Karl Barth’s legendary fighting words of 1938

Sometimes a theologian’s comments on war, even in a personal letter, become legendary. This happened to Karl Barth when in replying to a sympathy letter from Josef Hromadka on 19 September he wrote:

“Every Czech soldier who fights and suffers will be doing so for us too, and I say this without reservation–he will also be doing it for the church of Jesus, which in the atmosphere of Hitler and Mussolini must become the victim of either ridicule or extermination.” ( recounted in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fortress, 2000, pg. 606)

This letter went public in Germany at a very difficult time for the Confessing Church. Eberhard Bethge recounts in his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that two pastors and leaders in the Confessing Church had written a prayer liturgy that served as both a brave confession of guilt and a prayer for peace. (See Bethge, DB, pg. 605-606)

Eberhard Busch wrote of this period from Barth’s view:

A loud chorus of protest began: apart from ‘the whole of the German Press, which by command published the same article under a number of different headlines (“Professor of Theology is Warmonger”, “Jews–Czechs–Karl Barth”, “The True Fame of Karl Barth”)’, ‘anxious, troubled and above all dismayed comments rained down on me, even from those who were my friends and in sympathy with my cause’. (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, Eerdmans, 1994, pg. 289)

If you have copies of the biographies of both Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you can see the full reactions on both Karl Barth in Switzerland and the Confessing Church inside Germany. The Confessing Church at the time was working to save its neck and not attract State attention. After Barth’s comments went public, “the S.S. newspaper Das Schwarze Korps, together with Church Affairs Minister Kerrl, accused Albertz, Bohm, and the Provisional Administration of “treasonable action in clerical garb.” (Bethge, 606) All Church ministers now had to show the Reich Minister how much they disapproved of Karl Barth’s statement. The Confessing Church got squeezed both by the prayer liturgy and Barth’s letter into further legalization and autonomy with the state.

Needless to say, Karl Barth felt awful about all this. Eberhard Busch tells us that together with Paul Vogt, he had been active in the Swiss Evangelical Society for Aid to the Confessing Church in Germany from January of 1938. This society’s function was to offer a place of retreat for pastors and their wives, but later “an enterprise more and more involved in the care of Jews and Jewish Christians who had been expelled or had escaped from Germany”(Busch, 291.)

This wasn’t the only problem for Karl Barth at the time. Busch tells us that he felt that his theology was taken by readers, reviewers, and authors of whole books about him to be:

“the abstract, transcendent God who is not concerned with real men (“God is all, man is nothing!”), abstract eschatological waiting, without significance for the present, and the equally abstract church, only occupied with this transcendent God, and separated from state and society by an abyss. . . .” (Busch, pg. 290)

Here is a practical lesson for us, is it not, on the messy business of political theology. When the Church is committed to human activity during time leading up to war, the State will call its bluff. It can’t claim then to be apolitical, for its preaching always interferes with State relations when the church demands the unity of heart and hand and the State claims that same allegiance.

Finally, here’s a special quote for Jim West, who seems to think Karl Barth disdained Ulrich Zwingli:

“Zwingli’s hymn ‘Lord, now stop the carriage’ made an unforgettable impression on Barth after he had ‘often heard him (Vogt). . . open meetings of the Society for Aid to the Confessing Church in Zurich with it”. (Busch, 291)


1 Comment

Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, Karl Barth, religion and politics, theology

One response to “Karl Barth’s legendary fighting words of 1938

  1. Jim

    Thankya… And it’s not that I think Barth disdained Zwingli- it’s that Barth said he did!

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