Thoughts on Charlotte von Kirschbaum

I found a copy of The Question of Woman: The collected writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum on Alibris for around $3 and I recieved it in the mail yesterday. I’m reading from the introduction about her humble beginnings and the very tense manner in which she chose to live her life in the unique and scandalous position of being a member of the Karl Barth household. Here are some of the highlights:

–disowned by her mother for her friendship with a married man.

–she distanced herself from home

–despite forty years in Basel she never
applied for Swiss citizenship but retained her German nationality. This
might have been because Swiss women did not have the right to vote.

–It was her confirmation pastor George Merz, who introduced her to Karl Barth. Merz edited a journal with Barth and served as Barth’s son’s godfather. He brought Charlotte
along to here a lecture. At this point she was in poor health, suffering from a
poor diet and the hard, long hours of work as a Red Cross nurse.

–She suffered for over ten years with a brain disease and when she became incapacitated Church Dogmatics came to an end.

–a discreet veil was drawn over her by Barth’s circle because of the “scandal”
of their relationship.

–she was treated as a family member and paid a monthly allowance (not a salary)
for her needs.

–this odd relationship caused many rumors on the outside and estranged Barth’s
own children, some calling her Auntie but others felt they had to side
with Nelly and be estranged from their dad.

–Per Karl Barth’s wishes, she was regularly visited in the nursing home by family and friends until her death in 1975.

–She is interred in the Karl Barth family burial place.

From my reading in this book’s introduction and in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, there is nary a word about whether a physical sexual relationship was allowed to develope between them. You’ll always here it inferred, but then dropped, just as I’m sure it was during his time. What both of these sources bring out is Charlotte’s dedication to Barth’s work, and her own satisfaction with being a part of the work, albeit in a very precarious standing.

The question remains: “Was their’s a prime example of two friends extraordinary ability to be attracted to one another and yet in control of themselves for a greater good?”

or

“Were they both naively engaged in the trap of an emotional affair in which they spent forty years sometimes enjoying, sometimes ignoring their feelings?”

Whatever the answer to these, Church Dogmatics is a result. Their writings on man and woman in relation (CD III/II) are put under strain when set against their life situation. How did they regard this? Its all much more of a quagmire than I can afford to look too deeply on today. Eventually I would like to find a copy of Renate Kobler’s book In the Shadow of Karl Barth: Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and also Suzanne Selinger’s Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology, though I can’t find these in my price range right now, skin-flint that I am. Let me know if you have a copy or come across one for a good price.

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10 responses to “Thoughts on Charlotte von Kirschbaum

  1. I have found a copy of the second book for $4.99 on amazon.com. If you add it to your amazon wishlist I would like to buy it for you, the only condition is you post some thoughts on it (as I’m sure you would in any case).

  2. You got a deal Richard! Thanks! Adding it now, look in my astore.

  3. It is great seeing that you are reading and thinking about Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Keep in mind, however, that all of their friends, every single one of them, and their family that we have records of, do not doubt that Barth remained faithful to his wife. In order to understand this story you must absolutely understand the role of women in society in the time when Barth encountered young Auntie Lolla, as Barth’s children called her.

    You will find that Barth actually did give his wife a bill for divorce but she would not accept it and he honored that, so did Charlotte. You should see that from The Question of Woman.

    Many blessings in your studies.

    p.s. You can’t expect to not spend medium to high amount of money on such books. This shows a value of a good theological library nearby.

  4. Adam,

    Thanks for your comment. If you haven’t yet, read my post “House on the Albinring.” I go into the relationships there a bit more. You’re right, it is very nuanced. We have no proof that Barth’s relationship with von Kirschbaum was sexual, but it was clear that his marriage was unhappy. I do live near several good theological libraries but don’t have student access or the time to access them. Chicago has a great public library system with interlibrary loan that I make good use of though.

    –Chris

  5. Rein Zeilstra

    Hi Chris et al,
    I have the Dutch translation of Kobler’s book by Inge Scholteis and at the end there is quite some thought by Charlotte herself on the role of women in relation to the public proclamation of the Gospel/Word(Word- vekundigung is difficult to translate). After reading that and then to assume a sexual relationship was in place is unthinkable- for she in her life sets forth and defines the role of women in a christian perspective, and differs in terms of what is sexually permissive or desirable markedly from Simone de Beauvoir with whom she had been in personal contact. She also differed with another woman friend Gertrude von Lefort as what “the (christian) essential woman” was really all about, as an analogical reflection of how the “Image of God” stands in its relationship to Jesus Christ the Son. The triangular arrangement was admittedly odd, especially in the prureient context of the times, yet over time it became less stressful and more acceptant of each other except for the notoriety and the public derision that was heaped especially on her as the evil and scandalous wanton woman. Barth’s marriage was more or less arranged and deep mutual love pretty much was absent from the start however deep respect was afforded by especially Karl to his wife Nelly Barth who declined an offered marriage annulment and both had to live without deep intellectual reciprocity between husband and wife but with that yoke, she ran the household and brought up the children and stayed married in every other sense. There is no doubt Charlotte remained a virgin and saw her life in that capacity as a duty unto God yet also became in time, in theological, intellectual and personal thought the very alter-ego of Barth himself.

  6. Very interesting, indeed! It is hard for people today to understand a time and culture that was not oriented toward sexual desire, at least in the first-place. And indeed also, Charlotte von Kirschbaum chose this life, to effect both Barth’s theology, and her place within it, though of course it was one beneath the surface of Barth himself.

    Since I grew-up Irish Roman Catholic in Dublin Ireland in the 50’s and early 60’s, in the home with many Irish great aunts and uncles, etc. I saw something of this time and generation, etc. My father was a scientist, but he was too one that had women friends around, besides my mother. I just remember lots of people and excitement growing up! My father was a good-looking man, one time British bit- actor, after WW II. But my mother was very beautiful also! And both loved each other and were married over 60 years, living into their late 80’s, RIP. I was very blessed being brought up by that generation! So yes, I have my bias. :)

    Btw, we will not see the likes of a Karl Barth again, nor the sacrifice and work effort/ethic of a Charlotte von Kirschbaum, simply without Kirschbaum.. there would be no CD!

  7. John Haggerty

    I appreciated the care, balance, maturity and historical sensitivity of all these comments. They are in marked contrast to a blog entitled DISAPPOINTED BY KARL BARTH. The comments there are indeed prurient, sanctimonious, and not a little ridiculous. If Charlotte had indeed been Karl’s mistress, he would have ‘set her up’ in a separate residence. It’s important to return to the serious research on Karl Barth by Bruce L McCormack and like-minded scholars. I myself have absolutely no background in theology, but I do enjoy reading it. I am always looking for a serious middle way between the fundamentalism of a John Piper, and the post-evangelicalism of a Frank Schaeffer. Reading the ‘hardline’ fundamentalists on the internet, I learn to my horror that they consign Martin Buber and Anna Frank to eternal hellfire. On the other hand, it is difficult to know what the post-evangelicals actually believe in. I need all the help I can get from balanced Biblical theologians.

    • Rein Zeilstra

      Hi John
      You make a lot of sense wanting to chart a middle road in what is theological discernment essentially. Start reading Karl Barth’s two small books that frame his massive systematics I.e. Dogmatics in Outline and The Humanity of God. Then if you are hooked read his recontextualized (for Western minds) commentary on Romans and a commentary by Clifford green or Eberhardt Busch et al. Earth stressed that despite evangelical muddling with God’s elective programme, God will do and be everything exactly in that capacity

    • It seems to me you are in fact setting quite some theological perspectives in place. To my mind doing theology is not at all reading what others have said or done (although that can help as well as hinder things) but ofessentially setting in place a relationship of conversation between what comes from God in the first instance and hence our considered response rationally and ethically to that kerygma (continual human-ward coming of God speech). That can only be appropriated in Spirit after the modelling of the Messiah/ Christ/ Anointed One (who in Jesus of Nazareth’s personhood, speech and teachings- saves).
      So theology is a science in itself, one however that doesn’t enshrine reason and rationality (like modern western hegemonic pluralism dictates often) but instead uses those faculties reverently to discern imaginative divine insertions into the tapestries of past and present human life.
      That is why theology (as a Barthian variant especially) and philosophy are like traffic on a divided multi- lane highway with an un-crossable median strip with multi-varied traffic flowing in opposite directions ( again from distinctly different hermeneutic origins and methodologies) towards quite different futures. Every now and again there are gaps in the median barrier (called freewill) that allow a reversed direction into either paradigm from the other. For theology the analytic historical dissemination (or rather the rational insistence of it) devolves to an earlier origin of trust in history (people, sayings, incidences) as past and now recounted “happenings” (In German that which occurred or “Geschiede” and its noun “Geschichte”).
      Blessings RZ

  8. I agree that “Dogmatics in Outline” is a good place to start. Also, “Evangelical Theology”, “Prayer”, and even his “Epistle to the Philippians”. Also find copies of his letters. Barth’s sermons to prisoners are great. A thorough reader comes to realize that all his communication and preaching were ministry.

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