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.”
Steiner’s belief in illnesses as rites of passage that are necessary to purge spiritual imbalances is starkly at odds with the basic foundations of modern science. And yet anthroposophy has made considerable inroads into a public-private healthcare system that puts stress on consumer choice.
There are no fewer than 10 Steiner hospitals in Germany, and anthroposophic medicine is tolerated by German law as a “special therapeutic form”, meaning remedies can be approved for use without external proof of their effectiveness. As recently as 2019, the conservative health minister Jens Spahn chose not to remove homeopathic remedies prescribed by Steiner clinics from the list of treatments covered by public heath insurers.
But the pandemic is testing the German tolerance of Steiner esotericism in more ways than one. “Anthroposophy claims to have access to secret, higher knowledge,” said Zander. “There’s a proximity to the mindset of conspiracy theorists, even if the number of Steinerists who are that way inclined is probably small”.
Oliver Rautenberg, whose critical blog on the subject has found a wider readership in the pandemic, agrees: “There is a widespread conspiracy mindset in the Steiner community. Anthroposophy has long been one of the most influential esoteric movements in Germany. But most people know surprisingly little about it”.
The application of anthroposophic remedies on sedated coronavirus patients has also stretched the definition of alternative treatments as a matter of personal choice.
Berlin’s Charité university hospital, which is in charge of allocating people with severe coronavirus infections around the city, said it was in most cases “not able to offer intensive care patients the freedom of choice” of where they are being treated.
When asked how the hospital obtained patients’ consent for alternative adjunct therapies when they were sedated or in a serious condition, a spokesperson for Havelhöhe hospital said: “Relatives are informed of the therapeutic methods.”
The hospital did not reply after being asked on three separate occasions to explain in writing how its opt-in procedure worked or whether patients were made aware of the lack of proof of the treatment’s effectiveness.
The clinic insisted that the alternative remedies it used were “adjunct therapies” that complement conventional treatments. Common remedies used at the three German Steiner hospitals that have treated coronavirus patients over the last year – Havelhöhe, Stuttgart’s Filderklinik and Herdecke in the Ruhr valley – were first advocated in a March article in the medical journal published by the Steiner movement’s global centre in Dornach, Switzerland, an expressionist congress hall with not a single right angle.
They include moist chest compresses with powdered ginger root, mustard flour or yarrow tea, as well as “potentized phosphorus and correspondingly potentized meteoritic iron” in the form of homeopathic pellets. Wala, a manufacturer based in Germany, told the Observer its pellets, which have also been widely prescribed as a preventative for Covid-19 at Steiner care homes for disabled people, contain ground-down remnants of meteorites that haven’t fully burnt up after entering the earth’s atmosphere.
A Havelhöhe spokesperson said there were no scientific studies proving that these remedies worked, and there had not been enough time to carry out trials. “But we noticed that they do the people good.”
The author of the article advocating the remedies, Georg Soldner, a Munich paediatrician, said field reports on the effect of meteoric iron had been published in the Vadecum of Anthroposophic Medicines, a handbook that is also published by the Dornach centre.
Edzard Ernst, a former professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, told the Observer when shown a list of remedies used at Steiner hospitals: “None of the remedies listed have been shown to be effective for any condition. Most are highly diluted and therefore utterly implausible. Postulating that any of them are effective against Covid-19 is, in my view, highly irresponsible.”
German Steiner hospitals have been transparent about their use of alternative therapies in the fight against the pandemic. In an October 2020 interview with the anthroposophic magazine Erziehungskunst, Havelhöhe’s clinical director, Harald Matthes, claimed that his hospital’s approach had been so successful that no patients with Covid-19 had died on its ward so far.
Havelhöhe reiterated the claim to the Observer in an email, stating that the clinic had seen a 12.4% fatality rate for patients with Covid-19, almost half of the national German average of 24%. Out of 145 patients, the hospital said on 10 December 2020, 88 had recovered and 18 died.
Such boasts are met with irritation within Germany’s medical community. Berlin’s Charité stresses that “the most severe cases” of coronavirus infections in the city are being treated in its own hospital – a fact that is more likely to explain Havelhöhe’s low fatality rate than its use of alternative remedies.
“To make such claims in the middle of a pandemic is highly unprofessional and risks causing uncertainty among patients,” said Stefan Kluge, director of intensive care medicine at Hamburg’s University Medical Centre. “The case fatality rate in any individual hospital is always dependent on the seriousness of patients’ conditions when they arrive there”.
Kluge urged Havelhöhe to carry out clinical trials proving the efficiency of their methods, such as his own hospital had managed to do between March and December last year.
Some historians are not surprised by the Steiner movement’s self-assertive stance in the midst of a pandemic. Robert Jütte, a historian of medicine, likened the current situation to the cholera epidemic of the 1830s that gave rise to the homeopathy movement.
“Throughout history, we can detect a pattern”, he said. “Whenever academic medicine is poking around in the dark, alternative therapies rise to the top”.