A Review of Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict

Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, trans. Victoria J. Barnett (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Since its publication in 1975, Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth has been the definitive biography of Karl Barth. Indeed, for many English readers, it has been the primary access point for a larger body of literature that was otherwise available only within German scholarship. Over time, that material has become accessible to English Barth readers, thanks in no small part to the Barth Translators’ Seminar, but even so, Busch’s biography remains the primary English source for information from Barth’s personal correspondence.[1] That is no longer the case for Barth scholars, as Christiane Tietz’s 2019 critical biography, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict,has finally been translated into English.

Tietz’s biography is superior in a manner that can occur only with the passage of time. For one thing, there are more source materials at her disposal than were available to Busch in the years between Barth’s death in 1968 and Busch’s publication in 1975. For another, Tietz has the freedom to write about the strained relationships between Barth; his wife, Nelly; and his secretary and mistress, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. This would have been unthinkable in 1975 while Nelly Barth was still alive. Finally, Tietz has the benefit of historical distance, which is prized above all in critical scholarship.

That said, where Tietz is preferable for her distance, Busch will always be prized for his proximity. And I suspect that Tietz knows this, choosing—as she has—to depend on Busch at so many crucial points in her own biography. Thus, we have arrived at the point where English language Barth scholarship has before it not one but two definitive biographies. And for this reason, it seems most beneficial that I highlight the important differences between the two biographies, the differences that make Tietz’s work essential reading for students of Barth.   

One of the noteworthy interpretive decisions that Tietz makes is to present Barth through an expressionist lens. Scholars previously noted the influence of expressionism on Barth’s early writing, especially Epistle to the Romans, but Tietz takes it a step further and presents Barth’s whole life through this lens.[2] To better make sense of this decision, I will begin with the idea that Barth’s early writing demonstrates expressionist influence. Tietz explains this in the following way:

Barth’s language in Epistle to the Romans was influenced by the characteristic style of the expressionism shaken by the war, as one encounters in the paintings of Max Beckmann or Otto Dix and the literature of Gottfried Benn or Georg Heym. Barth uses powerful, bold formulations and pits them against each other, restlessly and [sic] underscoring the contrasts. He wanted to provoke and shake things up. He had hardly any hope in human beings. He wanted to lift God up into view (87).

If expressionism is an artistic response to naturalism, Barth’s theological exegesis in Romans is a bold response to the historical-criticism of his teachers. Barth’s rhetoric provokes a wide range of responses from readers. Where theologian Katherine Sonderegger sees “joyful delight and freedom of movement,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sees only a frustrated theologian who “gesticulates with words” when he wants to say something and “does not know how to express it.”[3] In these contrasting opinions, we see, perhaps, the intention of expressionism demonstrated—love it or hate it, it demands a response.

But for Tietz, this is much more than a feature of Barth’s rhetoric; it is the fabric of his very life. In the preface, she writes, “Barth’s lasting significance, which is also his lasting disruptive potential, rests in the fact that he emphatically clarified the absolute otherness of God over against the ‘world’” (vii). Whether it was Barth’s early rejection of pietism followed by his subsequent rebuke of liberalism, his resounding “No!” to the German Christians and his later rebuke of Swiss Christian distrust of Germans, his early zeal for armed defense against the Nazis coupled with his absolute rejection of nuclear armament, or even his principled suspicion of ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholicism and his late interest in the events of Vatican II, Tietz presents us with a life lived in the tensions that emerge when Barth’s theology is intertwined with his context. These tension points—and many others—form the contours of the life in conflict that drives Tietz’s biography from beginning to end. Expressionism, with its emphasis on bold and colorful expressions of emotion, best describes the conflicted nature of Barth’s life and work.

A second noteworthy feature of Tietz’s biography is its extended treatment of Barth’s early life. Busch’s biography rightly centers on Barth’s time as a pastor in Safenwil, a time that includes the emergence of Barth’s socialist politics, the rejection of his liberal Protestant education at the onset of World War I, and the publication of the first and second editions of Romans. Tietz’s treatment of Barth’s time in Safenwil (chapters 4 and 5) covers the same ground in half the space. And while Safenwil remains central, Tietz shifts the center of gravity slightly backward, giving us a clearer picture of student Barth’s theological frame of mind.

As a young student in Bern, long before he became a disciple of Adolf von Harnack, we find Barth expressing the sort of misgivings about the historical-critical method that would become a crucial part of his break with Protestant liberalism. In one student paper, Barth argues that the outright rejection of miracles is a mistake. In another, on the stigmata of Saint Francis of Assisi, Barth presses this point further, arguing that historical methods like source criticism feign an objectivity that they simply cannot achieve. This impulse, Tietz notes, “already anticipates his later conviction that there are things in Christian faith that don’t correspond to natural laws and in that sense are ‘miracles’” (25).  

In Tietz’s biography, Barth’s cataclysmic break with Protestant liberalism at the onset of World War I is less abrupt, resulting from long-held tensions in Barth’s thinking. Even as Barth, by his own admission, is becoming a disciple of Harnack, he remains his father’s son; he remains a child of pietism. Although this correction will not do much to change the historical timeline in Barth scholarship, it points toward an important undercurrent in Barth’s theology. And for Tietz, that pietist history also sows the seeds of conflict that germinate in Barth’s subsequent theological awakening.

Finally, the most significant contribution Tietz’s biography makes for English Barth scholarship is the picture she draws of the Barth household in the decades that Charlotte von Kirschbaum lived there with Karl, Nelly, and their children. During these years, von Kirschbaum served as Barth’s mistress, as his secretary and collaborator, and as “Aunt Lollo” to his children.

Von Kirschbaum died in 1975, the same year that Busch published his biography. Much of his research and writing occurred at the end of her lifetime while Nelly Barth was still alive. The relationships that Busch shared with both women, not to mention Barth’s adult children, would have weighed heavily on him as he sought to navigate the tensions that remained from what amounted to Barth’s polygamy. Busch describes Barth and von Kirschbaum becoming acquainted through mutual friends in 1924, and von Kirschbaum moving into the home as his secretary in 1929. With sparse description, Busch reports that in 1925, Barth “got to know Charlotte (‘Lollo’) von Kirschbaum more closely” and that in the winter of 1926, shortly after Barth began teaching in Münster, he was visited first by Eduard Thurneysen and later by von Kirschbaum.[4] From that point forward, von Kirschbaum appears in Busch’s biography at every juncture; she is the secretary who prepares his manuscripts, the travel companion who accompanies him on lecture tours, the research assistant who prepares reading notes, the aunt who visits with his children, and a theologian in her own right. But even when von Kirschbaum moves into the Barth household in 1929, Busch dances around the nature of the relationship, using Barth’s own words to describe her as a “faithful fellow-worker” and a “partner and confidante,” who held a “deep mutual trust and understanding” with Barth. The closest Busch comes to stating the truth is when Busch acknowledges that von Kirschbaum’s willingness to live in the Barth home and work as his secretary left her “in an extremely unprotected position” or when he describes the thirty-plus years of cohabitation as a difficult living situation in which Karl, Nelly, and Charlotte “bore a burden which caused them unspeakably deep suffering.”[5]

Writing in 2019—with access to letters that Barth wrote to Thurneysen and von Kirschbaum that were released in 2000 and 2008, respectively—Tietz fills in the gaps. Barth’s 1925 encounter with von Kirschbaum resulted in an exchange of letters that culminated with Barth inviting her to visit him at Münster before his family joined him. The Münster visit was the turning point in the relationship. From that point forward, the two were in love. Letters exchanged between Barth and von Kirschbaum during this time demonstrate both Barth’s decisiveness regarding his love for von Kirschbaum and his remorse over the pain he knew it would cause Nelly and the children.

In a chapter titled, “A Troubled Ménage à Trois,” Tietz documents the beginning of Barth’s relationship with von Kirschbaum, the conflict it introduced to Barth’s marriage to Nelly, and the remedy that Barth began to call the notgemeinschaft (“emergency association”).  Explaining the notgemeinschaftto Nelly, Barth wrote, “each one—bound and not bound in a particular fashion with the other two—has a special place, a special security, but also a special burden and pressure, without having to end our marriage legally and outwardly, and without having to deny and suppress that which connects me to Lollo” (215).

Von Kirschbaum lived in the Barth house—first in Münster, then in Bonn and Basel—for more than thirty years. Publicly, she was presented as Barth’s secretary, creating a sort of “double-life” for Barth; however, friends, family, and students all knew the complexity of the situation. For Barth the surprise of his love for von Kirschbaum presented a theological, professional, and personal crisis. Theologically, Barth could not deny that his relationship was a violation of the seventh commandment. At the same time, he continued to ask whether it was possible that God’s will permitted his love for Kirschbaum. As Barth so often did in his theology, he refused to ease the dialectical tension with a clear either-or. He believed that divorce was socially, professionally, and personally irresponsible, yet he also felt that abandoning the relationship with von Kirschbaum was romantically impossible and irresponsible in its own right. And so, he chose to live a life in conflict between all of these tensions in something of a “permanent crisis.”

Over the years, some theologians (evangelicals in particular) have used Barth’s affair to question the integrity of his theology—or as his mother put it, “What good is the most discerning theology when it suffers a shipwreck in your own home?” (220). Others (like Stanley Hauerwas) have argued that Barth’s life—especially his fight with Nazism—proves that his theology is true. The picture of Barth that emerges in Tietz’s biography is one that is uncomfortable with either of these characterizations.  

As Tietz shows, Barth wrestled with the thought that his affair might discredit his theology. He had little interest in morality as such, considering it a reflection of bourgeois society more than the gospel, but he did care that his life should conform to his theological ethics. In this regard, he tried to explain the notgemeinschaft as responsibility to the command of God. In the end, only God could judge whether Barth had been unfaithful, and he was prepared for the possibility that God would, indeed, judge him. Yet he had little patience for the judgment of others, least of all his own siblings.

Conversely, I think the Barth presented in Tietz’s biography would be uncomfortable with Hauerwas’s claim about a connection between the truthfulness of his theology and the example of his life. Barth’s ethics famously rejected casuistry in all forms. The Decalogue, for example, worried Barth because he believed it led to a legalistic Reformed theology. He likewise cautioned against turning the witness of the biblical heroes into a formula to be repeated, and I suspect he would caution against using his own attempt to live in fidelity to two women in “responsibility” to God as a paradigm for ethical action. To do so would be to return ethically to the problems of philosophical ethics that Barth rejected in his own work. It would be to sit on God’s judgement throne. If anything, Barth continued to emphasize the possibility that he would be judged by God for his decisions.

Another way to put this is that Barth chooses to remain in tension. Instead of simply discounting the Decalogue, he confesses his own breaking of it while maintaining its continuing relevance. In Barth’s theological ethics, there is something he called the “boundary case,” or a case that falls outside of the norm without changing the rules. It is perhaps too convenient that Barth interpreted his own situation as a sort of boundary case between marital fidelity and adultery. It might have been more prudent for him to simply pursue marital fidelity or divorce, yet he seemed to thrive on conflict.

And this brings me to one final point. The picture of the notgemeinschaftthat emerges in Tietz’s biography is drawn primarily from Barth. The letters we have that describe the situation are those that Barth wrote to von Kirschbaum and to Thurneysen, whereas von Kirschbaum’s letters to Barth were destroyed and Barth’s letters to his wife are prohibited from publication by Barth’s estate in accordance with his will. In Barth’s version of the story, he attempts to be as faithful as possible to each woman and to God without denying himself a path that he believes to be true. He is determined to make the notgemeinschaftwork and, in the end, he credits this arrangement with the success of his theological work.

Yet there was a cost to the notgemeinschaft. The effects of this arrangement are underreported, but Tietz shares enough that we can assume the situation was bleak. Both women struggle with depression and mental health concerns; both women go through periods in which they seek to end the love triangle; and both women sacrifice something of their own hopes and desires and dreams. In von Kirschbaum’s case, she makes herself completely financially dependent on Barth without the protections of legal marriage. In Nelly Barth’s case, she shares her home with a woman she did not choose and becomes the subject of gossip and speculation the world over. Moreover, it is hard to ignore the power dynamics in the relationship. In some sense, Barth gets everything and sacrifices nothing.

I hope that Tietz’s biography will shine a light on von Kirschbaum as a theologian in her own right, but otherwise, it is too soon to say what impact Tietz’s biography will have on the English reception of Barth. Questions about Barth’s traditional interpretation of marriage in Church Dogmatics III, for example, may need to be considered in relationship to his life. But my sense is that the work helps clarify how closely Barth’s life and theology are intertwined—two threads ever in tension. 

[1] See Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1976); and Busch, ed., Barth in Conversation, 3 vols., trans. Barth Translators’ Seminar (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017–2019).

[2] See Paul Brazier, “Barth and Expressionism—Some Further Considerations,” Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 2, no. 1 (2005): 34–52; and Stephen H. Webb, Re-Figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991).

[3] Sonderegger, “On Style in Karl Barth,” Scottish Journal of Theology 45, no. 1 (1992): 65; and Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, rev. ed., ed. G. H. von Wright (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998), 97e.

[4] Busch, Karl Barth, 164–65.

[5] Busch, Karl Barth, 185–86.