The Early Karl Barth

Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation, 1905-1935

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Paul Silas Peterson
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , April
     474 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is the revised version of a Habilitation thesis which was accepted by the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen. It comprises five chapters, which cover: 1) Karl Barth’s early years (1905-1919), 2) his first major writings (1919-1931), 3) the Dehn Case (1931-1932), 4) the first years of Hitler’s regime (1932-1935), and 5) a thematic chapter on “sociopolitical and cultural issues.”

The author is known for exhuming early, nearly forgotten texts by theologians, and for revealing unseemly aspects (e.g., antisemitic, white supremacist tendencies). He has published a monograph whose title (and content) is similar to the book under review here: The Early Hans Urs von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation (W. de Gruyter, 2015).

And so, after examining malodorous ideas in Balthasar’s works, Paul Silas Peterson turned his attention to Barth. The result is, to say the least, provocative: “While Barth is often presented as a heroic resistor of National Socialism, there is little evidence to support this claim from the early period leading up to 1935. On the contrar, … Barth’s radical anti-liberalism seems to have contributed to the toxic forces that were essential to the downfall of the liberal Weimar Republic. He argued that it was acceptable to be both a Christian and a National Socialist” (7). We had a socialist Karl Barth in the 1970s (Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, Theologie und Sozialismus, 1972), we now have the “conservative” Karl Barth, who contributed to the ascent of völkisch ideology and totalitarianism.

This thesis is not new. Peterson, who is fully versed in the primary and secondary literature, relies to a large extent on a specific interpretive lineage (Trutz Rendtorff, Falk Wagner, Friedrich-Wilhelm Graf). Still, how does Peterson reach the conclusion that Barth “was deeply cooperative in the new fascist order” (327)? By emphasizing Barth’s struggle against theological liberalism, and by repeatedly suggesting that this struggle was, equally, a struggle against politicalliberalism. This slippage recurs throughout the book, but no compelling case is made for aligning the theological struggle with the political one in this particular way.

Peterson is on sturdier ground when he shows that Barth did not adequately support the Weimar Republic and democratic institutions. This is true—Barth himself admitted it. But was this lack of support the consequence of a “conservative” political stance akin to the “antiliberal” forces which were gaining ground in the 1920s? What exactly does “liberal” mean, here? A lack of clarity runs through the book on this point. Did Barth oppose parliamentary democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, elections, and the rule of law?

Peterson has read almost all of the existing literature—no small feat, given how extensive it is! But how has he read it? Quite selectively and imaginatively. I will give three examples. First, Peterson argues that Barth’s pamphlet, Theologische Existenz heute! (June 1933), is not an attack on Hitler’s regime, but only a critique of Protestants who were seduced by the new dominant ideology. Barth did all he could notto offend the new regime. Does this thesis hold? Only if one omits certain pronouncements in the pamphlet, such as this one: “Where has it all gone, what used to be called ‘freedom,’ ‘law,’ and ‘spirit’ until a year ago, and before that for centuries?” (Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten, 1930-1933, 361). Barth’s critique of the “Aryan doctrine,” of the “blood and race” ideology, is also unambiguous. Why are these passages not even mentioned by Peterson? Are these the words of a person who is “deeply cooperative in the new fascist order” (327), and who limits himself strictly to inner-ecclesial debates?

Second example: in 1921, Barth had a private clash with Emanuel Hirsch, whose völkisch tendencies, unlike Barth’s, are well documented. This shows that Barth’s theological “anti-liberalism” cannot be equated with any “conservative,” antimodern, and antidemocratic political stance. Why does Peterson barely mention this clash (183, 191)? Taking this seriously forbids one to imagine that Barth engaged in a “new tacit alliance … with the rightwing” (186),that his “defense of ‘folk-life’ and his interest in the fatherland … reveal his nearness to early 20th century nationalism” (92). Peterson’s claim that in the Weimar years “Barth was promoting a völkisch understanding of society” (208-209) is not warranted by the sources. Yes, Barth spoke, infrequently, of Volk, but did he ever absolutize this notion, and did the term, as he used it, carry the connotations it had in German-nationalist publications? No.

One final example of Peterson’s problematic interpretation of the material he covers: unlike what he suggests (204, 317), talking theologically about “obedience,” God’s “total claim,” “decision,” “authority,” and the like, is notnecessarily conducive to “conservative” and “totalitarian” tendencies politically. In Barth’s case: quite the opposite! A posse ad esse non valet consequentia (Barth himself, it must be said, did not respect this axiom; he expected all who differed from him to join the Deutsche Christen! Much resentment against Barth stems from his misguided Konsequenzmacherei). Peterson simply does not appear to see that such theological claims can (and did, in Barth’s case) buttress a fight against any worldly, total claim. In this regard, Barth’s fight for “freedom” within the Protestant church (i.e., freedom to proclaim the gospel) was also a fight againsttotalitarian tendencies in politics. The great majority of Barth’s contemporaries did not see him as someone who was “deeply cooperative in the new fascist order” (327). It is quite amazing that, almost 90 years later, Barth can be presented as “deeply cooperative” with Hitler and his regime!

“Barthians” will be tempted to interpret this book as a frontal “attack,” rather than as a painstaking, albeit severely biased, attempt at a historical contextualization (in fact: reconstruction) of the Swiss theologian. They should resist the urge to engage in a certain form of apologetics which does not take seriously Barth’s own regrets. Certainly, Barth should have done more, and earlier, in defense of the Jews, of the rule of law, and democracy. Peterson does convince that Barth strongly wished to remain in Germany. It is also true that Barth’s critique of Hitler’s regime became more direct and radical only after his dismissal from Germany, in the summer of 1935 (why did Hitler’s regime dismiss someone who was so “deeply cooperative,” by the way?). What Peterson does not see is that Barth expressed clear misgivings, not just against the Deutsche Christen, but also against the new totalitarian regime and its ideology of “blood and race,” less than six months (June 1933) after Hitler’s rise to power.

It is stupendous how differently different people can interpret the same material! Peterson’s study is replete with a devaluation of many elements (they are numerous), in the sources, which contradict his account, and with an overvaluation of whatever appears (but often only appears) to confirm it. Barth did not support the Weimar Republic as he could and should have. But he was no friend of völkisch ideologues, of totalitarianisms, and of ultra-nationalist anti-Semites.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christophe Chalamet is Associate Professor on the Faculty of Theology at the University of Geneva.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Silas Peterson is a member of the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University of Tübingen.

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