilis, a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact, was in fact the result of interracial sexual relations.
Later in his life, Steiner’s thinking would be influenced by Ernst Haeckel, a proponent of Social Darwinism. Haeckel was the founder of modern ecology and the major populariser of evolutionary theory in Germany. Steiner became a partisan of Haeckel’s views, and from him, anthroposophy inherited its environmentalist predilections. Haeckel was also taken with the idea of eugenics as a means of keeping the “German race” pure, an idea which would consume early anthroposophists. Both Steiners own racial views and his proclivity toward assimilating with peers concerned with racial purity suggest that he himself was acutely concerned with the purity of the German race. Centred around re-energising the mystical connection between soil and man, biodynamics is very clearly intertwined with both Steiner’s racial and spiritual worldviews.
The name anthroposophy is a literary Trojan horse, suggesting to outsiders a humanist orientation. However, anthroposophy is in almost every respect a deeply anti-humanist worldview, something humanists like Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch recognised from the beginning. This anti-humanist core reared its head more aggressively in June 1910, when Steiner began a speaking tour of Norway with a lecture to a large audience in Oslo. The lecture series was titled “The Mission of National Souls in Relation to Nordic-Germanic Mythology.” During these lectures Steiner presented his theory of “national souls”, paying particular attention to the mysterious wonders of the “Nordic spirit.” Steiner explained to his followers that the superior ‘fifth root-race’ was, of course, the “Aryan” race. The immediate affinity with Nazi discourse is unmistakable long before the two founded any sort of relationship.
Anthroposophist’s maintain to this day that Steiner’s familiarity with the astral plane, with the workings of various archangels, and with daily life on the lost continent of Atlantis, all came from his powers of clairvoyance. Steiner insisted throughout his teachings that occult experiences such as his were not subject to the usual criteria of reason, logic, or scientific inquiry. Modern anthroposophy is founded on an unverifiable belief in Steiner’s teachings, teachings which deserve closer examination and scrutiny
As Sven Ove Hansson has noted ‘Steiner’s comprehensive explanations of “human races” and their actions take up a large part of his writings on history’. As such ‘to remove the racial teaching from Anthroposophy is no easy task. It is not like removing an isolated tumour but like removing a tumour with many metastases. Further, this explains why this it is so difficult for the anthroposophist’s to critique this racial component. What is at stake is the very foundation of the movement, namely the belief in Rudolf Steiner’s spirit visions as a source of knowledge. This racial component is foundational, remove this card and the house collapses. However, despite widespread scientific progress, the quasi-postmodernist practises of biodynamics gather steam to this day. According to the Biodynamic Association ‘biodynamics embraces the mystery of all life processes, including the subtle and energetic realities that are not necessarily easy to measure or justify using current scientific methods’.
The truth is this, the very purpose of biodynamics was to enthuse life with the esoteric. This infusion of the esoteric is intrinsically linked to the development of the soul and thus to the progression of the soul through the races. The biodynamic preparations are grounded almost entirely in fostering cosmic energy (deers bladder, lactating cow horn etc.) in the soil, in turn purifying food and thus advancing the soul. Any attempt to detach biodynamics from Steiner’s teachings on race leaves the proposal void of any real purpose beyond those already disproven, namely its agricultural efficacy. While biodynamics is presented as a motte-and-bailey fallacy (spirituality and environmentalism as the motte and racism as the bailey) there is little question of its original intent. Attempts to masquerade or rebrand biodynamics display either cognitive dissonance, moral and ideological gymnastics or both.
Despite all of this, in his 2002 book ‘Biodynamic Wines’, leading authority Monty Waldin shares a 2-page biography of Rudolf Steiner. As tends to be the fashion among quasi-religious groups, a doting Waldin omits entirely the nefarious central tenets of Steiner’s racial worldview. Nor does Waldin acknowledge the philosophical or functional affinity between these tenets, and to a greater extent their application, within the most harrowing sociopolitical and philosophical worldview of the last century. Biodynamics is inseparable from anthroposophy and as such is inseparable from Steiner’s racial worldview. This omission, akin to teaching Christianity without mention of the Ten Commandments, suggests either an abject lack of research or more probably a carefully selected historical representation crafted so as not to cast doubt on either Steiner or Waldin’s own vocation. The same omission is made by Demeter in the entirety of their marketing material in what has the overt stench of a concerted attempt to mask the philosophical underpinnings of Steiner, anthroposophy, and by extension biodynamics.
Biodynamics, Demeter and The Third Reich
Whether it be postmodernism, critical theory, or communism, proponents of world views which are either esoteric or in opposition with the zeitgeist yearn for the opportunity to apply their philosophical principles in the real world. Whether it be through a revolution in the case of Marx or by more subtle methods such as via academic institutions and farming in the case of postmodernism and anthroposophy. Peter Staudenmaier, professor of modern German history at Marquette University, notes that ‘Steiner thought all areas of social life should be suffused with esoteric principles’.
Today, second only to Waldorf Schools, biodynamic agriculture is by far the most wide-reaching of Steiner’s applied anthroposophy. It was the preparations, and their functions, laid out by Steiner which captivated the ‘green wing’ of the Nazi party and influenced heavily their policy and direction. In his well-researched work, ‘Organic Farming in Nazi Germany’ Staudenmaier outlines the early inception and growth of biodynamic agriculture, the emergence of the Reich League for Biodynamic Agriculture and Demeter, and the group’s assimilation with the ideological standpoint of the Nazi party’s ‘green wing’.
In 1933, shortly after Steiner’s death, biodynamic growers, led by a prominent anthroposophist Erhard Bartsch founded the Reich League for Biodynamic Agriculture. Bartsch had previously led The Association for Research in Anthroposophical Agriculture following Steiner’s early lectures and would later establish Demeter, editing their monthly journal. Bartsch showed particular disdain to the ‘Americanisation’ of agriculture and was concerned about its effects on German peasant life and its connection to the living soil. He would later claim biodynamic procedures to be more conducive to the wellbeing of the German people, repeating the same ethnic and racial-centrism expressed earlier by Steiner.
The League grew considerably under the Third Reich and had soon added a number of ‘Nazi luminaries’ to its roster of supporters, notes Staudenmaier. Prominent Nazi figures such as Wilhelm Frick, Rudolf Hess, Robert Ley, and Alfred Rosenberg all voiced their support for the organisation’s undertakings. The anthroposophist inflexion of German ecofascism extended well beyond high-profile figures such as Darré and Hess. Supporters included SS officer and anthroposophist Hans Merkel, a leading figure in the SS Main Office for Race and Settlement. Anthroposophist Georg Halbe, an influential official in the Nazi agricultural apparatus. Leading figures in the biodynamic movement, meanwhile, such as Franz Dreidax and Max Karl Schwarz, worked closely with various Nazi organizations.
This ‘branch’ of the Nazi party, coined the ‘green wing’, was guided by the slogan ‘Blood and Soil,’ an infamous phrase which referred to the mystical relationship between the German people and their sacred land. Adherents of Blood and Soil held that environmental purity was inseparable from racial purity. This dual concern made them natural affiliates of anthroposophy. The principal intermediary between anthroposophy and the Nazi green wing was Demeter founder Erhard Bartsch. Bartsch constantly emphasized the philosophical affinities between anthroposophy and National Socialism. He also offered his services to the SS in their plan to settle the conquered territories of Eastern Europe with pure Aryan farmers and advocated the use of prisoners of war in environmental projects.
High SS commanders also drew on Bartsch’s assistance in planning a biodynamic component to the Nazi settlement of ethnically cleansed territories in Eastern Europe. Pohl, the administrator of the concentration camp system, established and maintained a ring of biodynamic farms at concentration camps, including Dachau.
As late as 1939, the front cover of Demeter’s May issue featured a picture of Hitler in honour of the Fuhrers fiftieth birthday. Demeter also celebrated the annexation of Austria, the German attack on Poland, the fall of France, and various German military victories’ tells Staudenmaier. Furthermore, in 1940, Demeter declared the task of the biodynamic movement was to ‘awaken love for the soil and love for the homeland … to fight together with our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’. Bartsch also declared in Demeter that ‘the service of the leading men of Demeter were committed to National Socialist Germany’. Bartsch, a prominent anthroposophist, also consistently reinforced the philosophical affinities between anthroposophy and national socialism.
Again, in his book ‘Biodynamic Wines’ Monty Waldin provides readers with a strangely inaccurate account of Demeter. He notes that ‘the rise of National Socialism ultimately led to the banning of the Anthroposophical and Biodynamic movement’ and that ‘Demeter was not fully operational there [Germany] again until 1954’ and finally that ‘the biodynamic movement took time to recover after 1945’. Waldin appears to suggest to readers that anthroposophy, and by default biodynamics, were radically oppressed by the Nazi party. This is, of course, a wholly misleading representation, as laid out above, and begins to form what looks like a clear attempt to paint a favourable, dishonest picture.
The exclusion of distasteful history is again mirrored by Demeter, who have erased these formative years from their historical timelines, noting only that Demeter was in 1941 forbidden by the Nazi party. However, this banning took place not because the Nazi’s particularly objected to biodynamics, but instead because Rudolf Hess, a leading proponent of biodynamic agriculture had flown to Scotland in an attempt to end the war. Nazi propaganda, in an effort to maintain the support of the German people, declared Hess had not lost faith in the cause, he had instead been sent insane by a number of esoteric personal concerns, biodynamics being one. After their actions were forbidden, Staudenmaier tells me a number of letters exist in archives which show Demeter to have made a concerted effort to reverse this decision, writing letters directly to Hitler and discussing tactfully how to influence. After eventually realising this wasn’t going to happen, Himler, a silent supporter, hired many biodynamic leaders but requested they not use their usual esoteric language.
Common objections and a plea for reconsideration
Though contested by advocates and those ‘specialising’ in the field, often based on anecdote, biodynamics is not effective in any practical sense of the word. Though not the most well-researched, there are a number of reviews available evaluating the body of evidence. In arguably the best of these reviews, Chalker-Scott notes that ‘to date, there are no clear, consistent, or conclusive effects of biodynamic preparations on organically managed systems’. Ignoring scientific evaluation, the most basic of common sense ought to tell most folk that a crackpot series of esoteric preparations drawn out by a man who consistently got everything from the spiritual to the practical wrong are unlikely to prove a panacea to the ailments of agriculturists.
In recent decades, perhaps rather intelligently on its own behalf, biodynamics has amalgamated itself not only with organic farming but also with other sensible practices such as regenerative agriculture, permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, and keyline design. All of these approaches are grounded in science and are intended to increase topsoil regeneration, increase biodiversity, improve the water cycle, enhance ecosystem services, support biosequestration, and increase resilience to climate change. What cannot be said enough is that these practises are not biodynamics and biodynamics is not these practices. They are effective in and of themselves independent of biodynamic preparations, showing time and time again to stand up to the scientific method. Biodynamics serves as little more than a confounding variable, an unnecessary quasi-religious, pseudo-mystical, spiritual, esoteric form of environmentalism which while touted as the independent variable is little more than a distraction from real progress. For the aforementioned to be effective, there exists no necessity for biodynamics as a precursor nor a prerequisite.
The most common objections to pleas for rational on this matter are often that biodynamics is ‘better than chemicals’ or that ‘the mystical elements do no harm’. I’m often shocked when faced with this retort, primarily because those who offer it are otherwise nuanced, well-considered, reasonable thinkers. The first argument is logically fallacious and the second inaccurate by reasoned evaluation and consideration.
Opposed to indiscriminate chemical use, there exists a large number of alternative robust, rigorous, and ecologically-sound systems of vineyard management. To present the choice as binary, chemicals or biodynamics, is a false dichotomy that distracts from the insidious baggage associated with anthroposophy and promotes lazy, simplistic thinking. One could also make a sound argument that in fact, propagating pseudoscience and esoteric mysticism may, in the long-term, produce more bad than good. Addressing the second argument, one need look no further than this article to see this to be false, biodynamics has already in the past aligned itself neatly with ethnonational right-wing extremists, it is far from absurd or far-fetched to suggest in the current sociopolitical climate it, or any number of other esoteric notions may do so again. Rooting out these anti-scientific, pseudo-spiritual worldviews is, by no stretch of the imagination, for the greater good.
Perhaps most interesting about biodynamics in wine, though not something I will explore in detail, is that those most often advocating biodynamics, finding it profound and exciting, are those most left-leaning, liberal, and imbibed by the need for action on climate change. On climate change, these folk are quick to denigrate ‘lukewarmers’ and regularly make pleas for others to ‘listen to the science’. They are concerned by the genuine perils of the pseudoscience presented by the Trump campaigns COVID-19 response. However, they fail entirely to recognise how their own advocacy for pseudoscience itself erodes the scientific discourse and distracts from real progress. It may be that this advocacy for biodynamics is a combination of a failure to follow a single, unified philosophical worldview, an intersection of liberal thinking and openness, and the Guru Effect.
The ‘green wing’ of the Nazis represents the real-world fulfilment of the dreams of reactionary ecology and ecofascism. The intertwinement of anthroposophic belief and practice with actually existing ecofascism should not be judged as an instance of guilt by association or of a reasonable worldview commandeered by extremists. More so, both anthroposophy and biodynamics, themselves rooted in mysticism, racism and quasi-religious principles serve as perfect compliments to the worldviews of both reactionary ecologists and fascists. Famed anthroposophist author Arfst Wagner, who spent years compiling documentation on anthroposophy in the Third Reich, historically came to the uncomfortable conclusion that there is “a strong latent tendency toward extreme right-wing politics” common among anthroposophists both past and present.
We have an obligation as responsible adults to reflect on the acute political susceptibilities of esoteric environmentalism as well as the perils of pseudoscience. Today, in the case of biodynamics, this manifests as a holier-than-thou, magical marketing ploy sold as a panacea to ‘conventional agriculture’. Though Biodynamics may yield some marginal, indirect benefit, addressing esoteric pseudoscience of this kind may go some way toward sealing shut the gaps through which reactionaries are able to ‘justify’ and propagate strikingly disturbing world views as well as addressing real world dangers such as objections to GM crops and reduced yields. I implore the wine industry to think carefully about the worth of a biodynamic certification, of whether magical notions outweigh a commitment to science and progress, and whether we should put to bed the remnants of anthroposophy’s harrowing worldview and instead promote more robust, non-mystical, agricultural standards.