On Thursday evening, November 8, 2007, Eberhard Busch – Karl Barth’s last research assistant and Emeritus Professor of Reformed Theology at Göttingen – lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary. The title of his lecture was “A Swiss Voice: The Campaign of the Swiss Government Against the Voice of Karl Barth During the Second World War,” and this title is self-explanatory. It was a fascinating lecture that sought to dispel the myth that Barth was not politically active during World War Two, and Busch drew much upon original archival research in Swiss and German government archives that have only recently been opened for such research.
Below are my notes from the lecture. They are not well formed, nor have I gone back to edit them. Thus, they do not give a precise or comprehensive account of what was said, but they do give an indication. Undoubtedly this information will become available in traditional print form in due course.
Eberhard Busch – “A Swiss Voice: The Campaign of the Swiss Government Against the Voice of Karl Barth During the Second World War”
Barth saw his task as to do theology and only theology, and thereby caused a public nuisance! Barth’s work against Hitler’s government induced the Swiss government to work against him. This story has been forgotten in recent times, perhaps because some wanted to forget about their own or their country’s stance toward Hitler at the time. Busch will take us through some documents from the Swiss and German government documents from the time of the second Word War, largely unavailable until recently.
Barth was removed from his German teaching office in 1934. The reason for this was Barth’s alarming political statement on Reformation Day in 1933, where he asked for a protest of the church against the treatment of the Jews and the imprisonment of members of the democratic opposition to Hitler. In 1935 Barth was called to the university of Basel, and at the same time the Swiss government made him the leader of a relief organization for scholars expelled from German (mainly Jews). In this capacity he arranged a big demonstration for the benefit of Jews and worked with Thomas Mann. The German government wrote to the Swiss government during this time complaining that Barth works against the German government. By 1935 Barth wrote in a Basel newspaper that the Nazi government had showed its bolshevist face and insisted that the church follow only her one Lord. Thus, Barth performed the office of a watchman, coming into conflict with the Swiss government.
The Swiss government wanted to stop Barth’s comments about these matters. Switzerland in that time was considered by the German government as a neutral state. This was a lucky coincidence for Hitler because Switzerland was a useful turntable for economics and espionage. The Swiss government was motivated by the desire to stay out of the second World War at all costs, making them very interested in not upsetting Germany.
Barth criticized especially three points: (1) The claim that the Swiss government’s interpretation of Swiss neutrality was the only way to be neutral, (2) The making secret of the extensive Swiss support of German policies, thinking that this violated Swiss neutrality, (3) The opposition of free expression of opinion and the freedom of observation.
Barth thought that Swiss neutrality ought to mean the freedom to stand against aggression and a free living together. As a sign of his willingness to defend Swiss neutrality for this reason, Barth voluntarily because a soldier of the Swiss army (at the age of 55). The government criticized Barth, for instance, for violating neutrality by his printed description of Hitler as an ‘ill man.’ The government had made illegal such denigration of Hitler. Germany’s embassy in Bern urged the Swiss government to take action against Barth as well. Barth persisted, however, in his lecturing and printing critical of the Nazi government as well as the Swiss government’s policy’s toward Germany. Indeed, Barth specifically lifted up the Jewish question as pivotal, noting that salvation came from the Jews and they thus deserve to be defended by the church.
The Swiss government slowly began tightening its grip on critical publication, classifying some of Barth’s lectures as political instigation. Organs of the Swiss government even described Barth as a ‘theologian of hate,’ and he was accused of political agitation against Germany under the cover of religion. The two kingdoms doctrine was even marshaled against Barth, and he was told that he could say whatever he wanted about theology but that he couldn’t give political lectures under the guise of ecclesial style. The publication of certain of Barth’s published lectures and booklets was forbidden. Barth contested these things, arguing that the theologians of the Reformed church in the tradition of Calvin and Zwingli have not only the right but the duty to speak politically. When his appeal failed, Barth was unable to publish or lecture on the political situation in Switzerland. Barth’s phone was tapped, and his correspondence was monitored and censured. In one instance, one of Barth’s letters, including a picture of him in his military uniform bearing the caption ‘Resist the evil with all means,’ was confiscated.
Barth managed to some degree to circumvent the Swiss government’s censorship by means of the media in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Germany suggested to the Swiss government that they put pressure on Barth by means of their employment of him, and Barth was officially criticized for neglecting his teaching duties by agitating abroad against Germany. Barth replied that he would do it again! The longer the war lasted, the bolder the censors of Barth’s texts grew. They even insisted that Barth inform the government when he wrote for foreign media outlets. There was even thought within the Swiss government about putting Barth in prison (which the German embassy pushed for), but this never happened.
One of the reasons given for the government censorship of Barth had to do with Barth making a statement about the bolshevic face of the Nazi German government. It was argued that Germany was the leader of Europe in resisting communism. Those who opposed Hitler now tended to be accused of communist sympathies. Barth, despite his sympathies to Swiss socialism, had always resisted Russian communism beginning with the revolution of 1917.
Images: The top image is of Busch entering with Darrell Guder under the watchful eye of Warfield, and the bottom image is of Busch with Daniel Migliore.