In a pandemic in which world leaders have sold healers’ 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 protect people against the disease. It is a country whose physical chancellor told parliament that he passionately believes that “there are scientific findings that are real and it should be followed. “
But Germany is also a country where some people who become seriously ill from Covid-19 can be taken to hospitals where they receive treatment, under sedation and without a formalized acceptance procedure, with ginger-soaked chest compresses and homeopathic granules containing a high content of dilute iron particles supposedly extracted from shooting stars that have landed on earth.
Followers of the “spiritual scientist” and self-proclaimed clairvoyant Rudolf Steiner advocate this type of therapy to combat coronavirus due to a supposed “anxiety-relieving effect on the soul and body” and the ability to “strengthen the inner relationship with the light”.
There are no peer-reviewed studies or clinical trials demonstrating the effectiveness of these remedies and they are not included in the official treatment guidelines issued by Germany’s leading intensive care associations.
However, in Germany, some of these therapies have been administered to critically ill patients during the pandemic at Steiner hospitals such as Gemeinschaftskrankenhaus Havelhöhe, one of a network of 16 clinics in Berlin that provides intensive care to Covid-19 patients under the supervision of the prestigious Charité University. hospital.
The country’s public health insurance companies, which are co-financed by German taxpayers, have duly paid the bill through lump sum payments for the hospital treatment of coronavirus patients.
However, public acceptance of the movement and its philosophies is facing new scrutiny after a year in which Germans have seen followers of the Steiner philosophy march alongside anti-vaccines and the far right in protest of the government measures against coronavirus.
Best known outside of Germany for left-wing schools focused on self-directed play with wooden toys, Steinerism began as a multidisciplinary 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 information about reincarnation, the links between cosmic bodies and plant growth, and evolutionary history, including the life years of Jesus 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 range of subjects, including education, architecture, agriculture, dance, and medicine.
In the 21st century, anthroposophy remains a minority movement, although it 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 kindergartens and 263 institutions for people with mental disabilities that follow Steiner’s philosophy. The country’s highest grossing drugstore chain, dm-drogerie markt, and the second-largest organic supermarket chain, Alnatura, are run by self-proclaimed anthroposophists, and the cosmetic products made by dedicated Steiner brands such as Weleda and Dr Hauschka are not just for sale in German pharmacies, but also enjoy a global boom.
While the number of employees working at these institutions and companies that take Steiner’s philosophy at face value is likely to be low and in decline, the movement has forged a constant presence in German public life.
“In a way, 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 ignored for a long time. Organic agriculture has become widespread during the last decade; the Steinerists have done it since the 1960s. “
Steiner’s belief in illnesses as rites of passage that are necessary to purge spiritual imbalances is totally at odds with the basic foundations of modern science. And yet anthroposophy has made considerable advances in a public-private healthcare system that emphasizes 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 that the remedies can be approved for use without external proof of their efficacy. Recently, in 2019, conservative health minister Jens Spahn decided not to remove homeopathic remedies prescribed by Steiner clinics from the list of treatments covered by public health insurers.
But the pandemic is testing German tolerance for Steiner’s esotericism in more ways than one. “Anthroposophy claims to have access to superior and secret knowledge,” Zander said. “There is a proximity to the mindset of conspiracy theorists, even if the number of Steinerists who are inclined that way is probably small.”
Oliver Rautenberg, whose critical blog on the subject has found a greater number of readers in the pandemic, agrees: “There is a widespread conspiratorial mentality 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 in sedated coronavirus patients has also broadened the definition of alternative treatments as a matter of personal choice.
Berlin’s Charité university hospital, which is in charge of assigning people with severe coronavirus infections in the city, said that in most cases it “could not offer intensive care patients the freedom to choose” where to receive treatment.
When asked how the hospital obtained consent from patients for alternative complementary therapies when they were sedated or in serious condition, a spokesperson for Havelhöhe hospital said: “Family members are informed about therapeutic methods.”
The hospital did not respond after being asked on three separate occasions to explain in writing how its opt-in procedure worked or whether patients were aware of the lack of evidence of the efficacy of the treatment.
The clinic insisted that the alternative remedies it used were “complementary therapies” that complement conventional treatments. Common remedies used in the three German Steiner hospitals that have treated coronavirus patients over the last year (Havelhöhe, Filderklinik from Stuttgart and Herdecke in the Ruhr Valley) were first recommended in a March article in the medical journal published by the global center of the Steiner movement in Dornach, Switzerland, an expressionist congress hall without a single right angle.
They include moist compresses for the chest with powdered ginger root, mustard flour or yarrow tea, as well as “enhanced phosphorus and correspondingly enhanced meteorite iron” in the form of homeopathic granules. Wala, a manufacturer based in Germany, told the Observer Its granules, which have also been widely prescribed as a preventive for Covid-19 in Steiner nursing homes for the disabled, contain remnants of meteorites that have not completely burned after entering Earth’s atmosphere.
A spokesperson for Havelhöhe said there were no scientific studies to prove these remedies worked and there had not been enough time to conduct trials. “But we see that they are good for people.”
The author of the article advocating the remedies, Georg Soldner, a Munich pediatrician, said that field reports had been published on the effect of meteoric iron on the Anthroposophic Drug Vadecum, a manual that is also published by the Dornach center.
Edzard Ernst, a former professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, told the Observer when a list of remedies used in Steiner hospitals is displayed: “None of the remedies listed have been shown to be effective for any condition. Most are highly diluted and therefore completely implausible. Postulating that any of them is effective against Covid-19 is, in my opinion, very irresponsible. “
German Steiner hospitals have been transparent about the use of alternative therapies in the fight against the pandemic. In a October 2020 interview with the anthroposophical magazine Education artHavelhöhe’s clinical director, Harald Matthes, claimed that his hospital’s approach had been so successful that so far no Covid-19 patients had died in his ward.
Havelhöhe reiterated the claim of Observer in an email, stating that the clinic had seen a 12.4% death rate for Covid-19 patients, nearly half the German national average of 24%. Of the 145 patients, the hospital said on December 10, 2020, 88 had recovered and 18 had 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 likely explains Havelhöhe’s lower death rate than the use of alternative remedies.
“Making such claims in the midst of a pandemic is highly unprofessional and runs the risk of creating uncertainty among patients,” said Stefan Kluge, director of intensive care medicine at the University of Hamburg Medical Center. “The case fatality rate in any individual hospital always depends on the severity of the patients’ conditions when they arrive there.”
Kluge urged Havelhöhe to conduct clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy of his methods, as his own hospital had done between March and December last year.
Some historians are not surprised by the self-assertive stance of the Steiner movement in the midst of a pandemic. Robert Jütte, a historian of medicine, compared 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 snooping in the dark, alternative therapies rise to the top.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism