In 1948, in her introduction to the first, mimeographed, edition of these lectures, Marie Steiner described the circumstances in which they were given by Rudolf Steiner in December 1916 and January 1917:
‘After the outbreak of the World War in 1914, a great many of those working on the Goetheanum were forced to leave Dornach. Nevertheless, a sufficient number, citizens of neutral countries, remained, with the firm aim of completing the work on the building in collaboration with the artists, who felt called upon to redouble their efforts. All honestly intended, in their personal dealings, to resist the temptation to be carried away by sympathies or antipathies in their view of the different nations. Yet in their everyday life there were causes enough for controversies and emotional outbursts, and Dr Steiner was frequently asked to give his opinion about one or another point under dispute. But those who asked were not free of wishful thinking as they listened to his replies. They hoped for agreeable answers which they could relay to their friends, who may have been even more caught up in wishes and antipathies. Thus a good deal of what was said was twisted, coloured and slanted to such an extent that when it found its way back to Dornach it had become quite unrecognisable. It appeared to Dr Steiner, therefore, that he would have to speak in a private setting to quite a wide circle of anthroposophists, admonishing them to remain objective in their search for truth, indeed schooling them in this… A natural love of their own country and a certain amount of gullibility make individual people rather defenceless against biased influences and skilful innuendo; these are powerful propaganda tools. Through them, the Anthroposophical Society, which consisted of representatives of many nations, was faced with yet another difficulty…’
This, then, was the situation which led to the lectures published in these two volumes. They were given by Rudolf Steiner from 4 December 1916 to 30 January 1917, mostly in Dornach, to an audience consisting of members of the Anthroposophical Society: men and women of various nations, some of which were at war with each other. Marie Steiner continues:
‘It has proved particularly difficult to transcribe the shorthand records made of his spoken words because of the lively conversational tone he adopted. He could so easily read the feelings in the souls of his audience and was thus led to digress from the main theme and take up another thread which was soon dropped again. The stenographer momentarily loses track of the line of thought, and dropped stitches have to be picked up to bridge the resulting gaps. With patient checking this is possible, though the result is not always stylistically satisfactory. But the essential content is preserved. The procedure culminating in the total picture, as it emerges, could lead to the foundation of a new science of history as well as to a soul training desperately needed today: a training in truthfulness.’
In these lectures, Rudolf Steiner speaks not only as one conducting spiritual research but also as a human individual suffering through the events of his time. The First World War had reached a turning point: The fateful year of 1917, which was to bring with it the collapse of Russia, the Russian Revolution and the entry of America into the war, was about to begin. The Central Powers were sinking towards the abyss on the scales of fate. The collision of West and East on the ruins of Central Europe, which was finally completed in 1945 but which he saw approaching, was in his eyes an immeasurable misfortune for the future of mankind.
Rudolf Steiner spoke in many lectures about the folk souls and the spiritual connections between the peoples of Europe, and about the great contrast between eastern and western peoples. Particular mention may be made of the cycle The Mission of the Individual Folk-Souls given in 1910 and also of the many lectures given in 1914 and 1915 which have already been published in the Complete Edition in German, as well as those dealing mainly with the East-West problem given in his later years. Always he endeavoured to stimulate an understanding for the right of Central Europe to exist. Indeed he considered its existence essential for the favourable evolution of human culture and civilization, and he was particularly aware of this in the fateful weeks of the turn of the year from 1916 to 1917. It goes without saying that any kind of nationalism was foreign to him. Yet in certain quarters he was accused of being on the side of the Central Powers. As early on as 1915 the article Gedanken während der Zeit des Krieges (Thoughts during Wartime) had caused the French writer Edouard Schuré, who had been a close friend of both Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner until the First World War, to denounce him publicly in France as a German chauvinist. Later, after the war, by means of attempts on his life, the instigation of fights in the auditorium, and so on, the real German chauvinists made it impossible for him to lecture publicly in Germany.
In December 1916 it was becoming clear that it was no longer realistic to reckon with a limitation of the conflict or an early end to the war. Passions were growing ever more violent. On both sides war propaganda was whipping up the production of empty phrases and lies to a pitch hitherto unknown. In the lecture of 1 January 1917 Rudolf Steiner speaks of the ‘karma of unthruthfulness’. He wants to unmask the illusion arising from the system of nation states which has come from the past and is projecting into the present, and he wants to show that the events of the war are themselves like a veil behind which a new world is waiting to step into existence: In reality, the war is a revolution in the social structure of mankind.
So when we read these lectures we should also bear in mind the new social impulse about which Rudolf Steiner spoke for the first time in the summer of 1917 when he sketched out the threefolding of the social organism in the ‘Memoranda’. This was then worked out more fully in 1919 in Aufruf an das deutsche Volk und die Kulturwelt (A Call to the German People and the Civilized World) and in the The Threefold Social Order. [See The Renewal of the Social Organism – e.Ed] Threefolding in its various aspects — functional in the individual and social for mankind as a whole — became one of the main themes in his lectures in the ensuing years. Among its fruits was the Free Waldorf School in Stuttgart, the first institution belonging to the ‘free’ spiritual sphere of social life and the starting point for a new art of education.
Out of his spiritual understanding of the hidden impulses of human evolution Rudolf Steiner endeavoured in these lectures to draw attention to essential factors in the affairs of nations and peoples which are entirely ignored by all the parties concerned. They should be interpreted as aspects of a ‘symptomatic view of history’ (see From Symptom to Reality in Modern History.
The lectures were taken down by Helene Finckh, a professional stenographer called to Dornach by Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner, who took down almost all of Rudolf Steiner's lectures from January 1916 onwards. The repeated reminders by the lecturer not to take notes during these lectures were directed to the audience and not, of course, to the authorized stenographer. The shorthand reports were not released by Rudolf Steiner either for publication or for reading, and until 1948 they were not made accessible, even in the Dornach archive. In 1948 Marie Steiner decided to bring out a restricted, mimeographed edition which was handed out on a personal basis only. The first German edition in book form was published in 1966. The second edition, in 1978 (Volume One, GA 173) and 1983 (Volume Two, GA 174), contained in the main only corrections of printing errors and quotations as well as some amendments to the notes. (This translation is made from the second German edition. Tr.)