Dr. Peter Staudenmaier may be the only preschool teacherturned-anarchist-turned German history professor in the world. He’s certainly the only one at Marquette.
Public Library. “I finally threw in the towel,” he says, “became a graduate student and, after about six months, realized it was absolutely the right decision.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in German literature from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Staudenmaier lived a semi-bohemian life in Madison for several years, working as a preschool teacher and daycare provider while helping run the Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, an independent bookseller near the university.
With academic affiliation, his life quickly changed. He made it to Germany to sift through the national archives; earned a doctorate in modern European history from Cornell University in 2010, joined Marquette in 2011 and, last year, won the Sharon Abramson Research Grant for the Study of the Holocaust, which funded research in Munich and Berlin.
Compact and bespectacled, Staudenmaier followed an unusual path to his current position as one of the world’s leading experts in German esoteric movements and Nazism and where the two intersect. As a bookstore employee of limited means, he met with professors and asked if he could sit in on their philosophy, history and environmental studies classes free of charge. Most said yes. “Those were very special experiences for me,” he says because he loved batting ideas around a table with full-time graduate students.
Closely involved with what he calls the “anarchist” and “radical environmental” movements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Staudenmaier held onto his independent streak. He has written important studies of anthroposophy and the role of the occult in Nazi Germany, which he says has been wildly overstated in popular media, although such esoteric movements were, at the time, a prominent part of German life. Steiner’s movement was just one of many that attempted to make sense of new technologies and a widening German world, according to Staudenmaier. “All of the tensions that modernity produces, it’s like we get them in especially condensed form in modern Germany,” he notes.
“All of the tensions that modernity produces, it’s like we get them in especially condensed form in modern Germany.”
Dr. Peter Staudenmaier
Assistant Professor, History
Unlike the titular character from Good Will Hunting, Staudenmaier didn’t just look down on the academy; he worked hard to build a career outside of it as an independent researcher. Now an assistant professor of history, he said he started out as a “committed anti-academic,” researching and writing in a half-dozen different subject areas.
From early on, he had the makings of a scholar. As an undergraduate, he co-authored a book chapter on the environmentally conscious wing of the Nazi Party, and in 2004 he contributed the “Fascism” entry to the Encyclopedia of World Environmental History. “I wanted to show that you can do real, important scholarship outside of the university world,” he says. When another paper on an insular esoteric tradition called anthroposophy elicited outrage from some of its modern-day champions, he returned to his sources and became even more fascinated with the subject, which became a focus of his work. Founded by the German thinker Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925, anthroposophy was perhaps more influential than followed, spawning the organic biodynamic farming movement, the Waldorf strain of alternative education, a kind of expressive dance called eurythmy and a pro-humanist approach to banking. Steiner’s neo-Platonic mysticism, which claims access to a spiritual plane, continues to have adherents in Germany. But, as an independent researcher, the closest Staudenmaier could get to the country was a week spent poring over archives at the New York
While exploring this microcosm, Staudenmaier has come across more than a few peculiarities. For one, a 2013 paper in Environmental History described an extensive network of biodynamic and organic farms belonging to the Third Reich, including plantations at Auschwitz and Dachau, the latter a “sizable” operation that produced “medicinal herbs and other organic goods for the SS.” A subset of Nazi leaders embraced anthroposophy’s teachings because they meshed well with the party’s vision for a more sustainable and productive German peasantry. Still others, including the Gestapo, persecuted biodynamic farming, anthroposophy and other esoteric movements as fraudulently patriotic and a threat to the Reich. The history presented by Staudenmaier is a complicated one and continues in his 2014 book, Between Occultism and Nazism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race in the Fascist Era. In 1941, a “huge crackdown” by anti-esoteric Nazis all but severed the party’s ties to anthroposophy and only allowed the SS plantations to continue if they promised not to espouse Steiner’s teachings. Staudenmaier says there’s no real evidence of Hitler himself ever subscribing to an occult or esoteric tradition. The deeper Staudenmaier follows this line of research, he says, “the more I realized the occult groups are interesting in their own right. Forget about what happens to them after 1933.”