Karl Barth and the Beginnings of Church Opposition

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A sensational text published on July 1, 1933 was instrumental in the development of opposition within the Protestant church. It was penned by Karl Barth, a professor of theology at the University of Bonn, and was entitled “Theologische Existenz heute!” (Theological Existence Today!). At the urging of his supporters, Barth expressed his views on the church’s situation in the new political circumstances in it for the first time.

The text was produced in one go. The manuscript was ready in twenty-four hours. The text had the character of a manifesto and lastingly changed the church’s situation. In it, Barth resolutely opposed the German Christians and their endeavors to politicize the Protestant church in the spirit of National Socialism. Barth demanded a radical rejection of this politicization of the church. The theologian consigned those, who cast themselves as part of a faith movement with the forcible means of a political rally rather than with theological arguments, to the rubbish heap of the then so very disparaged 18th and 19th century.

Barth went even further though and also criticized the Young Reformation movement’s course of action. He detected a blatant imitation of the state’s Führerprinzip behind their actions in the issue of the Reich Bishop. The lack of a theological basis had led to a Catholic episcopalism in the Protestant church and was an indication of the theological primitiveness in Germany.

Concluding, Barth underscored at the end of his text the necessity for a spiritual rather than an ecclesio-political center of resistance. He emphatically threw his weight behind a reflection on the Bible and Creeds as the church’s central tasks. This exhortation of Barth’s in particular influenced the further development of the church’s clash with National Socialism greatly.

Barth’s text tapped the pulse of the times. Until its confiscation in the following year, Kaiser-Verlag had published 37,000 copies. His text shook many Protestant Christians out of their national fervor. On the heels of the German Christians’ win in the church election, his text encouraged forces of opposition not to give up. Barth’s impetus was taken up with great intensity and the confessional issue became part and parcel of the clash with the German Christians. The dispute grew successively more dynamic thereafter. The NSDAP no longer maintained its one-sided support of the German Christians and returned to the “principle of neutrality”.

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