The Early Karl Barth: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation 1905–1935

Paul Silas Peterson presents Karl Barth (1886–1968) in his sociopolitical, cultural, ecclesial and theological contexts from 1905 to 1935. The time period begins in 1905, as Barth began to prepare for a speech on the “social question” (which he held in 1906). It ends in 1935, the year he returned to Switzerland from Germany. In the foreground of Peterson’s inquiry is Barth’s relation to the features of his time, especially radical socialist ideology, WWI, an intellectual trend that would later be called the Conservative Revolution, the German Christians, the Young Reformation Movement, and National Socialism. Barth’s view of and interaction with the Jews is also analyzed along with other issues, such as radical thinking, anti-liberalism, alterity, anti- or trans-historicism, Expressionism, and New Objectivity. The author also addresses specific questions disputed in the secondary literature, such as Barth’s theological development, the place of WWI in his intellectual development, his role in the Dehn Case, his reaction to the rise of fascism in Europe, his relationship to 19 thcentury modern liberal Protestantism, his relationship to the Leonhard Ragaz-wing of the Religious Socialists, and his relationship to the Weimar Republic.

Mohr have provided a copy for review.

This volume lands like a bombshell on the playground of the Barthians, fragmenting preconceptions and blowing apart the facade of Barth the zealous anti-Nazi Confessing Church hero.  Peterson’s work will change scholarship.

… in 1935 Barth moved to Switzerland and became more critical of National Socialism.  Before this, he was not publicly opposed to it.  For over two years in National Socialist Germany, Barth never spoke out against it (p.2).


Even for his time, Barth was propagating disturbing racist ideas.  He taught young people in his confirmation courses that people with African backgrounds, the “Neger” (‘niggers,’ ‘negroes’ or ‘blackamoors’), are ‘little intelligent’ and that they ‘live on a lower level’ and are even ‘inferior to the Europeans’ (p.2).


In the early 1930’s, Barth did virtually nothing for the Jews- and this even after some Jews called on him to act.  He went so far to claim that he would lose his Professorship if he did do anything.  Barth also put the Jews in a negative light on many occasions. … In National Socialist Germany, Barth argued that the ‘Jew question’ did not belong in the pulpit (p. 4).

That’s just material from the Introduction.  Peterson goes on to make his case, point by point, line by line, jot by jot and tittle by tittle that the early Barth is not the man so many perceive him to be as they view him (wrongly) through the lens of the later Barth.

Peterson’s work is a revised version of his Habilitationsschrift accepted by the Protestant Theology Faculty at the University of Tübingen.  Following the foreword and the list of abbreviations Peterson launches right into his deconstruction of the early Barth.

The Introduction concerns itself with a biographical overview and then a socio-political historical study which places Barth squarely in his Weimar-ian context.

The first chapter, ‘Socialism, Marburg and WWI (1905-1919)’ is a stellar examination of Barth’s early socialist thinking and the impact that the first world war had on him.

Chapter two, ‘Romans, Overbeck, Harnack and Ethics (1919-1931)’ is a bit longer and more detailed than the first chapter as it takes Peterson a bit of space to explain the intertwinings of Barth’s teachers and the politics of the day.

The third chapter is fairly brief but focuses entirely on ‘The Dehn Case (1931-32).’  This case is pivotal and critical for a proper understanding of the early Barth and Peterson here makes that crystal clear.

Chapter four, ‘National Socialism and Theological Existence Today! (1932-1935)’.  Peterson here takes readers through the forest of the Altona Confession and the Young Reformed Movement along with, of course, the key materials published in Theological Existence Today! which addressed the current church-political situation and then Peterson offers readers a very compelling discussion of the Barmen Declaration in juxtaposition with Barth’s response to the loyalty oath to Hitler!

The oath runs thusly:

I swear: I will be faithful and obedient to the leader of the German Reich and Volk, Adolf Hitler, observe the law, and conscientiously fulfill my official duties, so help me God (pp. 328-329).

Peterson observes

On the 7th of September, 1934, Barth wrote to Niesel about the Hitler Oath.  He expresses concerns about it but also entertains ways of interpreting it which would allow one to sign it, for example, with a ‘reservatio mentalis’ (p. 329).

The notion that Barth was staunchly anti-Nazi and rabidly anti-Hitler in the early period is simply wrong.

The fifth chapter then widens the focus to a discussion of Barth and dialectical theology and National Socialism and the Jews and Authoritarianism.  It is superb.

In his concluding chapter Peterson asks a series of questions:  Is Barth best understood through the theological lens alone?  Was he in continuity or discontinuity with 19th century liberal theology?  Was he apolitical in the Weimar Republic?  And did Barth contribute to the toxic forces that led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic?

The work closes with a bibliography, a listing of Barth’s works, other literature, and an index of names.

Many volumes have been written on Barth but few have been as engaging or important as this one.  The light shed on Barth, from his own writings (which are seldom consulted or read with anything but from a backward glance through the late Barth) on his early development is immense.  I can only heartily recommend this volume.  The Barthians will hate it, but the rest of us learn so much from it that our perceptions of Barth are forever changed.