IN 1913 on the hill in Dornach near Basel, Switzerland, construction had begun on the building then known as the Johannesbau and later to be called the Goetheanum, the central headquarters of the anthroposophical movement. Members of the Anthroposophical Society from all parts of the world had been called upon to work on the building, and they were joined by a growing number of others who moved to Dornach, either permanently or temporarily, on their own initiative. Thus a unique center of anthroposophical activity developed in Dornach, a center that was, understandably enough, burdened with the shortcomings and problems unavoidable in such a group.
In the summer of 1914, these difficulties escalated when World War I broke out, since people from many different nations, including those at war, had to work together and get along with each other. Isolation from the rest of the world and, last but not least, both local and more widespread opposition to the building and the people it attracted, further complicated the situation. In spite of all obstacles, however, the building continued to grow under the artistic leadership of Rudolf Steiner, who was well-loved as a teacher and felt by all to be a bulwark of constancy. But in the summer of 1915 all this changed as a result of incidents that threatened to test the Dornach group, and thus the Anthroposophical Society as a whole, to the breaking point.
Rudolf Steiner's marriage to Marie von Sivers at Christmas of 1914 had provoked not only general gossip, but also some bizarre mystical behavior on the part of a member named Alice Sprengel. [ Note 1 ] Heinrich Goesch (see below) and his wife Gertrud seized upon her strange ideas and made use of them in personal attacks on Rudolf Steiner. Since this was done publicly in the context of the Society, Rudolf Steiner asked that the Society itself resolve the case. This resulted in weeks of debate, at the end of which all three were expelled from the Society. Rudolf and Marie Steiner did not take part either in the debates or in the decision to rescind their membership.
The documents that follow reconstruct the events of the case in the sequence in which they occurred.
Alice Sprengel (b. 1871 in Scotland, d. 1949 in Bern, Switzerland) had joined the Theosophical Society in Munich in the summer of 1902, at a time when Rudolf Steiner had not yet become General Secretary for Germany. She joined the German Section a few years later. In a notice issued by the Vorstand of the Anthroposophical Society in the fall of 1915 informing members about the case, Miss Sprengel is described as having undergone unusual suffering in her childhood. At the time of her entry into the Society, she still impressed people as being very dejected. In addition, she was unemployed at that time and outwardly in very unfortunate circumstances. For that reason, efforts were made to help her.
Marie Steiner, then Marie von Sivers, sponsored her involvement in the Munich drama festival in 1907 and arranged for her to be financially supported by members in Munich. In order to help her find a means of supporting herself in line with her artistic abilities, Rudolf Steiner advised her on making symbolic jewelry and the like for members of the Society. It was also made possible for her to make the move to Dornach in 1914. She, however, interpreted this generous assistance to mean that she had a significant mission to fulfill within the Society. Having been given the role of Theodora in Rudolf Steiner's mystery dramas fed her delusions with regard to her mission, as did the fact that toward the end of the year 1911, in conjunction with the project to construct a building to house the mystery dramas, Rudolf Steiner had made an attempt to found a “Society for Theosophical Art and Style” in which she had been nominated as “keeper of the seal” because of her work as an artist. She imagined having lived through important incarnations and even believed herself to be the inspirer of Rudolf Steiner's spiritual teachings. In addition, having been asked to play Theodora gave rise to the delusion that she had received a symbolic promise of marriage from Rudolf Steiner, and she then suffered a breakdown as a result of Rudolf Steiner's marriage to Marie von Sivers at Christmas 1914. Her letters to Rudolf Steiner and Marie Steiner, reproduced below, clearly reveal that she was deeply upset.
Letter from Alice Sprengel to Rudolf Steiner
(undated; received December 25, 1914. Cf. p. 159.)
“Seven years now have passed,” [ Note 2 ] Dr. Steiner, since you appeared to my inner vision and said to me, “I am the one you have spent your life waiting for; I am the one for whom the powers of destiny intended you.”
You saw the struggles and doubts this experience occasioned in me; you knew that in the end my conviction was unshakable — yes, so it is. And you waited for my soul to open and for me to speak about this. Yet I remained silent, because my heart was broken. Long before I learned of theosophy, but also much more recently, I had had many experiences that made me say, “I willingly accept whatever suffering life brings me, no matter how hard it may be. After all, I have been shown by the spirit that it cannot be different.” But this is something that seems to go beyond the original plan of destiny; I lack the strength to bear it, and so it kills something in me, destroys forces I should once have possessed. These experiences were mostly instances of people deliberately abusing my confidence, and all in the name of love. But I had the feeling that this was not only my own fault; it seemed as if the will of destiny was inflicting more on me than I could bear.
I had some vague idea of why that might be so. Once, some years ago, I heard a voice within me saying, “There are beings in the spiritual world whose work requires that human beings sustain hope, but they have no interest in seeing these hopes fulfilled — on the contrary.” At that point I was not fully aware of what we were later to hear about the mystery of premature death, of goals not achieved, and so forth.
Then, however, I bore within me a wish and a hope that seemed like a proclamation from the spiritual world. This wish and this hope had made it possible for me to bear the unbearable; they worked in me with such tremendous force that they carried me along with them. My soul was in such a condition, however, that it could neither relinquish them nor tolerate their fulfillment, or, to put it better, it could not live up to what their fulfillment would have demanded of it. Thus I could not come to clarity on what the above-mentioned experience meant for me as an earthly human being. Neither the teaching nor the teacher was enough to revive my soul; that could only be done by a human being capable of greater love than any other and thus capable of compensating for a greater lack of love.
I can no longer remain silent; it speaks in me and forces me to speak. Years ago I begged you for advice, asked for enlightenment, and your words gave me hope and comfort. I am grateful for that, but today I would no longer be able to bear it. Why did you say to me recently that I looked well, that I should persevere? Did you think I was already aware of the step you are taking now, and that I had already “gotten over it”? I was as far from that as ever.
In conclusion, I ask that you let Miss von Sivers read this letter.
* * *
Letter from Alice Sprengel to Rudolf Steiner
February 3, 1915
Dear Dr. Steiner,
This will probably be my last letter to you; I will never turn to you again, neither in speaking nor in writing. I only want to tell you that I see no way out for myself; I am at my wits' end. As the weeks gone by have showed me, it is inconceivable that time will alleviate or wipe out anything that has happened; it will only bring to light what is hidden. Until now I have more or less managed to conceal how I feel, but I will not be able to do so indefinitely. I feel a melancholy settling in on me; being together with others and feeling their attentiveness is a torment to me, but I also cannot tolerate being alone for any length of time. I feel that everything that was to develop in me and flow into our movement through me has been buried alive.
My life stretches ahead of me, but it is devoid of any breath of air that makes life possible. And yet, in the darkest hour of my existence, I feel condemned to live — but my soul will be dead. Desolation and numbness will alternate with bouts of pain. I cannot imagine how the tragedy will end. It is likely, though, that I will show some signs of sorrow in weeks to come, and it may well be that I will say and do things that will surprise me as much as anyone else. I do not have the feeling that my words will arouse any echo in you. I feel as if I were talking to a picture. Since that time early on in those seven years when I stood bodily in front of you and you appeared to me as the embodiment of the figure that had been revealed to my inner vision, you have become unreal to me. Then, your voice sounded as sweet and comforting as my own hopes. You restored my soul with mysterious hints and promises that were so often contradicted in the course of events. And when my soul wanted to unfold under that radiant gaze of yours in which I could read that you knew what had happened to me, something looked at me out of your eyes, crying “This is a temptation.”
The most terrible thing was to have what stood before me in visible human form become unreal to me. And yet, I had the feeling that there was something real behind all this. I do not know what power makes your essential being a reality for me. You know that I have struggled for my faith and will continue to do so as long as there is a glimmer of life in me. You also know how I have pleaded with that Being whose light and teachings you must bring to those who suffer the terrible fate of being human, pleaded that whatever guilt may flow on my account may not disturb you in your mission, and I have the feeling that I have been heard. Nevertheless, the shadow of what has happened to me will fall across your path, just as it will darken my future earthly lives. That shadow will also fall across the continued existence of our movement and upon the destiny of our building. If the mystery dramas are ever performed again, you will have to have another Theodora, and since I will never be able to come to terms with what has happened, the very doors of the temple are closed to me in future. I wonder if, under these circumstances, there will ever again… I do not need to finish the sentence.
I sense that, on an occult level, this is a terrible state of affairs. Is there no way out?
Only a miracle can help in this case.
I am well aware that deliverance is possible, and if it were not to come, it would be terrible, and not only for me.
Let me tell you a story by way of conclusion, the story of the “sur gardienne.” [ Note 3 ]
During the preparations for the plays during the summer of 1913, I noticed that you were not satisfied with me, and when it was all over I felt like a sick person who knows the doctor has given up on her. That feeling never left me from then on, and I could tell you of many instances, especially in recent months, when I felt a deathly chill come over me although your words actually sounded encouraging. The feeling grew stronger whenever I encountered anyone who knew what lay ahead. Why do I feel as if someone had slapped me in the face? Don't they all look as if they were part of a plot? That's what came to mind on many occasions, but I was relatively cheerful then and put it out of my mind. But all this is just a digression.
Two summers ago, shortly before the rehearsals began, I read La Sur Gardienne. I had always assumed that Miss von Sivers would play the title role. On reading it, however, I began to doubt that the role would suit her; in fact, it seemed to me that she would not even want to play that part. And then I noticed how the figure came alive within me — it spoke, it moved in me. It was my role. If only I were allowed to play it! I saw what it would mean to me, and it was too beautiful to be true. Then invisible eyes looked at me, and I heard, “They will not give you that part, so resign yourself.” In my experience, that voice had always been correct. In view of the existing situation, I said to myself, “Dr. Steiner knows as well as I do that I had this experience; he must have good reasons for arranging things this way in spite of it — and as far as Miss von Sivers is concerned, I must have been mistaken — the whole thing must simply be another one of the incomprehensible disappointments that run like a red thread through my life.”
My soul collapsed; I behaved as calmly as I could, but that did not seem to be good enough. Your behavior as well as Miss von Sivers' was totally incomprehensible to me. They were looking everywhere for someone, anyone, to take the title role, and no one seemed to think of me; anyone else seemed more desirable. And yet people were making comments about how strange it was that I had nothing to do in that play. I held back, because at one point I was really afraid I would have to play a different role. Performances have been more or less the only occasions in my life where I could breathe freely, so to speak, where I could give of myself. But that was only true when I played parts that lived in me, like Theodora and Persephone. But when a role didn't sit well with me, it increased the pressure I was living under for quite some time. That is why I was not as unconcerned about these things as others might be; for me it was a matter of life and death. In the midst of all this tension something befell me that I had already experienced countless times before in many different situations and against which I have always been defenseless. My soul crumples as soon as it happens. Once again, “it” looked at me and said, “This is a lesson for you!” (or sometimes it said “a test” or “an ordeal”).
I felt the effects in my soul of countless experiences, repeated daily, hourly, going back to my earliest childhood. I do not know why my surroundings have always been tempted to participate wrongfully in my inner life. Only here and only very recently have I been able to ward this off, but it has forced me into complete isolation. What my foster parents, teachers, playmates, friends, and even strangers used to do to see what kind of a face I would make or to guess at how I would react! And much more than that. As I said, these experiences were so frequent that I could not deal with them; they suffocated me. Mostly I took it all calmly, thinking they didn't know any better. Now, however, in the situation I described, these semi-conscious memories played a trick on me — and I was overcome by anger. And then this summer, a year later, I had to relive the whole thing. And it occurred to me that I should have told you about what went before it.
As I said, those words “This is a lesson for you” always made me stiffen and freeze. When I look back on my life, it seems as if a devilish wisdom had foreseen all the possibilities life would bring to me in these last few years, and as if this intelligence had done its utmost to make me unfit for them. I could watch it at work, and yet was powerless to do anything. Much could be said about why that happened. But nothing in my own soul or in any single soul could ever help me over this abyss. Only the spark leaping from soul to soul, the spark that is so weak now, so very weak, can make the miracle happen now…
I have just read over what I wrote, and now I wonder, is it really all right for everything to happen as I described? That is how it would have to happen if everything stays as it is now. But don't we all three feel how destiny stands between us? Can it really be that there is one among us who does not know what has to happen next? That will bring many things to light; the course of events to come depends on what had been one person's secret. This is truly a test, but not only for me. What was hidden shall be revealed.
I still have one thing to say to you, my teacher and guide: even though the tempter looks out of your eyes, there have been times when I experienced with a shudder that what was revealed to me also meant something to you, something that has not been given its due. However, this must happen and will happen — you know that well, and so does
The Keeper of the Seal
* * *
Excerpt from a letter from Alice Sprengel to Marie Steiner
(undated; received on August 21, 1915. Cf. p. 139 and p. 160.)
I know that people who have “occult experiences” are a calamity as far as the people in positions of responsibility in our movement are concerned, and understandably so, but still, that is what our movement is there for — to come to grips with things like that.
The relationship between you and Dr. Steiner is not the point right now; no, it is the relationship between you and myself. However, your civil marriage unleashed a disaster for me, one that I had feared and seen coming for years — not in its actual course of events, you understand, but in its nature and severity. That is to say, for years I had seen something developing between my teacher and me, something to which we can indeed apply what we have heard in the last few days, though not for the first time. It has a will of its own and laws of its own and cannot be exorcised with any clever magic word. As I said, I had sufficient self-knowledge to know what had to come if nothing happened to prevent it.
Three years ago, like a sick person seeking out a physician, I asked Dr. Steiner for a consultation. There was something very sad I had to say during that interview, and I have had to say it frequently since then: Although I could follow his teachings, I could not understand anything of what affected me directly or of what happened to me. I must omit what brought me to the point of saying this, since I do not know how much you know about my background and biography. I was not able to express my need, and Dr. Steiner made it clear that he did not want to hear about it. The following summer, however, we were graced with the opportunity to perform The Guardian of the Threshold; in it a conversation takes place between Strader and Theodora, a conversation that reflected in the most delicate way the very thing that was oppressing me. Perhaps Dr. Steiner did not “intend” anything of the sort; nevertheless, it is a fact. Perhaps it was meant as an attempt at healing. I do not understand…
* * *
The next letter, written by an Englishwoman who was living at the Goetheanum at the time, characterizes Alice Sprengel from a different point of view:
Letter from Mary Peet to Alice Sprengel [ Note 4 ]
Dear Miss Sprengel,
I cannot let the time pass without writing to tell you how greatly shocked I am at your disgraceful behavior to Doctor Steiner — and also to Mrs. Steiner.
I have truly always thought of you as a rather delicate and hysterical looking [sic] person, but I little imagined to what depths your evidently hysterical nature could lead you.
Your illusive hope of becoming a prominent person in our society not having been realized has been too much of a disappointment for your nature. This kind of thing happens every day, in that disappointed young women fall into all sorts of hysterical conditions, which give rise to all sorts of fantastical dreams. In this case the most holy things have been mixed with false illusions arising from much vanity, self-pride, and the desire for greatness!
To one who pictures herself to be the reincarnation of David, and of the Virgin Mary, very little can be said, for if one starts with such suppositions, one necessarily places oneself almost beyond the pale of reason and logic.
A dog will not bite the hand that has fed it for years — you have not shown the fidelity of a dog in that you have turned all your hatred and spite against the one who has given you all that has brought life into your existence, both spiritually and physically, for you have been beholden to him and his friends for your subsistence.
And now, because you are thoroughly disappointed, you have tried and are trying your best to injure him with every subtle untruth and insinuation, engendered by those thoughts which have entered your imaginative brain.
Doctor Steiner is beloved, revered, and respected; his life is an example to all. He has been able through his power of logic and clear and right thinking to feed us with the bread of Wisdom and Life, and has truly been a Light-bringer to us all.
I implore you to listen to reason before it is too late! Try to examine yourself for one hour and perceive the cause of all the fearful self-deception from which you are suffering. Beware of the awful figure of HATE, called up by your jealousy and consequent disappointment!
You cannot undo the past, but you can try to redeem the lost opportunities you have had by refraining from showing more and more clearly the picture that many can see — to which you are apparently quite blind up till now — namely, that of jealous woman suffering from ingratitude, disappointment, and hysterical illusions!
O Man! Know Thyself!
[signed Mary Peet]
* * *
Heinrich Goesch (b. 1880 in Rostock, d. 1930 in Konstanz) was a man of many talents and interests who was already a Ph.D. and LL.D. at age twenty. His name also appeared once in December 1900 on the list of those present at a meeting of the Berlin literary society Die Kommenden. Financial support from parents and relatives enabled him to lead a life that allowed him to pursue numerous interests. Except for the last years of his life, when he lectured on art at the Dresden Academy of Arts and Crafts, he had never actually practiced a profession, presumably for reasons of health. According to a report by the psychiatrist Friedrich Husemann, Goesch had suffered from a very early age from epilepsy or seizure substitutes (absences). An expert witness reports having experienced one of Goesch's heaviest seizures. [ Note 5 ]
Goesch had come into contact with psychoanalysis in 1908 or 1909 while living with his wife (a cousin of Kathe Kollwitz) and his brother Paul, a painter, in Niederpoyritz near Dresden, where they were engaged in studying architecture, aesthetics, and philosophy. Paul Fechter, a journalist who was a friend of the Goeschs at that time, reports the following in his memoirs: [ Note 6 ]
Such was the world that greeted the dawning of psychoanalysis. One day Heinrich Goesch made the acquaintance of one of its earliest adepts, the son of a professor in Graz, who had made the teachings of Sigmund Freud, which at that time had not yet been widely popularized, the basis of his whole life. Goesch took him along to Niederpoyritz, where in endless nightly sessions the young doctor initiated the two brothers into the secrets of the new doctrine. As a result, Heinrich and Paul Goesch, consistent and logical in all their intellectual pursuits, were not content with the theory, but set about putting it into practice. They not only listened to what their guest had to offer, they tried it out on themselves and anything else they could get their hands on. They analyzed themselves and others and staged complex-resolutions by night until Niederpoyritz rebelled and their reputation rivaled that of young Schlegel in Jena.
All that would have made no difference; rumors get started and then fade away again. The effect on Paul Goesch, however, was disastrous—his thin-skinned psyche cracked under these experiments. Analysis, it seems, had eliminated certain inhibitions he needed in order to maintain a secure hold on life. Shortly after the doctor's visit, he entered a mental hospital for the first time…
The “doctor” whose name Fechter does not reveal was Otto Gross, private lecturer in psychopathology at the University of Graz and one of Freud's first pupils. Unlike Freud, who used psychoanalysis simply as a method of medical treatment, Gross, by applying it in social and political contexts as well, tried to make it the underlying basis of everyday life. His efforts eventually brought him into conflict with all existing social structures. As a drug addict, he became a patient of C. G. Jung at the Burghoelzli in Zurich and in that capacity played a certain role in the professional disagreements between Jung and Freud. Later, at the instigation of his father, Hans Gross (professor of criminology at Graz), he was declared legally incompetent and spent most of the rest of his life in mental hospitals. [ Note 7 ]
In his obituary of Heinrich Goesch, Fechter has this to say about Goesch's relationship to psychoanalysis:
When Otto Gross first introduced him to the as yet relatively unknown psychoanalytic method of Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Goesch recognized it immediately as a means of extending his personal experience into unfathomed depths. He took up this new subject passionately, not as a theoretical, conceptual, or abstract object of study and experience, but plunging with his whole being and all the strength he possessed into this stream that opened up before him and led into new depths. He did not study psychoanalysis, he experienced it through and through, making himself the object of his own analysis, descending into the shocks and ecstasies of the darkness that opened up in front of him with a total disregard for how it might affect his everyday existence. At once, he began to pull the theory out of the realm of science and into his immediate personal experience. It was a very dangerous experiment… [ Note 8 ]
Goesch became acquainted with Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy around 1910. Shortly thereafter, he became a member of the German Section of the Theosophical Society, led at that point by Rudolf Steiner as General Secretary. He had been recommended by the physician Max Asch, who wrote to Rudolf Steiner on April 27, 1910. [ Note 9 ]
For the last two weeks or so, I have been involved in a lively and personal exchange of ideas with a Mr. Heinrich Goesch, Ph.D., who seems to me predestined for occult training. He is one of the most highly gifted people I have ever met, and about one year ago had unusual inner experiences that occurred as part of a state of ecstasy lasting about a week, which leads me to assume that his case would be of particular interest to you, too. He has recently immersed himself in the study of your works Theosophy, An Outline Of Occult Science, etc.), and the unbelievable quickness with which he grasps these things leads me to suspect that he has undergone some form of occult schooling in an earlier incarnation — apparently a specifically Christian one, given the nature of his ecstatic experiences. Mr. Goesch will attend your lecture tomorrow evening; if you wish, I will introduce him to you. He wants to become a member of the Theosophical Society immediately.
The lecture in question took place on April 28, 1910, in the Berlin House of Architects. Its title was “Error and Mental Disorder.” [ Note 10 ] On April 30, 1910, Asch wrote to Rudolf Steiner again:
Heinrich Goesch, Ph.D., about whom I wrote to you, would be very grateful if you would find an opportunity to speak with him soon. He would like to attend your lectures in Hamburg, since they are related to an area he has researched with particular interest in the last few years. Therefore, he would like to become a member of the Theosophical Society as soon as possible. Mr. Goesch lives in Charlottenburg…
A short time after Heinrich Goesch and his wife Gertrud became members, the construction of a building to serve as its central headquarters became a focal point of the Society's activity. Goesch was very interested in architecture and in 1912 made some suggestions about the design of the building. This interest, it seems, was also what led him to come in the spring of 1914 to Dornach, where work on the Johannesbau (first Goetheanum) had begun in fall of 1913.
These facts from the biography
of Goesch, who, as Paul Fechter puts it, displayed “a personal
and unique combination of logic and mysticism,” make it somewhat
understandable why he would jump into the Sprengel case with typical
passionate energy. According to the psychiatrist Friedrich Husemann,
epileptics characteristically combine egocentricity with a disproportionate
sensitivity to personal affront and a tendency to complain. On the basis
of these changes in their affective life, it is easy for them to develop
delusions, and a certain affinity must have developed between Goesch's
delusions and those of Alice Sprengel. Goesch formulated his thoughts
in a long and elaborate letter (dated August 19, 1915) to Rudolf Steiner,
who read it to the Dornach circle on August 21, 1915, in place of his
usual Saturday evening lecture.