Background of the 1935 Decisions
After Rudolf Steiner’s death, Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede as well as their so-called “followers” were accused of serious offenses and disruptive behavior detrimental to the Anthroposophical Society, the spirit of the Christmas Conference, and the impulses of anthroposophy. At considerable expense, the Executive Council actively helped disseminate these assertions to the membership through the Society’s Nachrichtenblatt (and the so-called Denkschrift). These publications formed the basis for the decisions of the 1935 Annual General Meeting. For all intents and purposes Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede had long since been excluded from the leadership activity of the Executive Council; the decision to expel them officially from the Executive Council put a formal seal on this reality.
The justifications for this action that were offered at the time included misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and defamatory accusations—a fact that, even then, some members clearly recognized. Nonetheless, these members were unable to prevail despite letters, motions, and oral contributions.
In the years since, an increasingly widespread agreement has emerged that these expulsions were carried out unjustly. In hindsight, it was not the activity of Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede that was contrary to Rudolf Steiner’s intentions and the impulse of the Christmas Conference; it was the activity of those responsible for their expulsions.
As a result of these misunderstandings and untruths, two members of the Executive Council who had been highly valued by Rudolf Steiner and appointed by him during the Christmas Conference were expelled by central organs of the General Anthroposophical Society: the Annual General Meeting and the remaining Executive Council. This action effectively excluded them from any further opportunity to work within the General Anthroposophical Society.
The rehabilitation of Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede would require that their individualities and their work in service to anthroposophy and as colleagues of Rudolf Steiner be recognized and their value acknowledged. It would further require that the circumstances and events that led to the expulsions be raised to consciousness and worked through in the broader context of self-knowledge within the Anthroposophical Society. Finally, it would require that what was done to them be recognized as an injustice; and that the decision of 1935 be rescinded. This is the only way that we can stand on a foundation within the Anthroposophical Society that is both attentive and truthful to the form and mood of the consciousness soul. Ultimately these steps alone make it possible for those who actively carry responsibility in anthroposophy to work fruitfully into the future.
“But here I would like to point out that our gathering today can only be fruitful if it is based on creating a positive element that recognizes our shortcomings—which we certainly admit to—and thereby builds upon a more concrete recognition of what is lacking.” Rudolf Steiner spoke these words in 1923, the year of destiny and crisis following the fire that destroyed the Goetheanum. During that year he worked tirelessly and with deep commitment to awaken within the membership a consciousness of the urgent necessity for self-knowledge and strengthening within the Society.
What do the 1935 exclusions mean for the supersensible anthroposophical movement and for the Anthroposophical Society on the earth?
In his 1924 lectures on karmic relationships, Rudolf Steiner describes how souls from all the Old Mystery streams who sought the Christ-Impulse had gathered around Michael in the spiritual world. For the salvation of all earthly civilization these souls wanted to unite the most diverse karmic and spiritual streams at the end of the 20th century and together guide the cultural activity of anthroposophy to a culmination.
From this, we can conclude that Rudolf Steiner had assembled significant representatives of these streams in the original Executive Council of the Christmas Conference 1923/24. The expulsions in 1935 “eliminated” important spiritual pupils of Rudolf Steiner from the Executive Council. But distinguished colleagues in the fields of science, medicine, and medical therapies were also cut off from their Sections and their professional tasks within the General Anthroposophical Society. In addition to the approximately 2,000 members who were also excluded from the Society in 1935, it should be recalled that these actions on the earth led to entire portions of the supersensible anthroposophical movement being cut off as well. It is almost impossible to assess the true extent and enormity of this act—and to determine which developments have been hindered or prevented since then.
In the years following 1935 Marie Steiner (who had taken an active role in the expulsion of her Executive Council colleagues), was herself excluded from participating in the Executive Council and from shaping the Society. The feminine element was thus entirely eliminated from the first Executive Council despite the fact that in his earlier esoteric lessons Rudolf Steiner had placed particular emphasis on the significance of a balance between feminine and masculine aspects within a renewed esotericism.
The expulsion of Ita Wegman from the Executive Council appears especially tragic and consequential against the background of Rudolf Steiner’s evening lectures during the December 1923 refounding of the Anthroposophical Society. These lectures reveal the collegial work he had shared with her over thousands of years on behalf of Michael.
When Wilhelm Rath sought out Elisabeth Vreede after the 1935 Annual General Meeting and asked her about the expulsions, she said that what had occurred in Dornach would have an impact on world events as a whole: “The dam that held back Nationalist Socialism is now broken.”
Of the original Executive Council and the somewhat diverse spiritual streams it represented, only Albert Steffen and Günther Wachsmuth remained. This resulted in an inevitable one-sidedness that remained a determining factor in the development of the General Anthroposophical Society for decades. During this time, the Society sank slowly into the state of paralysis and ineffectiveness that Rudolf Steiner had warned would be a pressing danger if the Christmas Conference impulse were not taken up. “Anthroposophy,” he said, “will certainly not be driven out of the world. I would say, however, that for decades and longer it could sink back into a latent condition. The loss for the development of humanity would be enormous.”
It should be noted that the intention here is not in any way to condemn Albert Steffen and Günther Wachsmuth—nor should such a condemnation follow from this rehabilitation effort. Their engagement on behalf of anthroposophy should be highly valued. For example, we have Günther Wachstmuth to thank for the building of the second Goetheanum; without him, it would not have been possible. And we have Albert Steffen to thank for his splendid writings, his dramas, and his healing paintings. At the same time, we ought not overlook how the development of the Society was shaped by these two Executive Council members. It would represent progress towards a consciousness-soul attitude if we could come to perceive the work of the counterforces in a person’s actions while at the same time not losing sight of our love for that person as a human being or misjudging his true striving. We are confronted by “strong oppositional forces, demonic forces” that “attack the anthroposophical movement” and “make use of human beings on the earth,” and without such a consciousness-soul attitude we might otherwise come to view the entire history of the General Anthroposophical Society as a permanent failure resulting from the dereliction of the members—ourselves included. As Rudolf Steiner so frequently said, all “inner opposition” “including within those closest to me” arises out of the influence of the counterforces.
During a Branch leaders meeting in 1988 Manfred Schmidt-Brabant, chairman of the Executive Council at the time, posed the urgent question as to how and why it is the case that the worldwide membership of the Society hovers around 60,000 while hundreds of thousands are connected to the anthroposophical movement worldwide. He recalled that Rudolf Steiner had spoken about the millions of souls who had made a pre-birth decision to seek out anthroposophy on the earth! Why are they not finding their way to us, to our Society?
Might one answer to this question be found in the tragic development described earlier? Both personalities – in reality, there were three – who were expelled from the founding Executive Council possessed an enormous capacity to work right into the public arena out of the sources of anthroposophy. The absence of Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede as individuals connected to the Anthroposophical Society and as cofounders of it – in combination with the leadership’s gesture of ostracism towards them – made it impossible over the years and decades for innumerable souls to find their way to anthroposophy and the General Anthroposophical Society. Rudolf Steiner’s words are relevant here: “… if it were possible for us to succeed in allowing what has been active since Christmas to have its full effect, the membership could triple or quadruple in a relatively short time.”