xbn .

How the First World War Helped Give Rise to Political Theology – Ramón Luzárraga

Centennial commemorations of the First World War began last June 28 with the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand von Hapsburg and his pregnant wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. This was followed by the anniversary on July 28 of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, which triggered what Barbara Tuchman called the “Guns of August.” What began as a localized Balkan war between Austria-Hungary and its Slav neighbors, in an attempt to pacify its own Slav subjects and keep the empire united, snowballed through an interlocking series of treaty obligations, pre-emptive mobilizations, and the major Europeans power following long-established war plans, into a global war.

We live in a world decisively shaped by the First World War. The continuing crises and violence in the Middle East can be traced to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent partition of its Middle Eastern territories by Britain and France. In that same region, on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, which had recently received dominion status (i.e. full internal self-government) by the British, found on its battlefields a forge that helped give those two colonies a sense of nationhood which would put those lands on the road to independence. The polyglot and polyethnic Empire of Austria-Hungary dissolved into five nation-states and parts of two more. Germany today is the fortunate large remnant of an empire that once sought its “place in the sun” among the great powers, having finally achieved the goal of a unified nation-state through victory in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, but nearly losing everything over the course of two world wars. One nation that regained its state was Poland, due to the defeat of Germany and Austria, and the withdrawal of Russia from the war, leading to the surrender of territory those three powers had partitioned amongst them. Russia today is attempting to recover the empire it lost in 1989, using the symbols and institutions last exercised under the Tsar, who lost his throne due to the October Revolution of 1917. Finally, the revanchist Treaty of Versailles which was meant to end all war turned the period between its adoption in 1919 and the 1939 German invasion of Poland that triggered the Second World War in Europe into little more than a cease fire. This history made prescient the remark then-British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey made when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

Readers of this blog can also credit the First World War as one of the catalysts which led to the development of political theology. August 25, 2014 marked the centennial of the German Army’s occupation, looting, and burning of Louvain, Belgium and the renowned Catholic University that bears its name. Two-hundred nine civilians were killed and 42,000 people were forcibly evacuated from this town. The army destroyed the university, included its library with its 230,000 books, which included countless irreplaceable ancient and medieval manuscripts. It was an act of cultural vandalism on the level of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The event triggered a wave of international protest and opprobrium against Germany. (These protests led to a fundraising and book donation campaign led by academics and universities across Europe and the United States, which rebuilt the Louvain library and those collections which could be replaced. The restored library was destroyed by another German invasion in 1940.) The Germans tried to defend their actions by claiming, falsely, that Louvain and the surrounding countryside contained irregular forces (known as Francstireurs) who launched guerrilla attacks against German forces.

Among the defenders of Germany and its war policies were its university professors. On October 4, 1914, the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals was issued as a “protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies” made by the Allied Powers and as a justification for a war which these intellectuals insisted was “a hard struggle” for Germany’s existence, forced upon the country. Thirteen of the signatories were theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike. They included Gustav Adolf Deissman, Albert Ehrhard,Gerhart EsserHenrich Finke, Wilhelm Herrmann, Anton Koch, Joseph Mausbach, Sebastian Merkle, Friedrich Naumann, Adolf Schlatter, August Schmidlin, and Reinhold Seeberg. The leading theologian in the group, and one of the leading intellectuals among the ninety-three, was Adolf von Harnack. Harnack, like most of his fellow theologians, was so well integrated into the national life of Germany that he could hold a leadership role in the German academy as Director General of the Royal Library of Berlin (the rough equivalent of a theologian being named head of the Library of Congress), be the founding president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences, and be an adviser, speechwriter, and personal friend to Kaiser Wilhelm II himself.

The Manifesto itself contained a mixture of lies and half-truths, mixed in with truth. It began with the argument that neither the Kaiser nor Germany wanted war. Historians have since confirmed this contention as true. The Manifesto continued with the misleading argument that the British and French intended to violate Belgian neutrality. While true that the French had a war plan that included a preemptive move into Belgium to check a German advance, the fact remained that Germany violated Belgian neutrality while Britain and France respected it despite the declaration of war. Additionally, the Manifesto claimed the German army acted in Belgium out of self-defense against intense fighting by irregular forces. This claim was an outright lie, because what became known as “The Rape of Belgium” served no military purpose, and caused the deaths of innocent civilians and the burning of villages and towns besides Louvain. Despite these arguments, this appeal by the German intellectuals fell on deaf ears and the damage to Germany’s reputation was done.

One man who did read the Manifesto closely was Karl Barth. Once a student of some of the signatories of the Manifesto, including Harnack, Barth had long questioned the liberal Protestant status quo represented by his former teachers. Barth suspected that liberal theology subordinated God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to human history, culture, and thought. The Manifesto confirmed his suspicion. The last line of the Manifesto carried the idolatrous declaration by Harnack and his colleagues to “Have faith in us! Believe that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation…” This, in Barth’s eyes, was the direct consequence of the subordination of Jesus to humanity in liberal Protestant theology.

Barth’s response to the 1914 Manifesto was his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This moment is the first direct antecedent to German political theology as we know it. Barth rejected the presumed liberal Protestant harmonization between Christian faith and culture, insisting instead on the sovereign otherness of God which negates all human attempts at self-justification. This included every human manifestation of government and those who’d rebel to replace a status quo rule with a new one of their own. Barth’s reasoning is that any human principality, power, and dominion would seek justification to rule on its own terms, instead of subjecting themselves to God’s sovereign authority. His insistence on a stark, conflictive difference between God and humanity became the theological foundation for the next antecedent to German political theology: The Barmen Declaration.

Released in 1934 and penned by Karl Barth and the Confessing Church which resisted those churches and Christians who collaborated with the Third Reich, this document grappled with the consequences of the First World War in Germany. Defeat in that war precipitated, from 1918-19, the German Revolution. This revolution saw the overthrow of the German Empire and the proclamation of two visions of a German republic, one Socialist and another conservative. A civil war was fought between Communist revolutionaries and the conservative Frei Korps that concluded with the suppression of the former, including the execution of its leaders like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and the triumph of conservative republican forces under the new German president Friedrich Ebert, who helped establish the Weimar Republic. Weimar’s chronic instability was marked by polarized politics with no consensus in the center, exacerbated by the revanchist and onerous conditions set down by the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression. These factors all hampered Germany’s economy and, by extension, its efforts to achieve a democratic, centrist political consensus.

Perhaps it should be no surprise the Nazi’s promises to replace the injustice of Versailles, the chaos and decadence of Weimar, and reverse the deleterious effects of the Great Depression, all with the restoration of the social and cultural order of Germany, including its rightful place among nations, would be attractive to most Christians, including their clergy and theologians. Barth frustratingly observed how many of his colleagues were ingeniously finding moral and Christian grounds to sanction Nazi brutality. But this time, Barth led a minority of Christian theologians who saw through the glamour of Nazi evil, and pleaded to their brethren to not repeat the mistake the ninety-three German intellectuals made in their support for the Kaiser.

The Barmen Declaration continued the contradictory spirit of Christianity Barth first articulated in his Epistle to the Romans. It argued that the one thing Christians can and should do is hear, trust, and obey the Word of God. That Word reveals God’s absolute claim on the whole of human life at the complete expense of and liberation from the godless world of events, powers, and political potentates. The Church and its theologians preach and live the Word of God in the state, but never under the state. The degree the Church and her theologians serve the state depends on how the state serves the Word of God. Following Augustine, Barmen understood the state as having the task of maintaining justice and peace through the threat and use of force. Despite this grim fact, the state is nonetheless held wholly accountable to the Word of God. This message went unheeded by the majority of German Christians, and their world with much else of Europe and Asia was reduced to rubble, with millions dead due to war and genocide.

Barmen contained the essential feature of the political theology that would arise after the Second World War: a public and Christian contradiction of, and critique of, all human endeavors because of their easy vulnerability to human justification and sin. German Christianity’s chronic problem was the same as the German nation’s or any other nation: the refusal to submit their rule and their nation to God’s righteousness and judgment. Germany’s tragedy was that its drive for nationhood turned the nation itself into a false idol, the worship of which resulted in being the catalyst of one world war, and the instigator of another world war and genocide. Political theology in Germany picked up where Barth and Barmen left off: beginning its new task asking how one can responsibly talk about God in a world reduced to rubble and in the shadow of Auschwitz.


The Barmen Declaration

John Bowden, Karl Barth (London: SCM Press, 1971).

Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, translated from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns, (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).

Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World

Mary Fulbrook, ed., German History since 1800 (London: Arnold, 1997).

John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).

Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation, and Public Theologies (New York: Continuum, 2001).

H. Martin Rumscheidt, Adolf von Harnack (London: Collins, 1988).

Ramón Luzárraga is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona, where he is also Chair of the Department of Theology. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!