On Rudolf Steiner’s “Appeal To The German People and The Civilised World” (1919)

©Terry Boardman  

This essay first appeared as the Afterword to: Rudolf Steiner, Towards Social Renewal -  Rethinking the Basis of Society  
(Temple Lodge Publishing, London, 1999)



The years 1917 to 1919 were a time of  the most profound social change throughout Europe. Impulses unleashed by the catastrophe of the war seemed about to transform European civilisation, and indeed, in some ways, it was transformed. Certainly, in those three years, the twentieth century, which, in the socio-political sense, has been marked by a threefold struggle between the ideologies of liberal democracy, authoritarian nationalism and soviet communism, can truly said to have begun. Three great empires, two of which had lasted for centuries, collapsed in those years. One of them, Russia, was to continue as a monolithic state but under the revolutionary modernist ideology of Communism, a kind of inversion of Czarism, in which first Lenin then Stalin sought to become the new ‘little fathers’ of all the Russians. Austria-Hungary, an empire founded by a single family, the Habsburgs, on the dynastic and blood-based principle of the inequality of its constituent peoples, broke up into small republics, which were supposedly founded according to the new Wilsonian principle of  ‘national self-determination’. The third empire, Wilhelminian Germany, which was  founded in  1871 and, according to Nietzsche, signified the ‘extirpation of the German spirit’, became a truncated and bitterly alienated republic, divided against itself and  bereft of any spiritual direction until Adolf Hitler emerged in 1920 to give it one.

The seeds of the Cold War bipolarity between Russia and America were also sown at this time. As the values of 19th century Europe were shown in the killing fields of Flanders and in other continental battlefields to be utterly bankrupt, new ideologies were offered to Europeans in these three years by the  two ‘ideologically-based’ states on Europe’s periphery – the USA and the USSR. The notion of independence and full self-rule for every ethnic group came from the USA – this obviously did not make for harmonious relations between peoples of different ethnicity within multi-ethnic states. Proposed by President Woodrow Wilson and his alter ego Col. E.M. House as part of their Fourteen Points programme for a peace settlement, and eagerly embraced by leaders of nationalist causes all over the continent, the line-drawing principle of self-determination did violence to the complex patchwork quilt of ethnicity which the destinies of Central and East European peoples had sown over the centuries For its part, the USSR offered a different gospel of disharmony  – class war and social revolution, hatred of the middle and upper classes and dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Central Powers in November 1918, and throughout the first half of 1919, revolutionaries of both right and left flourished. The beginning of the first postwar year of peace 1919 saw the Peace Conference open at Versailles and  a week of murderous street battles in Berlin between Spartacist communists and Freikorp rightwingers. Bela Kun established  a communist regime in Hungary in February, and two days later, a shortlived soviet republic of Bavaria was declared after the murder of the prime minister Kurt Eisner. In March Moscow announced the formation of the Comintern (Communist International) for world revolution. On 23rd March Benito Mussolini founded his Fasci di Combattimento party aimed at destroying both democrats and communists.. The  soviet republic in Bavaria was overthrown in May by Berlin government troops, but the following month, a pro-French “Rhenish republic” was declared in several Rhineland cities. Such political turmoil continued in Germany until the signing of the Peace Treaty of Versailles on 28th June. Only then did the situation begin to “stabilise”. Meanwhile, throughout Central and Eastern Europe, refugees and newly-disenfranchised and dispossessed citizens were on the move as countries’ borders were reconfigured.

Rudolf Steiner had soon recognised the dangers to Europe in the ideologies from East and West. He also saw through what he called ‘the nullity’ of  the policies and materialistic war aims of the Central Powers and for decades had been at one with Nietzsche in believing that the German Empire had been founded with no spiritual purpose at its core. In 1917 he was asked by Count Otto Lerchenfeld, a cabinet Minister in the government of Bavaria for advice amidst the growing desperation felt in government circles. This opened the way for the next step, in July 1917, of attempting, through his personal connections, to bring influence to bear on the Austrian government to prepare for peace negotiations. He submitted a Memorandum, which contained the key sentence : When human beings become free, so will the nations become free through them. He thus met the group-based national self-determination of Wilson with the thought of individual self-determination. He sought to show how the changed conditions of the times required utterly radical solutions. The worn out values of the 19th century had produced the catastrophe of the war. As Thomas Meyer has put it, …in the twentieth century evolution has reached a stage where the centralisation of state power can be replaced by a free system of contracts with mature citizens. That is why political structures  must be created which correspond to the actual degree of freedom attained by modern man.(1)  Those in public life needed to recognise what the times were demanding, and in particular that Central Europe had to be able to offer a spiritual alternative to the programs of Wilson and Lenin; otherwise it would be destroyed between them.  Although his ideas were listened to with some interest by high-ranking Austrians and Germans, they were not acted upon. The result was that at the treaty of Brest Litovsk which ended the war between Germany and Russia (December 1917-March 1918), the Central Powers had nothing to put to the Russians other than demands based a grasping and selfish materialism.

Having failed to present any ideas to the East, Germany had a last chance to respond to the Wilsonian principles of the West in 1918. A further opportunity for Rudolf Steiner came when he had promising conversations with Prince Max von Baden in January 1918 and later in October 1918 by which time Prince Max had become the last Chancellor of Imperial Germany. Rudolf Steiner had already fully elaborated the  idea of social threefolding based on his thorough understanding of the threefold nature of the human being (as described in his book Riddles Of The Soul 1917). However, in what was said to be one of Rudolf Steiner’s most bitter disappointments, Prince Max also failed to put the idea of social threefolding before the German people in his inaugural address. This was the last chance for the German Empire to rise to a spiritual ideal and the Empire duly collapsed in ignominy.  Vacuous at its beginning in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1871, vacuous and pretentious throughout the 47 years of  its existence, it expired in vacuousness with nothing to say for itself. Its birth and death were bound up with the  success and failure of the military. Material strength and prowess, as Rudolf Steiner courageously pointed out again and again in these years, had been its only inspiration.

1919 – The Year of The Movement for  Social Threefolding

As revolutionaries fought to spread communism throughout Central Europe in late January, three men – Emil Molt, Roman Boos, and Hans Kühn (2) in Stuttgart met with Rudolf Steiner for two days for advice on how to work with threefolding in the context of an industrial trust company. He responded in three ways. First,  he gave a course a lectures which became the basis of  his book Die Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage in den Lebensnotwendigkeiten der Gegenwart und Zukunft (originally published in English as The Threefold Commonwealth and now as Towards Social Renewal) and on 2nd February he produced an appeal ‘To the German People and the Civilised World’ and gave it to the three men from Stuttgart. The  2nd day of the 2nd month of  1919 was the beginning of the movement for social threefolding. In the lectures and the Appeal Rudolf Steiner  sought to show especially how social and economic life in Germany could be revitalised on a basis commensurate with modern spiritual reality and the evolution of modern society. Die Kernpunkte… first appeared in March 1919 along with the publication in the press of the Appeal, signed by leading personalities from various walks of  life  in the German-speaking cultural world. Out of this grew Der Kommende Tag, the association for commercial organisations working with the threefolding idea. On 23rd April came the birth of the Waldorf  Education movement when Emil Molt asked Rudolf Steiner to establish and run a school for the workers at his Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette factory. This new form of education would help to build a healthier society; the social divisions of the prewar decades had been based upon the economic exploitation of the working classes and their cultural deprivation. It was vital that such a radical and modern form of education had to correspond to the truth about Man and the world, so finally, came the plan to publish the memoirs and recollections of the late General Helmut von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff in 1914 when war broke out. Here Rudolf Steiner was keen to establish the truth of what happened in late July and August 1914 so that the world would realise that Germany was not solely to blame for the First World War as was being insisted at the Versailles Peace Conference, then nearing a completion. He foresaw that the mendacious accusation of Germany’s sole guilt would have a devastating effect, not only upon the soul life of the German people, but also upon the sense for truth within European culture and thus on international relations. In this way, Rudolf Steiner gave a threefold response to those three men which, broadly speaking, addressed the economic, the cultural, and the political concerns of the times

With tremendous enthusiasm, workers for anthroposophy set about publicising and lecturing on the ideas of  threefolding, and from April to July Stuttgart became the centre of a hive of activity in this direction. Ultimately however, only the Waldorf education movement would survive. A combination of untimely impatience on the part of some anthroposophists and opposition by the German General Staff  prevented the publication of  Moltke’s memoirs, and by the end of 1919 the momentum of the threefolding movement had run out. The fruitful moment of social chaos – what is today called a window of historical opportunity – had largely passed by July 1919 and the signing of the Peace Treaty (28th June). The will for meaningful change within society at large, and, it has to be said, within the Anthroposophical Society itself, was not great enough; countless people simply fell back into the old familiar ways. Anthroposophical energies were transferred to supporting the Waldorf School movement.

The Relevance of the Appeal Today

The question can be asked: how relevant is the Appeal to the German People and the Civilised World today? The Appeal sought to make clear to the German people and others how the German Empire had been founded “without a substantial goal to justify its existence” and therefore the West judged that it could justifiably  be “swept away”. Germany had “become an impossible social structure due to the confusion of its three systems” (spiritual, political, economic)(3) . The failure of the German people to rise to the spiritual challenge of the years 1917-1919 led to the victory of the perverted spirituality of the Nazi movement. After Nazism’s defeat in 1945 the new Bundesrepublik became fully integrated into the political, cultural, and above all, economic community of the West. The Cold War bipolarity meant that the concept of Mitteleuropa, so common in Steiner’s time, was hardly heard for forty years. Today,  a reunited Germany is becoming integrated into a European Union. Powerful forces in the West regard it as having the role of ‘economic motor’ of the EU(4). They are not interested in it being much else. Almost fifty years after its founding, the German Empire was destroyed because it was built on no spiritual centre – only a drive to power, expressed in military and industrial terms. Fifty years after its founding, the heart of the Bundesrepublik is transplanted to the old imperial capital of Berlin – and what is now at the spiritual core of the new Germany? Is it not still seen primarily both within Germany and without as a drive towards material power in  financial and industrial terms? Instead of this, Rudolf Steiner hoped the German people would be able to build upon the stream of spiritual idealism in their cultural history (which is why in 1917 he named the great building he had designed in Dornach, Switzerland, the Goetheanum) and would become a mediating centre of  cultural life between East and West.

In the German Empire, spiritual and economic life were subordinated to the State – Kaiser, civil service, the  military. Germany today is a country of “the West”, firmly embedded in the EU, NATO, and “the Euro-Atlantic structures”. As such, it shares the common western feature of the domination of the economic realm over the cultural and political realms. Eighty years ago, Rudolf Steiner’s Appeal stated that “Social communities hitherto have, for the most part, been formed by human instincts. To penetrate their forces with full consciousness is a mission of the times.” Have western countries been at all successful in doing this since 1919? The Appeal pointed clearly to the consequences of the failure to establish a social order with a mission that “corresponds to the inner essence of its people.” People were deaf to it then. Surely, in essence the Appeal and its call for social threefolding are just as relevant today, if not more so in a world with a single superpower, in which economics and technology threaten to overwhelm all social life. Will deafness again prevail?


1. Thomas Meyer, Light for the New Millennium – Rudolf Steiner’s Association with Helmuth and Eliza von  Moltke : Letters, Documents and After-Death Communications (Temple Lodge Publishing, London) p.23
2. Emil Molt  – director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company; Roman Boos – sociologist; Hans Kühn – volunteer for work on Threefold Commonwealth project, he later became the business manager at Der Kommende Tag.
3. quotations from the Appeal
4. See for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, quoted in Amnon Reuveni, In the Name of the New World Order – manifestations of Decadent Powers in World Politics (Temple Lodge Publishing, London 1996) pp.98-101

This page was first uploaded Dec 1999 Last updated 21.7.2012