A spiritual movement and Germany's low vaccination rate
An explosion of coronavirus infections at a German Waldorf school has put a spotlight on "anthroposophy," the spiritual movement behind the education system, and raised questions over how it may be contributing to stagnating vaccinations.
After a turbo-charged inoculation campaign in the spring, Germany's jab rate has struggled since the summer to climb to the 70-percent mark.
Likewise, neighboring Austria and German-speaking parts of Switzerland have also seen their vaccine curve flatten.
For Spiegel writer Tobias Rapp, who went to a Waldorf school, among the reasons is "the vaccination skepticism of a special middle-class group which has its center in southern Germany and Switzerland."
In particular, Rapp wrote, the group is made up of adherents to anthroposophy, a philosophy developed by Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century.
Centered on beliefs in karma, reincarnation and connections to the spiritual world, anthroposophy teaches that illnesses are a necessary challenge that must be overcome naturally.
Michael Blume, who specializes in political and religious sciences, also points to geography for providing a breeding ground for such esoteric ideas to thrive.
Vaccine skepticism is particularly high in mountainous regions across southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria, he said, as an anti-authoritarian streak stoked by federalism and the proximity to nature provide further ingredients for ideas like anthroposophy to thrive.
"Many anthroposophists believe in the rule of karma, which is that illnesses can help atone for misdeeds in previous lives and bring about spiritual development," he said.
"That's why there are unfortunately in some Waldorf schools many skeptics with regards to vaccines. Some also subscribe to conspiracy theories."
Before the pandemic, Waldorf or Steiner schools – 200 in Germany and popular for their alternative method allowing children to learn at their own pace – often found themselves in the spotlight for measles outbreaks.
Even if not all parents who send their children to Waldorf institutions are corona-skeptics or anti-vaxxers, over the last 20 months of the raging pandemic, the schools have been repeatedly linked to rows over COVID vaccines and mask-wearing.
At the school in Freiburg where 117 infections were recorded in late October, investigators found that of 55 medical certificates exempting students and teachers from wearing masks, only two or three were valid.
While Germany counts only 12,000 anthroposophists among its 83-million-strong population, the influence of the movement is far more pervasive in society.
Besides the schools, anthroposophy is also at the root of the Weleda cosmetic group, also created by Steiner.
A major organic supermarket chain Alnatura and drugstore giant DM were also both founded by self-professed anthroposophists.
There is also a federation of doctors who subscribe to the philosophy.
A network of anthroposophist clinics includes a hospital in Berlin which deploys ginger compresses and iron from meteorites as part of its medicinal toolbox on COVID patients.