Albert Schweitzer

A Biography

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Nils Ole Oermann
Paul Lauer
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is the English translation of Nils Ole Oermann’s biography of famed New Testament scholar, theologian, musicologist, and missionary Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). Oermann, a professor of Ethics at Leuphana University, explores “the myth of the selfless jungle doctor of Lambarene” by sketching “a more realistic picture” of him (2). However, such an attempt is fraught with difficulties. Schweitzer carefully constructed a lasting and often romanticized self-image through a number of biographical reflections, interviews to journalists, and film documentaries. But with the appearance of several volumes of previously unpublished letters, lectures, and manuscripts, Oermann offers a more complex image of Schweitzer “the whole man” (2).

Born in the French Alsatian town of Kaysersberg, Schweitzer was the son of a liberal Protestant pastor. “The theological liberalism in his parents’ Lutheran parsonage,” Oermann explains, “was indebted to rationalism and shaped Schweitzer both theologically and culturally” (9). Naturally, this instilled in Schweitzer a suspicion of ecclesiastical teachings and dogma. While Schweitzer was never an orthodox believer, he believed he could be more “Christian” than other Christians (11). Early on Schweitzer was “far from being a model student.” However, he ended up studying at the University of Strasburg, obtaining a doctoral degree in philosophy and a position as a lecturer in theology. Though interested in Immanuel Kant, during his compulsory military service Schweitzer began contemplating the historic life Jesus. A student of liberal theologian and church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), it is not surprising that Schweitzer drew sharp distinctions between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (25).

Ultimately, Schweitzer decided against a career in philosophy. He became a curate in one of the most liberal congregations in Strasbourg. Wishing to be a “practical philosopher,” he began formulating a worldview he later called “Reverence for Life.” It was while writing Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) that Schweitzer decided to study medicine, observing he was now determined to serve humanity not with words but with deeds. But as Oermann notes, Schweitzer cared little for the study of medicine; for him it was a means to an end (76). In 1913, he set off to French Equatorial Africa, where he put his new philosophy to practice.

In Schweitzer’s reflections, there appears to be an inevitable line from an academic career in philosophy and theology to a life lived in the service of humanity. But as Oermann demonstrates, the road to Lambaréné (now in Gabon) was fraught with inner turmoil. One strength of Oermann’s study is the revelation that behind the great Schweitzer was the even greater Helene Bresslau, his “loyal comrade” and wife. His transformation from academic to jungle doctor was intimately tied to his relationship with Helene. She shared Schweitzer’s ideal that “to be a follower of Christ could only mean consciously making Christ’s life an example” (84). More importantly, it was she who first began studying medicine and encouraging Schweitzer to go to Africa. She even helped him edit Quest and other writings. After the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society accepted his services, Schweitzer married Helene and both began planning their vocation in Africa.

Tragically, Helene had to live vicariously through Schweitzer due to her own health, which prevented her from spending any significant amount of time at their jungle clinic. This became such a source of contention between them that she threatened Schweitzer with divorce. At the pinnacle of his fame, he callously responded: “Let her!” (173). Schweitzer and Helene shared only five years in Africa. It was the longest time they ever spent together. For Helene, who felt forgotten and alone, it was nothing short of a nightmare marriage.

At Lambaréné, Schweitzer found workers to help build his vision of a medical clinic in the jungle. And though he developed close relationships with a number of native Africans, “he never made any attempt to learn an African language” (97). In the course of nine months, Schweitzer treated over 2,000 patients. But in the midst of the turmoil of the Great War, the French government declared Schweitzer and Helene “hostile foreigners,” deporting them to France as enemy aliens in 1917 (130). After their release from prison camp, they returned to Alsace. Eventually, Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné and started over. However, Helene’s illness forced her to stay in Europe and—due to her Jewish ancestry—she found herself fleeing from German troops (160).

At this time, Schweitzer also started developing a “philosophy of civilization,” which attempted to counter the pessimism that followed the war. As Oermann observes, much of what he had to say simply recapitulated “a lifelong and deeply held conviction of the blessings and superiority of the European Enlightenment and its antique roots” (114). In short, his philosophy of civilization offered a secularized version of the Christian Gospel, one which was heavily influenced by the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In a letter to Helene, Schweitzer even claimed that had Nietzsche “lived twenty centuries earlier, he could have become St Paul” (118).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life” had many incongruities. Though a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, he was often critical towards other religious traditions, particularly Islam. Moreover, while he applied his “Reverence for Life” towards all creatures, including the “daily trail of ants on his desk,” he was no vegetarian. Schweitzer also held backward views on colonization, reportedly even slapping and kicking his African employees. Even more disturbing was his silence regarding the persecution and execution of the Jews by the German Reich. Agreeing with another biographer, Oermann notes that while Schweitzer was “august and good,” he was also “cranky on occasion, dictatorial, prejudiced, pedantic in a peculiar Teutonic manner, irascible, and somewhat vain” (179).

Nevertheless, by the 1950s Schweitzer enjoyed international acclaim, largely thanks to his bestselling autobiographies, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1921), Out of My Life and Thought (1931), and The Forest Hospital in Lambaréné (1938). Indeed, his stature reached mythological proportions, with Life magazine declaring in 1947 that he was “the greatest man in the world.” Perhaps feeling guilt over his silence on earlier atrocities, Schweitzer became a leading opponent of atomic warfare, writing letters to theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009), and others. For his work, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1954 (174). Helene died in Zurich in 1957, Schweitzer burying her ashes in Lambaréné where he himself died a decade later and was buried alongside his wife. 

Oermann concludes by parodying, consciously or unconsciously, Schweitzer’s own account of the historical Jesus, arguing that “each age creates its own Albert Schweitzer, a person who comes to its shores unknown and without a name” (219). While he embraces Schweitzer’s principle of the “Reverence for Life,” Oermann correctly points out that the man himself is a myth. Schweitzer was indeed a master at staging himself. It is ironic that the man who denied the orthodox belief in the divinity of Jesus would himself have such a pronounced “savior complex.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
March 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nils Ole Oermann is Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany and Visiting Professor of Business Ethics at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. He also serves as personal adviser to the German minister of finance. He is the author of Mission, Church and State Relations in South-West Africa under German Rule (1884-1915) and co-editor of the Theologische Literaturzeitung.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.