In a pandemic where global leaders have peddled quack treatments and miracle cures, Germany has often stood out as a shining beacon for science.
It is the country that developed the first diagnostic test to detect the coronavirus, and the first vaccine approved in the west to shield people against the disease. It is a country whose physicist chancellor told parliament she passionately believes “there are scientific findings that are real and should be followed.”
But Germany is also a country where some people who fall severely ill with Covid-19 can find themselves taken to hospitals where they are treated, under sedation and without a formalised opt-in procedure, with ginger-soaked chest compresses and homeopathic pellets containing highly diluted particles of iron supposedly harvested from shooting stars that have landed on earth.
Followers of the “spiritual scientist” and self-proclaimed clairvoyant Rudolf Steiner advocate such therapies to fight the coronavirus because of a supposed “anxiety-relieving effect on the soul and the body” and ability to “strengthen the inner relationship to light”.
There are no peer-reviewed studies or clinical trials proving the effectiveness of these remedies, and they are not included in the official treatment guidelines issued by Germany’s leading intensive care associations.
Yet in Germany some of these therapies have been given to critically ill patients throughout the pandemic at Steiner hospitals such as Gemeinschaftskrankenhaus Havelhöhe, one of a network of 16 clinics in Berlin offering intensive care to Covid-19 patients under the oversight of the prestigious Charité university hospital.
The country’s public health insurance companies, which are part-financed by German taxpayers, have duly picked up the tab via flat-rate payments for hospital treatment of coronavirus patients.
However, public acceptance of the movement and its philosophies is facing renewed scrutiny after a year in which Germans have seen followers of the Steiner philosophy march alongside anti-vaxxers and the far right in protest at the government’s measures against coronavirus.
Best known outside Germany for the left-leaning schools focused on self-directed play with wooden toys, Steinerism started out as a multi-disciplinary spiritualist philosophy in the late 19th century.
Born in 1861 as a citizen of the Austrian empire, Steiner claimed to have access to higher spiritual planes that gave him insights into reincarnation, links between cosmic bodies and plant growth, and evolutionary history, including the years of Jesus’s life not covered by the Bible and the sunken continent of Atlantis.
By the time of his death in 1925, Steiner had applied his philosophy to a wide array of subjects, including education, architecture, agriculture, dance and medicine.
In the 21st century, anthroposophy remains a minority movement, albeit one that enjoys a high level of social acceptance and institutional support in German-speaking countries. In Germany, there are more than 200 schools, more than 500 nurseries and 263 institutions for people with mental disabilities that follow Steiner’s philosophy. The country’s highest grossing drugstore chain, dm-drogerie markt, and second-largest chain of organic supermarkets, Alnatura, are both run by self-professed anthroposophists, and cosmetic products made by Steiner-devoted brands like Weleda and Dr Hauschka are not only for sale in German pharmacies but are also enjoying a global boom.
While the number of employees working at these institutions and businesses who take Steiner’s philosophy at face value is likely to be low and dwindling, the movement has carved out a steady presence in German public life.
“In some ways anthroposophy is a German success story”, said Helmut Zander, a historian of religion who has written books critical of the Steiner movement. “It hits a nerve that our society has for a long time ignored. Organic farming has gone mainstream over the last decade – Steinerists have done it since the 1960s.”