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.


Author Response

I would like to add a few responses to this review of my book. First of all, a brief introduction to the book can be found on the Soundcloud webpage by searching for "The early Karl Barth" or on my homepage. Second, it is very important to remember that Barth did not want to criticize the National Socialist state in the early period of the Third Reich. This has often been claimed in apologetic histories. In 1933 he told the National Socialist officials that he would not criticize the new state. In the same statement of loyalty, he told them that he had not supported the Weimar Republic. Third, Barth promoted voelkisch ideas in the 1920s and early 1930s. Fourth, Barth’s radical anti-liberalism cannot be understood as a purely religious issue, and he did not claim that it was. The issue of anti-liberalism is not so clean cut in the 1910s, 1920s or 1930s. Barth was critical of the liberal theologians and politicians of this era. Fifth, In "Theologische Existenz heute!", in 1933, after the rise of Hitler, Barth said: continue as if nothing has happened. Sixth, Barth believed that the National Socialist government was ordained by God and claimed this well into 1934. Seventh, Barth became critical of National Socialism after he returned to Switzerland in 1935, and especially in the later 1930s. Eighth, in 1933 Barth was preoccupied with his personal life (affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum) and did not want to have any problems with the new political order. Ninth, Barth was deeply cooperative in the early period of the Third Reich. In fact, Barth had extensive correspondences with theologians who supported the new antisemitism in Germany in the 1930s. Tenth, in the later 1920s and early 1930s, Barth embraced the concept of an authoritarian state with a “leader.” Eleventh, the review makes reference to a passage in “Theologische Existenz heute!” which I address in the book (pg. 286). In this passage, Barth says that Christians can continue in the “daring enterprise of the total state” and that they should continue to preach the Word of God. He does not claim that Christian should resist the state, nor does he seek in any sense to address the “situation” or criticize the regime. He says explicitly that he does not want to address the “situation” but the “matter”, which is the Word of God. Barth did not want to get into politics, this is why he called it “theological existence today!” that is, not “political” or “ecclesial-political existence today!” Barth wanted an apolitical theology and church at the outset of National Socialist Germany. This follows his development from the later 1910s. Twelfth, the review claims that I do not sufficiently address Barth’s conflict with Emanuel Hirsch. I address this conflict and Hirsch extensively in the book, see pages 59, 60, 64, 183, 185, 191, 232 to 235, 238, 240 to 246, 274, 322, 324, 329, 354, 369, 355, 440, 443, 446. Thirteenth, the review seeks to distance Barth from his own writings on the Volk and Volkstum. In fact, Barth embraced the voelkisch discourse of his time in the 1920s and early 1930s, at a time when this had no official legal standing. In this, Barth was aligning with the conservative forces on this issue, even if he did not embrace the most extreme forms of the ideology. Finally, in secondary literature on Barth, it is very typical to read that he was critical of the new political order and sought to resist it. In fact, the story is more complicated. In 1935, for the first time, Barth came out and criticized the new political order. As I have shown in my book, even before the National Socialists came to power, and even when confronted by the new radical ideology explicitly, Barth tried to avoid conflict. He was busy with theology and his personal life, and he thought that the church should focus on the Word of God.

Paul Silas Peterson


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