Karl Barth’s letter to Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt (5 September 1967): “I am decidedly not a philosemite”


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

To what extent were German theologians, clergy, and church officials – and the theological traditions to which they, to varying degrees, adhered – complicit in facilitating the Shoah? This remains a contentious issue, although it seems fair to say that scholars are now increasingly inclined to stress the complicity of the churches (and theological faculties). Initially after 1945, it was widely assumed that the churches by their very nature stood in opposition to National Socialism, and that it was German society’s abandonment of the churches, and the values they propagated, that had made National Socialism and the crimes it perpetrated possible. By contrast, it is now accepted by many that the Shoah was facilitated not least by the fact that the National Socialists were able to tap into widely held, and well established, negative sentiments towards Jews in German and European society.

To be sure, antisemitism as an ideology, as it emerged in force from the 1870s onwards, was in important respects a distinctly modern phenomenon, and many of its proponents prided themselves on the extent to which their negative attitudes towards Jews were supposedly secular and scientific in nature. Yet modern antisemitism in fact created a potent mix that incorporated and ultimately perpetuated, while at the same time transforming, older forms of anti-Jewish sentiment rooted in Christian anti-Judaism. It was precisely this ability to merge the new with the old, the radical with the traditional, the supposedly scientific (and “racial”) with values and notions of respectability that were Christian in origin that, in the eyes of many, lent the self-avowed antisemitic movement what, by today’s standards, can only be described as a remarkable measure of plausibility. Even the antisemites’ most determined opponents for the most part felt that, while the antisemites took matters too far, they did ultimately have a point.

German and European society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was not so much neatly divided between antisemites and non-antisemites. Instead, it consisted of groups and individuals who subscribed to various positions situated on a continuum of attitudes towards Jews, that ranged all the way from genuine interest in constructive interaction to lethal enmity. Indeed, in many hearts and minds both positive and negative sentiments towards Jews coexisted in uneasy and complex admixtures. Ultimately, even those who wished the Jews no harm nearly always remained conflicted in their attitudes towards them. Even they tended to subscribe to the notion that there really was a problem with “the Jews”, and to share the widespread perception that the non-Jewish majority society was running out of options, all its good intentions in confronting the “Jewish problem” notwithstanding.

In this respect, Protestant theologians, clergy and church officials formed no exception. They were likely to be at the conservative and patriotic end of the spectrum and thus tended to be concerned about the more radical “excesses” of National Socialism. Yet most of them supported, or at the very least accommodated themselves to, the National Socialist regime. To be sure, numerous Protestants made considerable personal sacrifices in the struggle of the confessing church (Bekennende Kirche) with the regime, the so-called Kirchenkampf. Yet the extent of Protestant resistance has been massively exaggerated and all too often judged more in terms of what the churches ought to have done rather than what they actually did. This resistance was rarely political in nature and even less likely to be directed to any substantial degree against the regime’s treatment of the Jews. To the extent that it did, it was concerned almost exclusively with the fate of baptized Jews. In other words, what the oppositional groups within the church really rejected was not the antisemitism or the anti-Jewish policies of the regime as such, but the latter’s claim that “racial” Jewishness trumped the transformative power of baptism. The regime might be fully within its rights to deprive baptized Jews of their citizenship, but it had no right to dictate what rights baptized Jews enjoyed within the church, so the argument went (if it was made). For oppositional Protestant theologians, clergy, or church officials to go further yet and raise private concerns about, let alone speak out publicly in support of, non-baptized Jews was an even greater exception.

Why was this so? A number of reasons have been suggested. Fear, opportunism, and indifference doubtless played a role. Yet it is striking that these did not prevent clergy and church officials from making their discontent at the physical annihilation of the disabled and mentally ill known to the regime – with the result that the regime temporarily stopped this so-called “euthanasia” campaign, and was much more careful to keep it a secret when it was subsequently resumed. Why were similar measures not taken in defence of the Jews? If fear, opportunism and indifference did not suffice to prevent clergy and church officials from speaking out again the “euthanasia” campaign then these considerations cannot provide a sufficient explanation for their failure to oppose the Shoah. In both cases the core issue was insistence on the sanctity of life, yet, while this insistence apparently came up trumps in the case of the disabled and mentally ill, it failed to do so in the case of the Jews. This is not to say that the majority of Protestant theologians, clergy, and church officials were actively in favour of the genocide against European Jewry. It does however raise some very serious questions about their willingness to become complicit in it.

In large part they doubtless simply shared in the anti-Jewish sentiments prevalent in society at large. Then again, the triumphalist notion of Christianity as the successor of a now defunct Judaism that was so characteristic of Christian theology prior to (and, alas, all too often beyond) 1945, itself played a crucial role in lending those anti-Jewish sentiments legitimacy and respectability, and hardly made theologians, clergy, or church officials particularly prone to recognize the problem and become part of the solution. To be sure, the debilitating effect of deep-seated Christian anti-Judaism did not inevitably prevent theologians, clergy, or church officials from taking a stand; yet the fact that even the few who did take a stand, either publicly or at least in private, remained so conflicted in their own reasoning is indicative of the seriousness of the problem. The following document arguably offers a particularly startling illustration of this issue, albeit from a somewhat unexpected perspective.

2. Source

Reproduced with kind permission of Theologischer Verlag Zürich and kind permission of T&T Clark.

German original

Karl Barth, Briefe 1961-1968. Ed. Jürgen Fangmeier und Hinrich Stoevesandt. Zürich, Theologischer Verlag, 1975, No. 260, pp. 419-423. With permission by the Theologischer Verlag Zürich.

[p. 419]

An Dr. Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, Berlin

Basel, den 5. September 1967

Lieber Herr Dr. Marquardt!

Eben habe ich die Lektüre Ihres Buches[1] zuende gebracht. Es hat mich 2½ Tage lang in bzw. außer Atem gehalten. Ich danke Ihnen, von Herzen erfreut, für dieses Geschenk und für Alles, was Sie da anzeigen und ausbreiten.

Ich erinnere mich noch sehr deutlich, wie Sie einst – ich weiß das Jahr nicht mehr – als eine von zwei wunderbarerweise von Deutschland her rheinaufwärts treibenden « Bultmannleichen » (so nannte ich damals die Leute, die irgendwie beschädigt durch die damals gewaltig um sich greifende Bultmannitis, von fürsorglichen [p. 420] Vätern angeleitet oder aus eigenem Antrieb hier als [in] einem erhofften Sanatorium) auftauchten. Bei dem Anderen von damals, dessen Namen ich vergessen habe, schlug die Kur nicht an: er ist dann Jurist geworden, was ja auch eine gute Sache ist. Sie aber haben sich seither in großer Originalität und Selbständigkeit ein theologisches Haus erbaut, das z. Zt. sogar in aller Form an der « Baslerstraße » in Berlin[2] steht und daselbst ein Licht ist, das verheißungsvoll Allen leuchtet, die in ihm ein- und ausgehen.[3] –

Doch zur Sache:

Sie haben meine « Israellehre » künstlich und fein entdeckt und dargestellt: historisch und sachlich so, daß ich wirklich keine Einwendung zu erheben habe. Diese « meine » Lehre war vielmehr in Ihrer Darstellung für mich so eindrucksvoll und überzeugend, daß ich (bevor ich zu Ihrem § 5 kam) immer wieder in Versuchung war, vor mir selbst – ich pflege nur selten in meinen eigenen Büchern zu stöbern, Sie haben aber pünktlich bewiesen, daß es so drinsteht – den Hut abzuziehen. Ich selbst hätte das niemals so auf den Tisch des Hauses legen können. Und so fällt alles Lob, das dieser « Israellehre » gebührt, wirklich Ihnen zu. Mir gestatten Sie einfach den Dank dafür, daß Sie sich die Mühe genommen haben, dem Geländer meiner Wege und Werke entlang die Wahrheit in dieser Sache so leuchtend an den Tag zu bringen. Ich bin freudig (wenn auch nicht ohne eine gewisse Sorge) gespannt auf das, was Sie, des Geländers nun nicht mehr bedürftig, in dieser Angelegenheit und sonst weiter zu sagen haben werden.

Zu der in Ihrem Paragraphen 5 vorgebrachten Kritik hatten Sie allen Anlaß. An dem von Ihnen berührten Punkt besteht bei mir tatsächlich eine Lücke. Ich kann – nicht zu ihrer Entschuldigung, aber ein bißchen zu ihrer Erklärung, nur Zweierlei vorbringen:

1. Das biblische Israel als solches gab mir soviel zu denken und zu verkraften, daß ich einfach die Zeit und auch das geistige Umfassungsvermögen nicht fand, mich auch noch mit Baeck, Buber, Rosenzweig usw. näher zu beschäftigen, wie Sie es nun in so verdienter Weise getan haben.

2. Ich bin insofern entschieden kein « Philosemit », als ich in [p. 421] der persönlichen Begegnung mit dem lebendigen Juden (auch Judenchristen!), solange ich denken kann, immer so etwas wie eine völlig irrationale Aversion herunterzuschlucken hatte – natürlich von allen meinen Voraussetzungen her sofort herunterzuschlucken und in meinen Äußerungen gänzlich zu verdecken wußte, aber eben doch herunterzuschlucken und zu verdecken hatte. Pfui! kann ich zu diesem meinem gewissermaßen allergischen Reagieren nur sagen. Aber es war und ist nun einmal so. Ein Glück, daß dieser verwerfliche Instinkt meinen Söhnen und anderen besseren Menschen als ich (wie z.B. Sie) ganz fremd ist. Aber eben: es möchte sein, daß auch er sich in meiner Israellehre retardierend ausgewirkt hat.

Einigermaßen tröstlich für mich ist es, daß Sie die bei mir anhebende, jedenfalls ernsthaft versuchte Besserung in diesem Stück auch vermerkt haben. Erlauben Sie mir darum noch einige Hinweise pro domo: Ich lege Ihnen hier den Text eines 1954 in meinem Seminar erarbeiteten Ergänzungsvorschlags zu der den Ökumenischen Rat der Kirchen damals beschäftigenden Erklärung zum Thema « Christus – die Hoffnung der Welt »[4] bei: er ist von der Vollversammlung in Evanston mit Rücksicht auf den Protest des libanesischen Botschafters in Washington nicht angenommen worden! Ferner: einen von W. Vischer verfaßten, von mir immerhin mit unterschriebenen und gegen Emil Brunner in großer Aufregung verteidigten Aufruf schon aus dem Jahr 1938.[5] Weiter wäre mir immerhin gutzuschreiben, was ich in der Schrift: « Ad Limina Apostolorum » S. 33 Frage 5 und S. 39 f. Fr. 6-7 den Römern zu bedenken gab. In Betracht kommen ferner meine Beiträge zu einer 1962 in Chicago abgehaltenen Panel-Discussion.[6] Das Geleitwort zu jenem im Ostberliner Unions-Verlag erscheinenden Buch [7] (das sie dort sicher nicht abdrucken werden!) habe ich Ihnen jetzt (N. B. bevor ich mir Ihren § 5 zu Gemüte geführt hatte) vor acht Tagen zugehen lassen. Ich sehe aber ein, daß das Alles zur Füllung der von Ihnen aufgezeigten Lücke im Ganzen meiner in meinem sonstigen Schrifttum dargelegten, von Ihnen so schön umrissenen Israellehre nicht genügt.[p. 422]

Nur – und hier fühle ich mich etwas unsicher – wie wird wohl Ihre eigene, jene Lücke ausfüllende, meine Linien in der gewünschten Richtung ausziehende Israellehre aussehen? Ich brauche wohl einem so klugen Mann wie Sie nicht einmal anzudeuten, welche « Gefahren » bei diesem Unternehmen auftauchen und sich auswirken könnten. Incidit in Scyllam, qui vult vitare Charybdin?![8] Möchte Ihnen das bei der vorgesehenen Verbesserung meine Angebots doch nicht widerfahren! Möchten Sie doch dabei ebenso weise wie mutig zu Werke gehen!

Und nun nochmals: Dank für Alles, die besten Wünsche für Ihre weitere so hoffnungsvoll begonnene Tätigkeit in Forschung und Lehre und herzlichem Gruß von

Karl Barth

Notes to the source

  1. F.-W. Marquardt, Die Entdeckung des Judentums für die christliche Theologie. Israel im Denken Karl Barths, München 1967.
  2. Marquardts Adresse.
  3. Vgl. Mt 5, 15.
  4. Unveröffentlicht.
  5. Das Heil kommt von den Juden (Memorandum) (Oktober 1938), in: Juden – Christen – Judenchristen. Ein Ruf an die Christenheit, hrsg. vom Schweizerischen Evangelischen Hilfswerk für die Bekennende Kirche in Deutschland, Zollikon 1939, S. 39-47; dasselbe auch in: Judennot und Christenglaube, hrsg. vom Schweizer Ev. Hilfswerk f. d. Bek. Kirche in Deutschland, Zollikon 1943, S. 111-119. Die Diskussion mit E. Brunner, an der auch W. Vischer teilnahm, fand am 8./9. 12. 1940 während der 3. Wipkinger Tagung in Zürich-Wipkingen statt. Der Streitpunkt war: Gilt noch, daß das Heil (nach Joh 4, 22) von den Judenkommt, oder nur, daß es von den Juden gekommen ist?
  6. Introduction to Theology. Questions to and Discussion with Dr. Karl Barth. Wednesday April 25, 1962 and Thursday April 26, 1962 8:00 P. M. Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, The University of Chicago, in: Criterion. A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Vol. II No. 1, Winter 1963, S. 3-11; 18-24. Zum jüdisch-christlichen Gespräch dort S. 18-22 (Fragen von Rabbi Petuchowski, Antworten von Barth).
  7. Stärker als die Angst, hrsg. von H. Fink, Berlin 1968. Barths Geleitwort, das dort tatsächlich nicht erscheinen durfte, veröffentlichte F.-W. Marquardt innerhalb seines AufsatzesChristentum und Zionismus, in: EvTh, Jg. 28 (1968), S. 629-660; dort S. 654. Barth schreibt u.a. « Die ‹ Jüdisch-Christliche Solidarität › von damals, von der hier berichtet wird, ruft, wenn dieser Bericht sinnvoll sein und nicht nur museal wirken soll, unbedingt nach: ‹ Jüdisch-Christlicher Solidarität › heute! Das muß ausdrücklich mitgesagt werden, weil neulich eine Gruppe von sonst respektablen Mitchristen – ich meine den Arbeitsausschuß der ‹ Prager Christlichen Friedenskonferenz › – am 3. Juli 1967 in Sagorsk – ich weiß nicht: von welchen bösen Geistern irregeführt? – ein Pronunciamento zur Nah-Ost-Krise in die Welt gesetzt hat, von dem ich nur sagen kann, daß ich in seiner negativen Stellungnahme zum Daseinskampf des Staates Israel jede tiefere theologische Besinnung, aber auch praktisch-politische Vernunft schmerzlich vermisse… Eine klare und wohlbegründete u.a. von K. Immer, H. Gollwitzer, E. Wolf, M. Rohkrämer unterzeichnete Gegenerklärung ist zum Glück sofort auf den Plan getreten… Die gute damals eingeschlagene Richtung muß heute theologisch wie politisch durchgehalten, sie darf unter keinem Vorwand heute wieder abgebrochen werden. Ohne diesen aktuellen Hinweis würde ich das hier vorliegende Buch nicht loben und empfehlen können. Hic Rhodus, hic salta! » – Zur Sagorsker Erklärung und zur Gegenerklärung vgl. Nr. 258 Anm. 1.
  8. Philippe Gualtier de Chatillon, Alexandreis (1277) V, 301: Incidis in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdin.

English translation

Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968. Ed. by Jürgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt. Translated and Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. T.&T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1981, No. 260, pp. 261-263.

[p. 261]

To Dr. Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt

Basel, 5 September 1967

Dear Dr. Marquardt,

I have just finished reading your book.[1] For two and one-half days it kept me holding my breath or breathless. I thank you sincerely for this gift and for all the things you point out and develop in it.

I still remember clearly how one day – I forget the year – you made a remarkable journey up the Rhine and turned up as one of two “Bultmann corpses,” as I then called those who had been hurt in some way by the virulent spread of Bultmannitis, but who had been sent here by their fathers, or had come on their own volition, as to a hoped for sanatarium [MD: sic]. In the case of the other one, whose name I do not recall, the cure did not work; he became a jurist, which is also a good thing. But you went to build with great originality and independence a theological house which now even stands formally on Baslerstrasse Berlin[2] and is a light that holds promise of lighting all who go in and out.[3] But to get to the point.[p. 262]

You have discovered and expounded my doctrine of Israel with great skill and finesse, and historically and materially I can raise no objection. This doctrine of mine as you depicted it was so impressive and convincing to me (before I came to §5) that I was almost tempted to tip the hat to myself – only seldom do I rummage about in my books, but you have shown point by point that this is the way it is. I myself could never have brought it to light in this way. And so the praise that this doctrine of Israel merits is really yours. Please let me thank you for taking the trouble to bring out the truth in this matter by following the banister of my ways and works. I am looking forward with joy (though also not without a certain anxiety) to what more you may say on this and other matters now that you no longer need the banister.

You had good cause to develop the criticism made in §5. At this point there is indeed a gap in my work. I can only say two things, not by way of excuse, but by way of explanation.

1. Biblical Israel as such gave me so much to think about and to cope with that I simply did not have the time or intellectual strength to look more closely at Baeck, Buber, Rosenzweig, etc. as you have now done in such worthy fashion.

2. I am decidedly not a philosemite, in that in personal encounters with living Jews (even Jewish Christians) I have always, so long as I can remember, had to suppress a totally irrational aversion, naturally suppressing it at once on the basis of all my presuppositions, and concealing it totally in my statements, yet still having to suppress and conceal it. Pfui! is all that I can say to this in some sense allergic reaction of mine. But this is how it was and is. A good thing that this reprehensible instinct is totally alien to my sons and other better people than myself (including you). But it could have had a retrogressive effect on my doctrine of Israel.

A partially consoling factor here is that in your work you have also noted the beginnings of improvement in me, or at least a serious attempt at it. Please let me give you some other indications. Here is the text, worked out in my 1954 seminar, of a supplement to the declaration on the theme “Christ – the Hope of the World” which was then occupying the World Council of Churches.[4] In view of the protest of the Lebanese ambassador in Washington it was not adopted by the full assembly. Again, a summons from as early as 1938, drawn up by W. Vischer, subscribed by me, and also strenuously defended by me against Emil Brunner.[5] Also, to my credit, my reservations concerning the Romans in my work Ad Limina Apostolorum, p. 33, question 5 and pp. 39f.,[p. 263] questions 6-7. Also to be considered, my contribution to a panel discussion held in Chicago in 1962.[6] I also sent you eight days ago (N.B.: before I took to heart your §5) my introduction to a book coming out in the Union Press Berlin (though they certainly will not print it).[7] I realize that all this is not enough to fill the gap to which you have drawn my attention in the doctrine of Israel as it is presented in my other writings and as you have so finely sketched it.

The only thing is – and I feel rather unsure at this point – what about your own doctrine of Israel as you fill this gap and draw out the lines in my treatment in the desired direction? I need not point out to so clever a person as yourself what dangers might rise and affect this enterprise.Incidit in Scyllam, qui vult vitare Charybdin?![8] May this not happen to you in the projected improvement of my first attempt! May you do it with no less wisdom than courage!

And now again thanks for everything, best wishes for your further activity in research and teaching, which you have begun with such promise, and sincere greetings,


Notes to the source

  1. F.-W. Marquardt, Die Entdeckung des Judentums für die christliche Theologie. Israel im Denken Karl Barths (Munich, 1967).
  2. Marquardt’s address.
  3. Cf. Matt 5:15.
  4. Unpublished.
  5. “Das Heil kommt von den Juden (Memorandum)” (Oct. 1938), in Juden-Christen-Judenchristen. Ein Ruf an die Christenheit, publ. by the Swiss Evangelical Auxiliary for the Confessing Church in Germany (Zollikon, 1939), pp. 39-47. The debate with Brunner took place 8-9 December 1940 on whether salvation is or was of the Jews (John 4:22).
  6. “Introduction to Theology; Questions to and Discussion with Dr. Karl Barth, Wednesday, 25 April 1962 and Thursday, 26 April 1962, 8 P.M., Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago,” in Criterion; A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, 2, No. 1 (Winter, 1963), pp. 3-11, 18-24.
  7. Stärker als die Angst, ed. H. Fink (Berlin, 1968). As Barth foresaw, his introduction was not published but Marquardt included it in his essay “Christentum und Zionismus,” EvTh, 28 (1968), 629-660, on 654. It included severe criticism of the Szagorsk Declaration and commendation of the Counterdeclaration; cf. 258, n. 1.
  8. Philippe Gualtier de Chatillon, Alexandreis (1277), v. 301: “Incidis in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdon.”

3. Discussion of the source

This is Karl Barth’s response to Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt’s doctoral dissertation (published in 1967), a critical but not unsympathetic examination of Barth’s doctrine of Israel, i.e. his theological grappling with the significance of biblical and post-biblical Judaism. Barth (1886–1968) was “arguably the most important – and most prolific – theologian of the twentieth century” and “as important in his field as Adorno, Freud, Wittgenstein, Weber, Heidegger, or Saussure were in theirs.” (Koshar 2008 333–4) He played a crucial role in the formation of the confessing church, and left Germany for his native Switzerland after being robbed of his chair in Bonn for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the National Socialist regime. Although he later regretted not having taken a more public stand on the matter, there is no doubt that Barth was highly critical of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies, and he supported a number of initiatives designed to assist refugees from Nazi Germany.

Coming from a man of this stature, and with such impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, this letter seems all the more startling and it is little wonder that it has given rise both to scandalizing and apologetic responses. Yet a more nuanced view would suggest that this is arguably one of the most courageous statements on the matter made by a first-rate Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. The true scandal ultimately lies not with Barth as an individual but with the theological culture that rendered him a life-long hostage to these sentiments and, by extension, with any attempt not to confront the full seriousness of this legacy. What more dramatic illustration could there be of the virulence of the problem than the fact that a theologian of Barth’s acuity and brilliance, a man who had shown his ability radically to re-invent himself, when he abandoned liberal theology to develop his “critically realistic dialectical theology” (to use Bruce McCormack’s apt formulation), and who had grappled at considerable length with core issues pertinent to Jewish-Christian relations, was forced to admit to himself at the end of his long life that he had ultimately been unable to overcome, or even fully understand, the anti-Jewish attitudes that had come naturally to him for as long as he could remember.

It seems noteworthy that Barth actually responded to Marquardt with such seriousness. Marquardt (1928–2002) would soon emerge as one of the foremost radical theologians of his generation and one of the few for whom Auschwitz marked a genuine caesura for any future theological endeavour. It is worth remembering, though, that at the time he was not an established academic theologian, but the student chaplain at the Freie Universität Berlin. Nor should one overrate the fact that in the year following the publication of his doctoral dissertation it earned him the Buber Rosenzweig Medal, awarded jointly to Marquardt and the Austrian historian Friedrich Heer. For while the Buber Rosenzweig Medal is now doubtless Germany’s most prestigious prize for scholarship and activism in Jewish-Christian and multifaith relations, it was actually awarded for the first time in 1968. In short, Barth could quite conceivably have shrugged off Marquardt’s critique had he wanted to. Nor do Barth and Marquardt seem to have corresponded regularly; this is in fact the only letter to Marquardt included in Barth’s collected letters for the period 1961–68. As Barth mentions at the beginning of the letter, Marquardt, who had previously been under the sway of Barth’s rival, Rudolf Bultmann, in Marburg, came to Basel to study with Barth in 1951/52, and Barth was clearly pleased with the extent of Marquardt’s subsequent recovery from “Bultmannitis”. Even so, this would hardly explain the seriousness and frankness of this letter, had Barth not been genuinely interested in engaging Marquardt’s critique.

To be sure, in the penultimate paragraph Barth sounds a note of caution. For a man as smart as Marquardt, he suggests, the potential dangers of trying to draw out the implications of Barth’s doctrine of Israel in the desirable direction surely went without saying. He hoped, Barth wrote, that Marquardt would be as wise as he was courageous, thus ensuring that he did not run on Scylla as he sought to avoid Charybdis. Nor did Barth feel that he had nothing to show for himself. He mentions a number of recent initiatives that he considered indicative of a serious attempt on his part to better himself. Yet he nevertheless conceded that none of this sufficed to fill the gap in his doctrine of Israel that Marquardt had identified. Indeed, all this ultimately only throws Barth’s startling confession all the more sharply into relief. It is despite these ongoing attempts to better himself that the “reprehensible instinct” he admits to in this letter, on his own account, persists: “this is how it was and is”. What is more, Barth refrained from trying to declare this a purely private problem. Much as he had sought to “suppress and conceal” this “reprehensible instinct”, he could not rule out, he wrote, that “it could have had a retrogressive effect on my doctrine of Israel”. He admitted, in other words, that his “totally irrational aversion” to Jews, all his attempts to ignore it notwithstanding, might well have seeped into his theology.

Mark Lindsay’s is perhaps the most recent attempt to make all this go away. He concedes that it is “quite natural” that “the response of most commentators to these admissions has … been to accept uncritically Barth’s self-reflections”. (Lindsay 2007 23) Needless to say, the crucial word here is “uncritically”. When should we ever accept anything “uncritically”, no matter how “natural” it may seem? Lindsay’s apologetics are all the more remarkable in that he formulates them at the outset of a book in which his main argument is that Barth’s actual position can in any case be determined only on the basis of a thorough examination of the deep structure of his theological thought, rather than the occasional casual remark. Yet why then focus on such occasional casual remarks in the first place? Lindsay sets out to demonstrate that Barth was much more familiar and at ease with contemporary Jews and Jewish thought than his remarks in this letter suggest. Yet the evidence he seeks to enlist in this context is so tenuous that it only compels one to wonder all the more why it should be desirable to prove that Barth’s most frank, self-critical, and courageous comments on the matter were in fact mistaken (for a more detailed discussion, see Fischer 2010 891–6).

To be sure, as a general rule we are obviously well advised never to take our protagonists’ boasting uncritically, and this would indeed include conspicuous forms of self-criticism that merely amount to boasting by proxy. Yet how could the way in which Barth covers his face with egg in this particular instance conceivably be self-serving? As the scandalizing and the apologetic responses alike indicate, nothing could be further from the truth. Evidently, Marquardt’s critique resonated so strongly with Barth, that it provided him with an opportunity to examine his own position with genuine frankness and humility, and give us a rare sense of just how conflicted even somebody of Barth’s stature and good intentions remained in his grappling with Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. On the basis of his professions in this letter to Marquardt, could one conceivably classify Barth as antisemitic?
  2. Is it significant that Barth was a Swiss Calvinist rather than a German Lutheran?
  3. What might one deduce from Barth’s use of the term “philosemite”?
  4. What are the implications of the fact that even the likes of Barth and Bonhoeffer remained so conflicted in their attitudes towards Jews?
  5. How does one engage with important historical figures whose attitudes towards Jews were to varying degrees problematic?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Bethge, Eberhard. (1981) ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews,’ in: John D. Godsey and Geffrey B. Kelly (eds.) Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer’s Legacy to the Churches. New York, Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, pp. 43–96.
  • Ericksen, Robert P. (2009) Christian Complicity? Changing Views on German Churches and the Holocaust. Washington, DC.
  • Gerlach, Wolfgang. (2000) And the Witnesses were Silent. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (2010) ‘Confronting the Past: Post-1945 German Protestant Theology and the Fate of the Jews’, in: Frankel, Jonathan and Ezra Mendelsohn (eds.) The Protestant-Jewish Conundrum (=Studies in Contemporary Jewry 24). New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 46–70.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (2010) The Aryan Jesus. Christian theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hockenos, Matthew D. (2004) A church divided. German Protestants confront the Nazi past. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

6. Further Reading

  • Barnes, Kenneth C. ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s Persecution of the Jews’, in: Ericksen, Robert P. and Susannah Heschel (eds.) Betrayal. German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp. 110–128.
  • Fischer, Lars. (2010) ‘The Non-Jewish Question and Other “Jewish Questions” in Modern Germany (and Austria)’, Journal of Modern History 82, 4, pp. 876–901.
  • Funkenstein, Amos. (1993) ‘Theological Responses to the Holocaust’, in: Perceptions of Jewish History. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press, pp. 306–337.
  • Haynes, Stephen R. (2002) ‘Who Needs Enemies? Jews and Judaism in Anti-Nazi Religious Discourse’, Church History 71, 2, pp. 341–367.
  • Head, Peter. (2010) ‘Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: A Response’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32, 4, pp. 421–430.
  • Heschel, Susannah. (2011) ‘Historiography of Antisemitism versus Anti-Judaism: A Response to Robert Morgan’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33, 3, pp. 257–279.
  • Koshar, Rudy. (2008) ‘Where is Karl Barth in Modern European History’, Modern Intellectual History 5, 2, pp. 333–362.
  • Lindsay, Mark R. (2007) Barth, Israel, and Jesus. Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Michael, Robert. (1987) ‘Theological Myth, German Antisemitism and the Holocaust: The Case of Martin Niemoeller’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 2, 1, pp. 105–122.
  • Morgan, Robert. (2010) ‘Susannah Heschel’s Aryan Grundmann’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32, 4, pp. 431–494.
  • Spicer, Kevin. (2008) Hitler’s Priests. Catholic Clergy and National Socialism. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.
  • Toedt, Heinz Eduard. (2005) ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Decisions in the Crisis Years 1929–33’,Studies in Christian Ethics 18, 3, pp. 107–123.

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