Barth’s years as a theology professor in Germany 1921 – 1935

Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans with its attacks on humanism rocked the theological community. Eventually Barth revised the commentary an astonishing six times. That is one of the things I admire about Barth, that he was willing to change his mind in public. This is a mark of intellectual vigor and courage. In my reading so far in Church Dogmatics I’ve noticed that at times Barth will revise his earlier statements from the first volume of the work.

The Epistle to the Romans brought the Swiss pastor to international prominence. In spite of his lack of a doctorate degree, Barth was appointed professor of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1921. My sense is that Barth was far more suited to be a university professor than a village pastor. I suspect that this new calling brought relief not only to Barth but also to his parishioners in Safenwil.

Barth later served as a professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis Münster from 1925 to 1930 and then as Professor of Systematic Theology in Bonn from 1930 to1935. Three notable events took place in these years.

First, Barth began his first book of Church Dogmatics. The huge work grew year by year out of his class lectures. The first volume was published in 1932.

Second, in 1924 he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum (known as “Lollo”) who later became his long-time assistant and confidante. In 1929 she moved in with the Barth family. Although it is easy to imagine the strain this arrangement put on Barth’s marriage and the questions it raised about his reputation, it lasted nearly 35 years. This is the stuff of a Hollywood movie or at least a long running soap opera. Although there is no evidence of a sexual relationship between Karl and Lollo, many people including Dietrich Bonhoeffer strongly disapproved of their arrangement. Nevertheless there is speculation that von Kirschbaum not only provided secretarial assistance to Barth, but that she contributed significantly to the substance of Church Dogmatics.

In my research on Karl Barth’s life I found a revealing article dated July 11, 2009, by a pastor named Steve Hickey in which he relates discovering Karl Barth’s grave.  A photo of the gravestone shows that under the name Karl Barth are the names of Nelly Barth-Hoffman and also Charlotte von Kirschbaum.

Third, during the years that Barth taught theology in Germany, Adolf Hitler came to power. After many years of economic depression and high unemployment in Germany which no government in was able to solve, Hitler was named chancellor in January 1933. From his new leadership position Hitler skillfully played on people’s resentment of the humiliation of defeat in World War I and the fear of communism. As he consolidated his power, Hitler gave police the right to imprison people without trial, search private dwellings without a warrant, seize property, censor publications, tap telephones and forbid meetings. He outlawed all political parties except his own, broke up labor unions, purged universities, and replaced the judicial system with his own “People’s Courts.” He also began a systematic terrorizing of Jews. In spite of these totalitarian measures, Hitler was able to gain the support of most of the leaders of the German churches.

Most German Christians saw no conflict between the program of National Socialism and Christianity. Nationalism, militarism and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The ideal of a racially pure Arian nation appealed to most Christians in Germany.

Unlike the vast majority of German Christians, Barth opposed Hitler from the start. Alarmed by the religious syncretism and anti-Semitism of the German Church, Barth was instrumental in founding the Confessing Church and writing the Barmen Declaration in 1934. This statement (which was later added to The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, (USA) forcefully argued that the Church’s allegiance to the God of the Lord Jesus Christ compels it to resist the influence of other lords such as the German Führer.

Here is a short sample from the Barmen Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture,
is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which
we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could
and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation,
apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events
and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

In reading through the
Barmen Declaration in preparation for this post, I am impressed with its clarity and force. When events required it, Barth could write with simplicity and power.

Barth even had the audacity to mail the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally. It is no surprise that the Swiss theologian was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Barth was escorted back to Switzerland ending his teaching career in Germany.

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