Karl König

1902 - 1966

Karl König (25 September 1902 – 27 March 1966) was an Austrian paediatrician who founded the Camphill Movement, an international movement of therapeutic intentional communities for those with special needs or disabilities.

Early in his life he developed a strong relationship to the values of Christianity and to questions regarding the issues of social life.

Dr König studied zoology, biology and medicine in Vienna. During this time he struggled with questions regarding the evolution of life. It was the encounter with Goethes work on natural science, Goethe’s approach and methods that gave him the direction for finding answers.

He published the results of his first research about the effects of homeopathic substances during the time as an assistant at the Vienna Institute for Embryology.

The old “Camphill” estate, a former hiding place of the last knights of the “Order of the Temple” became the place of origin for a community based on curative education, which then developed during the post-war years as the “Camphill Movement” and soon was called for in many countries of the world.

For Karl König, the foundation of such a community was an attempt to realise suggestions Rudolf Steiner had made for social life based on insight into spiritual reality. For him it was an endeavour to take up anew the true and deeper tasks that had been hindered by the destruction of Central Europe.

In 1966, Karl König died in Überlingen near to the communities he had founded at the Lake of Constance. Tireless work and effort to help children, adolescents and adults with special needs in practical, therapeutic and educational life, through publications, talks and seminars, had become more and more the central content of his life. He experienced with satisfaction that he had successfully built a “bridge back to Central Europe”.


Camphill Correspondent  January 1977

an appreciation by Alfred Heidenreich

DR Karl König, who died in his 63rd year, at 12 o’clock on Sunday 27th March 1966, was one of the most remarkable personalities in the Rudolf Steiner movement. Perhaps one might call him a patriarch in a Christian form . I believe he himself would accept this description. He was the most effective father figure I have ever met. His thorough training as a doctor, his sense of vocation as a healer, his real love for the poor and disinherited, the handicapped in body, soul and mind, and his profound religious devotion combined to make him the leader and beloved father of the most extraordinary organisation that has grown on the field of anthroposophy. Even his Jewish descent had something to do with it. There was a touch of the ‘wonder-rabbi’ in him, as they existed in Eastern Europe, and of the Chassidim, the Jewish mystics who earnestly prepared their soul for the day of the Messiah. In his young days, so he said, he walked the streets of Vienna in a kaftan, the long black Jewish cassock, with a beard and with ringlets, and told stories to the children in the poor districts. When he came on a first visit to London for the anthroposophical ‘World Conference’ in 1928 – where our paths first crossed- it was characteristic that he took time off to visit the slums of the East End. He poured out his heart to Dr . Rittelmeyer about the misery and squalour which he had seen and which he felt crying out for help .

In those days he was known for his specific studies on embryology. He was a medical student in his final years when at the University of Vienna the very earliest forms of the human foetus began to be studied. König’s genius discerned in these forms, which are peculiar to man and not shared by other mammals, a recollection of the pre-earthly stages of man’s development as described in Rudolf Steiner’s occult science . In those years he created also some stir within the Christian Community in Germany through lecture tours which he undertook together with Emil Bock.

When I saw him again it was November, 1938. He had arrived in Britain as a refugee from Nazi oppression, and sat with his family around our lunch table at 1001 Finchley Road, the then head-quarters of the Christian Community . He was on his way to Scotland where friends had offered him an empty manse on their estate as a first home and
base for work with handicapped children. Perhaps these friends had not fully realised what a human dynamo they had invited into their precincts. König’s enormous energy needed a place of his own . His contagious enthusiasm soon found further help and the Camphill Estate in the Dee Valley near Aberdeen was purchased, destined to become the heart of a real community ’empire’ . When the Nazis overran Holland and panic swept across Britain, König together with most of the other refugees, was interned in the Isle of Man. In the absence of the men the first women of Camphill, under the courageous leadership of Mrs.König, carried through the move into their new home. When Dr. König was released, work at Camphill began with full force.

In the summer of 1941 I spent two months in the Dee Valley to recover from a serous illness. Soon I called at Camphill nearly every other day . It was time for conversations while far away the war took its inexorable course. König expounded his vision of the future. Deep and genuine, constructive and understanding as his devotion was to ‘children in need of special care,’ he explained that his curative work was not entirely an end in itself but also a means to establish residential communities, in the spirit of Rudolf Steiner’s teaching. One day they might become islands in which the life of the spirit can survive, when wave after wave of catastrophes will engulf humanity towards the end of the century . He thought that these ‘backward’ children had a mission to bring people together in communities even as they had a mission to awaken special love and compassion in their parents and other members of their families.

At the end of my stay in 1941 1 gave a semi-public lecture on the Christian Community. Almost involuntarily this led to the beginning of Christian Community activities in Scotland and to the foundation of a centre at Aberdeen with Miss E . Hersey as the first priest. In the pursuit of these aims I spent repeated periods in Aberdeen in the years that followed . Des- tiny, it seemed, had led together a remarkable group . There was Deryk Duffy, the brilliant and forceful pioneer of bio-dynamic agriculture who made his headquarters in Aberdeenshire. Dr. and Mrs. E. Lehrs were engaged in creating a broad platform in Aber- deen for anthroposophy. There was Dr.König with his Camphill Movement, and there was the Christian Community . We conceded to each other that each one of us was entitled to regard his baby as the finest and most important, provided he realised that the others had the right to feel the same . We were all in the prime of life and had wonderfully inspiring times together . But I am sure that in hisheart Dr.König was always tempted to feel that his was the prize baby which should take precedence over the others. It was his extraordinary singlemind- edness, turning in those early war years at times even into ruthlessness, which gave to the growing Camp- hill Movement its astonishing push.

Dr.König had a profound respect for the Christian Community and for the sacramental life . Almost from the beginning the Act of Consecration of Man was celebrated in the Camphill Chapel . At one time a very close co-operation between the Christian Com- munity and the Camphill Movement was envisaged . But when the war came to an end and the doors opened again for communications all round, this special link receded into the background, although the Act of Consecration of Man continued to be celebrated in the Camphill homes wherever possible.

The growth of the Camphill Movement has been fabulous. In addition to his other achievements Dr.König proved to be an outstanding organiser. Although it seemed at times as if the co-workers had to accept directions like the members of a monastic order, Dr. König put into practice the most difficult exercise for a forceful personality : to delegate authority and to let the next generation grow into positions of true responsibility while he was still with them . Great as is the loss of its founder, the Camphill Movement can today stand on its own feet, thanks to the wise provisions which he made.

I did not see much of Dr.König in recent years, particularly since he moved his principle residence to Germany. Friends report that there was much ‘mellow fruitfulness’ about him in these last years. Loving care which was such a strong element in his character became the dominant quality. He continued to write and lecture and to pass on his enormous medical experience to an ever growing number of pupils.

My last meeting with him, over two years ago, was in a remarkable constellation. His son-in-law, Mr Julian Sleigh, had offered himself for the priesthood in the Christian Community. In the small room in Harley Street which Dr. König had used for some years as his London headquarters the three of us discussed ways and means by which Mr. Sleigh might grow into his priestly office while still working in some form within the Camphill Movement. Mr. Sleigh was ordained in London on 2nd May 1965, and today works as a priest of the Christian Community in South Africa. He is resident priest in Alpha, the Camphill Village near Capetown which is in the process of being developed, but he takes also a major share in the congregational work at Cape Town and in the building up of the Christian Community in South Africa in general.

In these village settlements for the handicapped the co-operation of the Christian Community with the Camphill Movement today is closest. For some time past I had hoped that an opportunity might present itself for a meeting with Dr. König, in which he and I, and perhaps the three priests working in these villages, Mr. D. Perkins, Mr. P. Roth and Mr. Sleigh, and Mr. M. Tapp as visiting priest, could review the situation, sift the experience and come to some clearer guiding lines for the future. For a good deal of the work done in this field is experimental and one could not always be entirely happy about the manner in which the sacramental life in these villages is presented to the general public. Alas, this meeting was no longer to be. Objectively, this is a sad loss and disappointment.

But also subjectively, humanly and personally, I feel a sense of real grief at not having been able to bring our relationship to a close with a conscious farewell and the shared knowledge that we shall meet again. Karl König has left his mark in a field of human service which will be of increasing importance. More and more children will be ‘in need of special care’ amidst our mechanised and dehumane ised civilisation. Dr. König’s example will be looked up to in times to come, while the Camphill Move ment will carry his work forward in many parts of the globe. And with him and through him the name and genius of Rudolf Steiner-his teacher and our teacher-will be made known to a despairing age.