A historial account of Theosophy in Indonesia & Germany
Jan 08, 1998 06:53 PM
by M K Ramadoss
Hi I picked up from the url I posted today. Some interesting material.
The limits of liberalism and of Theosophy: colonial Indonesia and the
German Weimar republic, 1918-1933
by Herman A.O. de Tollenaere
‘Liberalism' in this essay means a political tendency which arose during the
struggle against monarchical absolutism and feudalism, for instance, in the
French Revolution. Liberalism's social base was the bourgeoisie: lower on
the early nineteenth century social ladder than the nobility, higher than
the nascent working class, or the poor peasantry. Later, liberals faced
opposition from different directions than they were used to, especially
various forms of socialism. So, my concept of liberalism has boundaries on
at least two sides. It differs from how the word was often used in czarist
Russia, or in the United States, as, roughly, a synonym of ‘Leftist', with
a boundary mainly on the Right.
In this essay, I aim to explore somewhat the limits of liberalism:
boundaries with other tendencies, and limits in potential. This I will do,
looking at a time when liberalism's optimist nineteenth century heyday was
over: 1918-1933, in a Germany, heading towards the Third Reich, and an
Indonesia, heading towards a showdown between colonialism and nationalism.
I will not write about political liberalism as an isolated phenomenon. I
will write about parallels and links to, and differences with, the
religio-philosophical tendency of Theosophy. It faced similar dilemmas in
My definition of ‘Theosophy' is the ideas of the Theosophical Society,
founded in New York in 1875, and headquartered, since 1882, in Adyar near
Madras in India; and ideas which this Society clearly influenced. So, I will
not use a wide definition of Theosophy, which might include, for instance,
all Sufism in Indonesian Islam. The zenith of Theosophy's influence was in
1916-1929; so, later than the climax of political liberalism.
In principle, the Theosophical Society (TS) might attract some liberals,
because of its roughly intermediate position in religion, somewhat
comparable to theirs' in politics. Quite some liberals were sceptical on the
one hand to established religion, linked to conservative political
opponents. On the other hand, they opposed atheism, which they saw as linked
to socially revolutionary opponents. The TS offered them a way out of
established religion, without breaking with religion as such.
Rationalist optimist liberals, however, might object to irrational occultism
and elitist pessimism on ‘the masses' in Theosophists' views.
One may argue that Theosophists had not only a religiously, but also a
politically intermediate position. On the one hand, their tenet of Universal
Brotherhood of humanity might have linked them strongly to the political
left. However, Theosophists often explained brotherhood as implying
inequality; as in a family, their model for society as a whole, there were
elder, younger, and youngest brothers. In this vein, they defended caste
differences in India, class hierarchies in Europe, and doctrines about
profound occult cosmic differences between ‘Aryans' and other ‘races'. These
theories were closer to the political right.
Let us now first look at liberalism, especially in Germany and Indonesia.
LIBERALISM: SYMPTOMS OF WEAKENING
Liberalism weakened in several ways during the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. Some of them were: splits, voters and members drifting
away to the left, supporters drifting to more right wing parties; and, last,
liberal parties themselves giving up their heritage partly or completely and
becoming more rightist. This enumeration does not deny that at various times
and in various places, strengthening factors might work in the opposite
direction. However, to go into this would stretch the limits of this small
essay. Let us look at some examples of ways in which liberalism weakened.
First, splits. In Germany during the Weimar Republic, liberals were divided
into the rightist Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP) and the leftist Deutsche
Demokratische Partei (DDP). This was a relic from a split in the nineteenth
century, as liberalism became squeezed between imperial authoritarianism and
the rising labour movement.
In The Netherlands, at the 1918 elections, three major and many minor (e.g.,
the Economische Bond) liberal factions competed. Later, these regrouped as
two medium size parties: the Vrijheidsbond and the Vrijzinnig-Democratische
Bond. Jointly, these remained weaker than earlier Dutch liberalism.
In the Netherlands Indies, as Indonesia's official name was then, 1918
marked the first meeting of the Volksraad, a council for advising the
colonial government. It had far less power than, say, the Reichstag in
Germany. Some of the members in this ‘mock parliament' were elected by a
limited franchise, some were government appointees.
However divided Dutch liberals were in 1918, in the colony they all
supported the NIVB, the Nederlandsch-Indische Vrijzinnige Bond. It won most
‘European' seats in the first Volksraad election. Dutch in the Indies were
far less likely than Dutch in The Netherlands to support a party linked to a
Christian church. This relative weakness of churches also helped the rise of
the Theosophical Society in Indonesia.
The unity within the NIVB did not last long. Soon, most of its Dutch
business supporters left, after the founding of the more right wing PEB, the
Politiek-Economische Bond. This party became proportionally much larger than
the Dutch Economische Bond, its model. It also overtook the NIVB as major
party in the Volksraad.
Now, let us look at voters drifting away to the Left. This might move
liberal parties Rightward in two ways. First, because the remaining, Right
wing, supporters now could become more influential. Second, because the
rising Left was seen as more of a threat.
One might expect liberals' attraction to ideas like the TS' to increase, as
liberals lost their rationalist optimism and became afraid of, for instance,
the labour movement; to which, e.g. in England, they lost many of their
working class or otherwise leftist voters. In Germany, Eduard Bernstein in
the 1870s left the liberal Fortschrittspartei to join the Social Democrats.
In Indonesia, the prominent politician Hadji Agoes Salim, formerly a NIVB and
Theosophical Society supporter, after 1918 left to join the Indies social
Another factor which weakened liberals, was the rise of parties to their
Right attracting part of their support.
Already before the First World War, Austrian liberalism had collapsed to the
benefit of nationalists and anti-Semites.1) N. Goodrick-Clarke, The occult
roots of nazism, Wellingborough, Aquarian Press, 1985, 31, sees the rise of
Theosophy in Austria as ‘a refuge from the collapse of liberalism and the
emergence of vulgar mass-movements' by ‘the Viennese bourgeoisie'.
In Germany, the Deutsche Volkspartei got 51 seats on 7 December 1924 at the
Reichstag elections. As the nazi vote rose dramatically, though the total
number of deputies went from 493 to 647, the DVP was reduced to two seats in
1933. No other German party had lost that much support.
Also from 1924 to 1933, the more leftist liberal Deutsche Staatspartei (the
former Deutsche Demokratische Partei; in 1930, it had changed its name, in
itself a sign of a rightward shift which did not help) went from 32 to 5
Very few of those lost DVP and DSP votes went to the communists and the
Catholic Zentrum, the only non-nazi parties which had won seats since 1924;
these gains were minor compared to the NSDAP.2) So, the collapse of the
German liberal electorate was a major boon to the nazis.
Dutch and Italian fascists owed much of their electorate to collapses in the
vote of the Vrijheidsbond in the 1930s, respectively the Liberali in the
In the early 1930s, the PEB lost its position as biggest electoral party for
‘Europeans' in Indonesia, especially recent Dutch immigrants (totok), to
the Vaderlandsche Club. This second shift to the Right, after the rise of
the PEB, brought the totok political focus outside liberalism. While one
might call the PEB rightist liberal, the Vaderlandsche Club was far right.
It was related to Nationaal Herstel in The Netherlands. Even further right,
outside the Volksraad, the Dutch Nationaal Socialistische Beweging also
started winning thousands of adherents in the Indies then. It did not
participate in elections there.
Last, a look at liberals, drifting to the right as parties, rather than as
individuals, going over to other parties. In Germany, already in the late
nineteenth century, the historian and politician of the National Liberal
Party (the predecessor of the DVP), Von Treitschke, coined the infamous
slogan 'Die Juden sind unses Unglück' [The Jews are the real cause of our
misfortune]. We have already seen how the Deutsche Demokratische Partei in
1930 changed its name, and its views, to the right. This did not keep it
alive; quite on the contrary.
The prominent Australian politician Deakin played a mayor role in merging
his own Liberals with the Conservatives in the early 1900s. He was a lifelong
sympathizer with, and sometimes fellow of, the Theosophical Society.
THEOSOPHISTS: RELATIONSHIPS TO LIBERALS
I have written earlier that one may expect at least some instances of mutual
sympathy between theosophists and liberals. This was not always the case,
For instance, the leading founder of the Theosophical Society, Madame
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, as an aristocrat supporter of czarism considered
the ideas of the nineteenth century Left liberal philosopher John Stuart
Mill dangerous to Russia.4)
Theosophy's intermediate position in religion might especially be attractive
in some Spanish-speaking countries. There, it might particularly attract
the political establishment opposed to a strong position of Roman Catholic
Annie Besant, the international president of the Theosophical Society,
Society's position as ‘Between the bigotry of Roman Catholic Spain and the
wild passions of revolutionary Spain'.5)
In Honduras in 1929, the Liberal President Dr Vicente Mejía Colindres showed
up at a lecture by TS leader Jinarajadasa. He opposed conservative Catholic
clericalists, and suppressed a communist peasant uprising in 1931.6)
Theosophy influenced the liberal Mexican president Madero. Like Sukarno,
sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Bhima. Bima, and other Mahabharata
characters, became well known outside Asia largely via the Theosophical
Indonesians had known them already much longer.7)
Dutch Baron W.K. van Dedem van Vosbergen (1839-1895), as a liberal MP and
minister of colonies in the 1890s, had many connections to Indonesia. After
India, he wrote on the TS in De Gids magazine in 1895:
'its aim, religious research, fighting materialism, deserves all sympathy.
Regrettably, one took refuge in charlatanism...'
Towards the end of the term of the first Volksraad (1918-1921) in Indonesia,
five of its 39 members were theosophists. Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton, the
Secretary of the Indies Theosophists, was an active NIVB ‘MP'. He belonged
to the Vrijzinnig Democraten in The Netherlands.8)
Th. Vreede, Labberton's colleague, both in Theosophical Society and in
Volksraad, also became active in this liberal party after going back to The
Netherlands. The Indonesian theosophists M. Amir and M. Tabrani were
supporters of co-operation with Dutch authorities in the Indonesian
national movement. When they came to The Netherlands, they wrote in Liberal
papers as well.
Theosophy originally had strong, though minority, support in the moderate
nationalist organization Boedi Oetomo. During the first Volksraad
co-operated with the NIVB. Soewardi Soerianingrat calls them liberals as
well. However, their social base were mainly lower ranking aristocrats and
government employees. This differs from the bourgeoisie whom we wrote about
in our introduction. So they are not really part of my subject here.
Theosophists had an august example for a political choice for liberalism.
Annie Besant, after a conflict with Gandhi had made her leave the Indian
Congress, in 1920 became one of the founders of the Indian National Liberal
party. It saw itself as the moderate alternative to the National Congress
on its Left and diehard colonialism on its Right.
Not all theosophists in the Netherlands Indies liked liberalism. In the
Indies TS monthly appeared articles, supporting both autocratic monarchy,
and dictatorship. J. van der Leeuw was director and major shareholder of
the big Van Nelle coffee and tea company, based on plantations in
Indonesia. He sometimes lived there, sometimes in The Netherlands (where he
became theosophical General Secretary). His Ph.D. thesis on ‘historical
idealist' politics was opposed to Marxist historical materialism. In it, he
'Liberal party ... doomed to death ... Liberalism brought false freedom.'
Instead of liberalism, seeing individuals as atoms, Van der Leeuw advocated
a Rightist ‘organic' social philosophy. Workers going on strike were
‘cancer' cells in society, which he saw as a body.
Also other theosophists, though sometimes linked to early stages of
movements, often opposed the labour movement, and other radical movements,
e.g., for an independent Indonesia.
As an organization, the Theosophical Society in Germany was not anywhere as
strong as in Indonesia after 1913. It suffered much more from splits, in
the 1890s, just before, and during, the First World War.
However, Theosophy as a more or less diffuse ideological influence was
strong in both Austria and Germany. We still need research on its
relationship to German political liberalism. For instance George Mosse and
N. Goodrick-Clarke did much research on the links of Theosophy and occult
doctrines derived from it, to the German speaking ‘post-liberal' extreme
THEORIES OF IDEOLOGICAL CHANGE
We may ask: was the bourgeoisie we wrote about in the beginning of this
paper, still the same in 1918-1933 as in the nineteenth century? If not,
then what impact on its political, philosophical, and religious views might
Various authors, like Hobson, Lenin, and Hilferding, pointed out the
transition of earlier competitive capitalism to ‘finance' or ‘monopoly'
There was not only a shift in economics, but also in ideas. In the early
twentieth century, Van Ravesteyn, Cornélie Huygens and Pannekoek had a
theory that after about 1848 the bourgeoisie, ceasing to be revolutionary,
had no more use for materialism, and switched to various idealist
philosophies. This Van Ravesteyn saw as the cause of the rise of
spiritualism and theosophy.9) In 1992, the historian of ideas J. Herkless
confirmed a link between ‘finance capitalism' and ‘neo-idealism' in this
In the 1930s, the Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch, who had to flee from
Hitler's Germany, saw a link between the rise of fascism, and of occultism
and other forms of irrationalism.
Then, links between fascist politics and aspects of monopoly capitalist
economics were also discussed.
What had happened to liberalism? Its supporters had confined it to defence
of capitalist private property. Freedom for property may go along well with
freedom in other respects, and with irrationalism in philosophy. Trade
concentration camps can no longer foment unrest, threatening the rate of
profit of, say, IG Farben; or the ‘organism' of society as a whole. So,
why, in this perspective, hold on to freedom outside the sphere of
ownership, or to rationality? There is no need left, then, to subsidize the
election funds of DVP, DDP, or NIVB.
LIBERALISM AND THEOSOPHY: DECLINE AND FALL IN THE 1930S;
The post-1929 economic crisis exacerbated long term downward trends in both
Liberalism and Theosophy. Membership in the Netherlands Indies Theosophical
dropped in the early 1930s. As membership shrunk, so did interest in
1930-1934, as the only theosophist left, P. Fournier sat in the Volksraad as a
government-appointed member. He was also chairman of the by now small
Nederlandsch-Indische Vrijzinnige Bond. Fournier, though, disappeared from
the council. So did the NIVB from the political parties' list.10)
As the Vaderlandsche Club grew inside the Volksraad, and the Nationaal
Socialistische Beweging outside it, De Jonge, an admirer of fascism, had
become the new governor-general of the Netherlands Indies. His hard line
hurt Indonesian nationalists, and free speech in general.
In Germany, soon after Hitler seized power, the liberal political parties
became illegal. So did Theosophy, four years later. In the meantime, The
Theosophist monthly had published Jinarajadasa's denunciation of
persecution of Jews; but also praise by the 1934-1945 President George
Arundale of Hitler; and an enthusiastic paranormal description by ‘A
non-German theosophist' [G. Hodson?] of the ‘purity' of the Führer's
I conclude that both in Germany and in Indonesia, both liberalism and
Theosophy ended up as victims of political shifts to the Right. They became
victims without really putting up a fight. These movements themselves, and
their mainly upper and middle class support, were not completely innocent
of these rightward shifts.
1) See D. van Arkel, Antisemitism in Austria. Leiden, typescript, 1966,
2)See: dtv-Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, München, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag,
1968; 150; 194.
3) See on Dutch elections H.W. von der Dunk, In de schaduw van de depressie.
Alphen aan den Rijn, Sijthoff, 1982: 57; 175; 179. A. Mussert, the Dutch
Nationaal Socialistische Beweging leader, was an ex-member of the
4) Herman de Tollenaere, The Politics of Divine Wisdom. Theosophy and
labour, national and women's movements in Indonesia and South Asia,
1875-1947. Nijmegen: Uitgeverij Katholieke Universiteit, 1996; 371.
5) ‘On the Watch-Tower', The Theosophist, Nov. 1920, 107.
6) Raul d'Eça. Latin American History. N. Y., Barnes and Noble, 1963; 193.
C. Jinarajadasa, ‘A year's travel in Latin America', The Theosophist, May
7) Enciclopedia de México, Mexico, Enciclopedia de México, 1974, vol. VIII,
8) F. Tichelman, Socialisme in Indonesië. De Indische Sociaal Democratische
Vereeniging, 1897-1917. Bronnenpublikatie. Vol. 1, Dordrecht, Foris, 1985,
9) W. van Ravesteyn, ‘Boekbespreking', De Nieuwe Tijd, 1917, 628-636. A.
Pannekoek, ‘Twee natuuronderzoekers in de maatschappelijk-geestelijke
strijd', De Nieuwe Tijd, 1917; 300-314; 375-392. Whatever the merits of
this view on the social origins of theosophy, the TS would also attract
European nobles, with no recent revolutionary past. Also non-Europeans like
Brahmans; mostly privileged, but not
identical to bankers or factory owners.
10) Regeringsalmanak voor Nederlandsch-Indië 1933, 61; 67.
11) The Theosophist, May 1936, 242. Nazi propaganda posters also often
depicted Hitler with an aura around his head; Albrecht W. Thöne, Das Licht
der Arier. Licht-, Feuer- und Dunkelsymbolik des Nationalsozialismus.
München: Minerva, 1979, 35.
This essay was published, in slightly different form, in: H. Poeze, F.
Tichelman, and A. Liem (eds.), Re-imagining Indonesia and the Southwest
Pacific. Liber Amicorum in honor of Bob Hering. Stein: Kabar Seberang 1997.
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