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.
(See stevehickey.wordpress.com/2009/07/11/the-hunt-for-karl-barths-grave/.)

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.

Today, May 10, is Karl Barth’s Birthday!

I love to read biographies and often find that a person’s early years are the most fascinating. I knew little about Karl Barth before doing some initial research. I was aware that he was a famous Swiss theologian who opposed Hitler, that he had served as a pastor before becoming a theology professor and that he wrote a famous commentary on the book of Romans as well as Church Dogmatics. In my reading, I discovered that Karl Barth was a much more interesting character than I had imagined. In this post I want to tell you about Barth’s early years. In following posts I’ll tell you about his work as a pastor and professor.

Barth’s Early Years
Karl Bart (pronounced “bart”) was a Swiss theologian who is regarded by many as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. By a happy coincidence, today, May 10, is Karl Barth’s birthday! He was born in Basel, Switzerland May 10, 1886 and died there on December 10, 1968.

Barth was the oldest of five children born to Fritz Barth, a Swiss Reformed minister, and Anna Katharina (Sartorius) Barth.  (The term Reformed refers to the branch of the Protestant Church that follows Calvin rather than Luther – the Evangelical branch as it is called in Europe. The most prominent Reformed church in America is the Presbyterian Church in all its varieties.)

Barth grew up in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, where his father was a professor of New Testament and early church history. I was surprised to read in a Karl Barth website (kbarth.org) that young Karl was a “troublesome child” and that he didn’t like going to school. For some time he was the leader of a roving street gang and engaged in feuds at school and in the neighborhood. Another source (The Existential Primer at tameri.com) says that young Karl found fighting exhilarating. My observation is that Barth remained a fighter all his life although in much more constructive ways than leading a street gang.

Although he avoided getting into serious trouble in school, his academic performance was mediocre. However he developed a passion for words and as a teenager he founded a club he called the “Renegade Poets.” He wrote a number of poems and plays and acted in several of them. (This reminds me of one of my favorite films, Dead Poets Society, staring Robin Williams which was first shown in 1989.)  Barth’s early love of writing helps me understand how he later became such a prolific writer.

A major turning point in young Barth’s life was his confirmation class in the Swiss Reformed Church. Like many denominations which baptize the infants of believers, the Swiss Reformed Church held confirmation classes for young people who wished to confirm their baptism and participate as members of the church. Young Karl attended this class from 1901 to 1902. Barth’s Confirmation teacher was a man named Robert Aeschbacher who taught that scientific materialism (such as found in the works of Marx) was not going to answer the most important questions about life. Aeschbacher taught that faith in science was misplaced because science could not explain the riddles of the universe. It was Aeschbacher, rather than Barth’s father, that persuaded young Karl to consider the inspiring life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Existential Primer states that on the eve of his Confirmation, Karl Barth made a personal choice to embrace Christianity. In his diary entry of March 23, 1902, Barth wrote, “I made a bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in my mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time.”

When Barth was eighteen years old he started to study theology at the University in Bern. Later he moved to Germany and studied at the universities of Berlin, Tubigen, and Marburg. In Berlin he took classes from the famous professors of the day such as Adolph von Harnak who taught a form of optimistic Christianity that focused more on “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” rather than on the person and work of Jesus Christ.