Shrouded in romanticised metaphysical and spiritual ballyhoo, biodynamics is a pseudoscientific, occult farming practice that, under robust scrutiny, fails to outperform ‘regular’ organic agriculture. Touted as progressive, enlightened and ecologically-sound, its roots are found in anthroposophy. Founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1912, anthroposophy is a profoundly troubling ‘spiritualist movement’, with origins at the intersection of nationalism, right-wing populism, and esoteric spiritualism. Second only to Waldorf schools, biodynamics is anthroposophy’s most penetrating praxis. Having realised strong philosophical affinities with National Socialism, the biodynamic movement exerted a powerful influence on the ‘green wing’ of German fascism. Steiner sought to re-energise the mystical connection between soil and man, emphasising the importance of a unique spirit particular to the ‘Aryan race’, which, through incarnation, the human soul ascends to incarnating first in ‘lowly races’, and rising later through incarnation in higher and higher racial forms. This worldview resonated firmly with the Third Reich’s infamous ‘Blood and Soil’ faculty, for many of whom Steiner’s teaching was catnip. In this article, I reflect on the origins of biodynamics and detail the political susceptibilities of esoteric environmentalism and reactionary ecology, considering whether—in light of its troubling origins and pseudoscientific perils—commentators should reconsider their gleeful propagation of biodynamic
Steiner, anthroposophy and race
Born in 1861, Steiner grew up in a small Austrian town and spent his intellectually formative years in Vienna and Berlin. Steiner dabbled in a number of unusual pursuits and, around 1900, underwent a profound spiritual transformation. After this, Steiner would claim to be able to communicate with the ‘spirit world’ and ‘celestial beings’. This preoccupation with mysticism, occult legends and the esoteric defined his adult career from 1900 onward. Despite his followers presenting him as a serious intellectual as well as personally claiming superior ‘spiritual awareness’ and quasi-clairvoyant abilities, almost everything Steiner thought and taught was wrong or at odds with his peers. In fact, the majority of his most popular proclamations were little more than pseudoscientific mystical twaddle.
In 1902 Steiner joined the Theosophical Society, which taught, celebrate and preached Theosophy—a strange amalgam of esoteric precepts drawn from various traditions, teaching about God and the world based on mystical insight. In “The Occult Origins of National Socialism”, George Mosse details connections between theosophy and National Socialism. Theosophy’s founder, Helena Blavatsky, theorised the esoteric concept of root races, an outdated and troublesome idea which proposes the evolution of the races takes place through several cycles—concluding with the birth of the Aryan race, who Blavatsky believed to be the final and most advanced stage. Blavatsky also taught that European colonialism’s extinction of indigenous peoples was a matter of “karmic necessity.” Theosophy purported to have resulted from the teachings of a coterie of otherworldly beings who secretly direct human events; Blavatsky claimed to be interpreteting these teachings to her followers as special divine wisdom, which Steiner—who quickly climbed Theosophy’s ranks—would transmogrify in anthroposophy.
Steiner dedicated ten years of his life to theosophy, becoming one of its best-known spokespeople. However, after being unwilling to accept a brown-skinned Hindu man as the next “spiritual master’ of theosophy, Steiner broke rank. Even as a young man, what had separated Steiner from Blavatsky and the other India-oriented theosophists was his insistence on the superiority of European esoteric traditions and distinct ethnocentrism, a persuasion which would become central to anthroposophy.
Shortly after splitting from theosophy, Steiner founded anthroposophy, blending theosophical wisdom with his own ‘occult research’. Steiner developed his anthroposophical worldview—supported by a growing band of followers—until he died in 1925. At its core, anthroposophy proposes that the spiritual ‘advancement’ of the soul occurs through reincarnation and karma. One’s likelihood of reincarnation as an advanced soul is supplemented by one’s openness and access to esoteric knowledge, which Steiner sought to infuse into every element of one’s being, both spiritually and physically. Building upon theosophy’s racial teachings, Steiner fleshed out a core racialised component, tying this component directly to his proposed spiritual ‘advancement’. This racial component is central to anthroposophy, such that Steiner returned to it many times, continuing his thinking on race late into his life.
Later on, Steiner classified different racial groups as more or less advanced according to immutable levels of development. The particulars of this theory are so bizarre that they are impossible to take seriously. Steiner described Indians as a ‘degenerated race’, Asians as ‘passive introverted souls’, and Blacks as childish, sensual and primitive. He asserted that these characteristics were neither a source of pride nor denigration. Instead, they were simply the truth, immutable and attributable to localised energies, ‘bad’ karma and a less-advanced soul.
Steiner relates this ‘reality’ directly to his teachings on spiritual advancement, teaching that through karma and reincarnation, the soul ‘progresses’ through the races and across the epochs depending on the individual meeting particular criteria, and completing, tasks, exercises, and instructions, as outlined by Steiner (a sort of karmic racism). Of course, Steiner also considered the Germanic Aryan race the most advanced, believing them to be endowed with the responsibility of instructing and guiding less-advanced races through the development of their own souls, such that they were able to transcend their current race in their future lives.
To this point, Steiner instructed exercises for spiritual development, proposing that people live in harmony with the surrounding natural and social world, that they strive to develop a healthy body and soul, and recognise that the true essence of the human being rests in their spiritual existence and being open to new experiences. Steiner believed the individual must infuse their life with the esoteric; this was not only implicit in Steiner’s work but was his aim in formulating praxis—including but not limited to biodynamics, which infuses agriculture with the esoteric, promoting purity of the soil and thus purity of body and soul leading to either preserving the soul’s racial advancement for the next life or progressing it for those ‘less-advanced’ races.
Steiner’s body of work is infested with racial prejudice about ‘less-advanced races’, propagating a host of racist myths. Steiner 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.” “The negro race does not belong in Europe, and the fact that this race is now playing such a large role in Europe is … nothing but a nuisance.” wrote Steiner. Steiner also taught that people of colour could not develop spiritually on their own, believing they must either be “educated” by whites or reincarnated in white skin. In contrast, Steiner considered Europeans to be the most highly developed humans. Strangely, Steiner had at one point declared that syphilis, a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact, was the result of interracial sexual relations.
Later on, Steiner was deeply influenced by Ernst Haeckel—a proponent of Social Darwinism. Haeckel was the founder of modern ecology and a 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 preoccupied with eugenics, which he believed would ‘keep the German race pure’, an idea that would consume early anthroposophists. Steiners own racial views, compounded by his proclivity to assimilate like-minded peers, demonstrate that he was acutely concerned with race. Biodynamics is arguably a function of Steiner’s racial and spiritual worldviews as a means to re-energise the mystical connection between soil and man.
Anthroposophy as a Trojan horse
Anthroposophy is a Trojan horse presenting to outsiders as a humanist orientation. However, in almost every respect, it is a deeply anti-humanist worldview, something humanists like Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch recognised from its beginning. This anti-humanist core motivated Steiner’s 1910 speaking tour of Norway, beginning with a lecture to a large audience in Oslo. During this lecture series, titled “The Mission of National Souls in Relation to Nordic-Germanic Mythology”, Steiner presented his theory of “national souls”, paying particular attention to the mysterious wonders of the “Nordic spirit” and that the superior “fifth root-race” was (predictably), the “Aryan” race. Anthroposophy’s affinity with Nazi discourse predates the two founding any tangible relationship.
As Sven Ove Hansson reports, ‘Steiner’s comprehensive explanations of “human races” and their actions largely reflect his writings on history. As such, removing this racial component from Anthroposophy is no easy task, akin to removing a tumour with many metastases. In critiquing this racial component, anthroposophists risk the very foundations of the movement itself, namely the belief in Rudolf Steiner’s spirit visions as a source of superior and unwavering knowledge. Nevertheless, despite decades of scientific and social progress, the quasi-postmodernist practises of biodynamics continue to gather steam.
The truth is, biodynamics is praxis intended to enthuse life with the esoteric. This infusion of the esoteric is purported to be linked to the development of the soul and, thus, to the progression of the soul through the races. The biodynamic preparations are said to foster cosmic energy (deers bladder, lactating cow horn etc.) in the soil, in turn purifying crops and thus advancing the soul. Attempt to detach biodynamics from Steiner’s teachings on race leaves the proposal void of any real function, namely its agricultural efficacy.
In spite of this, in his 2002 book ‘Biodynamic Wines’, leading authority Monty Waldin shares a 2-page biography of Rudolf Steiner. A doting Waldin entirely omits the nefarious central tenets of Steiner’s racial worldview. Neither does Waldin acknowledge the philosophical and functional affinities between anthroposophy and the most harrowing sociopolitical and philosophical worldview of the past century. This omission is akin to teaching Christianity without mention of the Ten Commandments and suggests either an abject lack of research or, more probably, a precariously selective representation crafted so as not to cast doubt on Steiner’s teachings. Demeter makes the same omission.
Biodynamics, Demeter and The Third Reich
Peter Staudenmaier, professor of modern German history at Marquette University, has written that ‘Steiner thought all areas of social life should be suffused with esoteric principles’. Today, second only to Waldorf Schools, biodynamics is the most far-reaching form of applied anthroposophy, stampeding Gramscianly through winegrowing circles. Biodynamic preparations and their purported functions captivated the ‘green wing’ of the Nazi party, heavily influencing their policies and work. In his landmark work, ‘Organic Farming in Nazi Germany’, Staudenmaier documents biodynamic agriculture’s early inception and growth, the emergence of the Reich League for Biodynamic Agriculture and Demeter’s assimilation with the Nazi party’s ‘green wing’.
In 1933, shortly after Steiner’s death, biodynamic growers, led by prominent anthroposophist Erhard Bartsch, founded the Reich League for Biodynamic Agriculture. After Steiner’s early lectures, Bartsch had previously led ‘The Association for Research in Anthroposophical Agriculture and would later establish Demeter, editing their monthly journal. Bartsch showed particular disdain for the ‘Americanisation’ of agriculture and was concerned about its effects on German peasant life and their connection to the living soil. He would later claim biodynamic procedures to be more conducive to the well-being of the German people, repeating the same ethnic and racial concerns 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. Prominent Nazis 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 was an influential official in the Nazi agricultural apparatus. Meanwhile, leading figures in the biodynamic movement, 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 headed by its slogan ‘Blood and Soil,’ an infamous phrase which referred to the supposed 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. Concentration camp administrators established and maintained a collection 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 Fuhrer’s 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. Then, in 1940, Demeter declared that 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 wrote in Demeter that ‘the service of the leading men of Demeter were committed to National Socialist Germany’.
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 his readers that the Nazi party radically oppressed anthroposophy (and, by default, biodynamics). This representation is wholly misleading and begins to form what looks like an effort to brush over biodynamics philosophical affinities with the Nazis.
The exclusion of distasteful history is supported by Demeter, who has erased these formative years from their historical timelines, noting only that the Nazi party in 1941 forbade Demeter. However, this banning took place not because the Nazis 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, hoping 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 notes that many letters exist in archives that show Demeter made a concerted effort to reverse this decision, writing directly to Hitler and privately discussing how to influence him tactfully. 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
Despite what advocates might suggest, biodynamics has thus far failed to demonstrate efficacy in any robust controlled setting. Though not particularly well-researched, literature reviews do exist which evaluate available evidence. In the best of these reviews, Linda Chalker-Scott notes that ‘to date, there are no clear, consistent, or conclusive effects of biodynamic preparations on organically managed systems’. If published literature isn’t your bag, one’s own common sense suggests that a crackpot collection of homoeopathic preparations proposed by a charlatan is unlikely to be a panacea for modern agricultural ailments.
Detracting from its wackier roots, today, biodynamics amalgamates itself with organic farming, and various other tried and tested practices—namely regenerative agriculture, permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, and keyline design. These robust practices intend to increase topsoil regeneration and biodiversity, strengthen the water cycle, enhance ecosystem services, support biosequestration, and increase resilience to climate change. Despite efforts to entangle biodynamics with similar aims and objectives, biodynamics acts as little more than a confounding variable in this equation, a waste of resources and an unnecessary backdoor for harmful pseudoscience.
The most common objection to any plea for rationality on this topic is that biodynamics is the lesser of two evils—opposed to indiscriminate harmful chemical application—or that biodynamics mysticism does no harm—both are equally untrue. These retorts continue to shock me, mostly because those who defend them are otherwise nuanced and reasonable thinkers. While it is easy to oppose the indiscriminate chemical application which continues to plague agriculture, a reasonable alternative need not be magic. Those wanting to pursue more environmentally considerate agriculture practices might pick from any number of alternative and ecologically-sound methods of vineyard management. To suppose that one’s choice is binary—herbicide or magic—is a false dichotomy that distracts from the insidious baggage of anthroposophy and the harms associated with propagating pseudoscience. In fact, celebrating pseudoscience and esoteric mysticism may well yield more bad than good over time.
Finally, the notion that biodynamics does no harm is a falsehood. Besides having previously aligned neatly with ethnonational right-wing extremists, there are many non-trivial concerns made real by propagating biodynamics, not to mention the opportunity cost associated with wasted resources dedicated to dynamising cow turd. Agriculturalists only have so much time; if we want them to do their best work—for themselves and the planet—we ought not to suggest they waste their time planting horns and spraying quartz. Further, Demeter baselessly rejects GMO crops, an essential means of ending world hunger. Additionally, biodynamic crops have been shown to produce smaller yields, a troubling proposition for struggling farmers—news flash; there’s a world outside of wine.
Most interesting is that, at least in the wine industry, those most fervently defending biodynamics are commonly left-wing liberals, otherwise enamoured by ‘the science’. On climate change, these people are quick to denigrate ‘lukewarmers’, regularly demanding the public ‘listen to the science’. They express immense concern for the perils of pseudoscience propagated by Donald Trump and lament the misinformation which hampered the global COVID-19 response. Nevertheless, they fail to recognise how their own advocacy for pseudoscience helps erode trust in scientific discourse. It might be true that the only thing worse than religion is its absence. Or, perhaps Steiners ‘Guru Effect‘ bedazzles otherwise non-believing rationalists.
Famed anthroposophist author Arfst Wagner has concluded that there is “a strong latent tendency toward extreme right-wing politics” common among anthroposophists both past and present. Today’s biodynamics advocates are predominately not right-wing; however, they do demonstrate an abject rejection of rationalism, leaving a wedge in the door for ecofascist extremists and quacks. Political susceptibilities aside, as responsible adults, we are obligated to reflect on the acute perils of pseudoscience. Today, biodynamics manifests a holier-than-thou marketing ploy touted as a panacea to conventional agriculture. Though it might show some correlation with improved wine quality, this non-causal relationship is surely not worth exacerbating anti-scientific sentiment—namely Demeter’s objections to GM crops, reduced yields and opportunity cost. I implore wine professionals to reconsider their gleeful celebration of biodynamics and put to bed the remnants of anthroposophy’s harrowing worldview. Instead, we might celebrate proven agricultural standards and a commitment to scientific rationalism.