The Pre-anthroposophical Rudolf Steiner
by Stefan Zweig *
From “Die Welt von Gestern“ - Zweig’s autobiography
I received a whole series of recommendations from my Viennese friends, and I didn’t ignore any of them. The objective of my escapade was to escape from the secure, bourgeois atmosphere and instead to live unimpeded and dependent only on myself. I only wanted to meet people to whom I had found my way through my own literary efforts - and the most interesting people possible; after all, one hadn’t read “Bohème” for nothing and as a twenty-year-old one had to live accordingly.
I didn’t have to look very long for such an indiscriminately thrown together circle. From Vienna I had been contributing for some time to the “modernist” Berlin periodical “, ironically named “Die Gesellschaft” (The Society), edited by Ludwig Jacobowski. That young poet had founded a society shortly before his early death with the seductive, for young people, name “Die Kommenden”, which met once a week on the second floor of a café at Nollendorfplatz (Berlin). Modelled after the Parisian “Closerie des Lilas”, this large group attracted the most heterogeneous poets, architects, snobs and journalists, young girls who draped themselves as artists or sculptresses, female Russian students and snow-blond Scandinavians who wanted to perfect their German. Germany itself was represented by all its provinces, strong-boned Westfalens, honest Bavarians, Silesian Jews: they all mingled in wild completely unconstrained discussions. Now and then poems or dramas were recited; most important was, however, getting to know each other. In the center of these young people, who ostentatiously acted like bohemians, an old, gray-bearded man sat calmly like a Santa Claus. He was respected and loved by all, for he was a real poet and bohemian: Peter Hille. That seventy year old man gazed good-naturedly and guilelessly with his blue dog’s eyes at that peculiar band of children, always enclosed in his gray overcoat, covering a tattered suit and very dirty linen. He always allowed himself to be encouraged by our appeals to take a rumpled manuscript from his coat pocket and recite his poems. They were unequalled, really improvisations of a lyrical genius, but too loose, too accidentally formed. He wrote them in the tram or in the café with a pencil, forgot them afterwards, and when reciting them had difficulty finding the words on the rumpled, stained paper. He never had money, but he didn’t worry about money, slept as a guest here, then there, and his otherworldly forgetfulness, his complete lack of ambition had something attractively true about it. No one understood when and how this good forest man had found his way to the great city of Berlin and what he wanted here. But he wanted nothing, not fame, not to be celebrated, and was nevertheless carefree and freer due to his poetic dreaminess than I ever saw later in other men. The noise and screams of the others flowed around him; he listened calmly, argued with nobody, lifted his glass amiably to one or the other, but hardly ever participated in the discussions. I had the impression that during the wildest tumults verses and words were being sought in his shaggy and somewhat tired head and were eventually found.
The truth and childishness of this naïve poet - practically forgotten today in Germany - perhaps diverted my attention from the elected president of “Die Kommende”, but this was the man whose ideas and words would later be decisive for the lives of countless people. Here in Rudolf Steiner, through whom later as founder of Anthroposophy the most splendid schools and academies were made by his followers as the realization of his teaching, I met for the first time after Theodor Herzl a man whose destiny it was to be a guide for millions. Personally he didn’t come across so much as leading like Herzl, rather as seductive. A hypnotic power lived in his dark eyes, and I listened to him better and more critically if I didn’t look at him, for his ascetically lean, spiritually passionate face was well apt to be convincing not only to women. At that time Rudolf Steiner had not yet developed his own teaching, but was himself still a seeker and learner; occasionally he gave us commentaries about Goethe’s theory of color, which became Faustian, Paracelsus-like in his description.
It was exciting to listen to him for his learning was stupendous and marvellously many-sided, in contrast to ours, which was limited to literature. I always returned home from his lectures and many good private conversations enthusiastic and at the same time somewhat depressed. Nevertheless - if I ask myself today if I would have prophesized then that this young man would have achieved such a philosophical and ethical mass effect, I admit to my shame that I must say no. From his seeking spirit I expected great things in science and it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least to hear about a great biological discovery achieved through his intuitive spirit. Many years later when I saw the grandiose Goetheanum, that “School of Wisdom”, which his students had established for him as a platonic academy of “Anthroposophy”, I was rather disappointed that his influence had gone so much in the direction of mass appeal, even sometimes to the banal. I do not pretend to judge anthroposophy, for it is still not clear to me what it means and what it wants to accomplish. I even think that essentially its seductive effect is attributable more to Rudolf Steiner’s fascinating person than to an idea. Still, to have met a man with such magnetic strength at that early stage where he undogmatically and in a friendly manner imparted knowledge was an immeasurable gain for me. In his fantastic and at the same time profound knowledge I recognized that true universality, which we had arrogantly deceived ourselves that we already possessed, can not be attained by mere reading and discussion, but only in years of long and ardent effort.
Contained in “Der Andere Rudolf Steiner” © 2005, Pforte Verlag, Dornach, Switzerland. This extract is titled “Hypnotische Kraft“ (Hypnotic Power).
Translation: Frank Thomas Smith
*Stefan Zweig 1881 (Austria) - 1942 (Brazil)
Stefan Zweig was an extremely well-known writer in the 1930s and 1940s. Since his death in 1942 his work has become less known. Zweig wrote novels and short stories, and several biographies, of which his most famous is probably the one of Mary Stuart. This was published in German as Maria Stuart and in English as (The) Queen of Scots or Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. At one time his works were published in English under the pseudonym "Stephen Branch" (a translation of his real name), when anti-German sentiment was running high. Born in Vienna, Zweig was the son of Moritz Zweig, a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer, and Ida (Brettauer) Zweig, the daughter of an Italian banking family.
Zweig studied philosophy and the history of literature, and in Vienna was associated with the avant garde Young Vienna movement. Being a Jew, he fled Austria in 1934. He was famously defended by the composer Richard Strauss who refused to remove Zweig's name (as librettist) from the posters for the premiere, in Dresden, of his opera “Die schweigsame Frau” (The Silent Woman). This led to Hitler refusing to come to the premiere as planned; the opera was banned after three performances.
Zweig then lived in England (in Bath and London), before moving to the USA. In 1941 he went to Brazil, where he and his second wife Lotte (née Charlotte E. Altmann) committed suicide together in Petrópolis using the herbal concoction Vironal, despairing at the future of Europe and its culture. After the fall of Singapore, they believed Nazism would spread over the whole earth. "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth." His book “The World of Yesterday” is a paean to the European culture he considered lost.