In the summer of 1914, World War I took all of Europe by surprise. Very few people expected that Europe even could descend into war any longer. The last significant war that the major powers in Europe had participated in had been the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. Subsequently, military conflicts in Europe occurred in Spain and eastern Europe (especially in the Balkans, as European ethnic groups and nationalities revolted against their Turkish overlords or even fought amongst themselves). But in 1914, the British, Germans, Austrians, Italians, and French had not seen a significant military conflict on their home soil for over a generation, and many believed that European culture, society, and government had progressed beyond the point where these kinds of conflicts could conceivably erupt.Moreover, power among the major players was carefully balanced by an elaborate series of alliances and international agreements.
In Switzerland, Karl Barth’s birthplace and where he was pastoring in 1914, no significant military activity had been seen for over 100 years, since the Stecklikrieg civil war of 1802 (which was brought on by the imposition of a centralized government – the Helvetic Republic – on the old Swiss confederation by invading French troops in 1798). So for Barth’s Swiss parishioners in 1914, the eruption of the war to end all wars all of sudden would have seemed not only unlikely, but even impossible, nothing more than a distant nightmare.
But not only did war erupt, it erupted with unpredictable and unprecedented violence. The long years of relative peace seem almost to have been chafing as the various European superpowers jumped eagerly into war, justifying war on the slightest provocation, showing no serious interest in avoiding war through diplomatic means. Each power saw themselves as being on the defensive, fighting a justified war for the sake of their own superior culture or government. What was at stake was not just each power’s rather limited economic or diplomatic interests. Rather, each participating power saw the war as a war of ideals and themselves as crusaders for their chosen ideal. Suddenly, now, the sleepy and peace-loving Swiss found themselves either answering the call to arms or else saying goodbye to their loved ones as they went off to patrol their borders and try to prevent war from spilling over into their homeland. And who knew how long the threat of war might continue?
It was into this situation that Barth delivered his sermon on August 2 of 1914 from Mark 13:7, “When you hear wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet.” Fear in wartime is certainly justified, he acknowledges. “In war, the most secure foundations of our existence are shaken and possibly destroyed.” No individual or institution is safe. All can be taken away in an instant, and there is not justice or rationality in what is taken and what is left.
Barth spends time reflecting on the dehumanizing savagery and eagerness with which Europeans seemed to be rushing to war. What is typically hidden in human nature is suddenly revealed, and our former cultured civility that made war seem such a distant improbability is seen to have been merely a cloak. From the very beginning of World War I, Barth saw right through to its larger implications: “How does that tally with the human progress of our day?” Driven by advances in science and technology, as well as by a philosophical commitment to the idea that European culture was the pinnacle of human societal evolution (exemplified by, for example, Hegel), European intellectuals of 19th century had been unwaveringly confident in the idea of human progress, and the philosophers and theologians of early 20th century Europe had continued in this confidence unquestioningly. Now, the pretense of human progress was revealed to be illusory. Instead of working to prevent war, the high culture and science of 19th and early 20th century Europe actually enhanced and exaggerated the human propensity for war, propelling Europeans from the semblance of peace into the most devastating war in history with breathtaking rapidity. So shocking was the revelation that human progress was a sham that even after World War I came to an end it took European intellectuals years to come to grips with the war’s implications for their intellectual traditions. Germany, in particular, proved reluctant to accept these implications, holding determinedly to the idea of their cultural and racial superiority throughout the next two decades, setting the stage for Hitler, the Third Reich, and a second World War.
But war doesn’t simply reveal what is hidden in human nature corporately. Individuals find themselves doing wicked and foolish things they would not otherwise do under the influence of fear during wartime. Fear drives nations and individuals alike to irrationality. It also reveals the superficiality of the Christian faith of many. But even in such a fearful time, Barth says, the true Christian has a solid footing in “the presence and love of the eternal, living God, who holds all things in his hand and guides us righteous, holy will and who has drawn near and revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. Whoever finds a resting place in God will not break down and collapse in face of the sad and horrible things that we may have to face.”
God’s words to the Swiss people were what was said in Mark 13:7, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet.” There is purpose in the war, and it has not caught God by surprise. Not everything will end. God says, “Do not be afraid.” This does not mean that someone we love will not die or that our livelihood will not be affected by the war that rages around us, but it does mean that God is present to and for his people through all the chaos. He inspires us to wait faithfully and fearlessly, knowing that there will be a future, whatever its particular contours may turn out to be. So Barth encourages his congregation to live courageously, fulfilling their duties to family and community. One day the war will be over, and life will need to resume, so work hard in the present time of difficulty looking to this day with hope and courage.
But does the fact that Jesus says “this must take place” mean that war is inevitable, that periodically men must gather together to butcher one another? Absolutely not, Barth says. “The war is wrong, the war is sinful, the war is no necessity but, rather, stems from the evil of human nature.” Here, Barth differentiates between fearless endurance of the situation and nihilist acceptance of it. While confidence in human progress is misguided because it is confidence in humanity, we can and must always maintain hope in our heavenly Father. God does not will war, nor is he indifferent to it. The heart of God is not war but peace. War belongs to this present evil age and is destined to pass away with all other works of evil. War is not inevitable. Barth here seems to argue that we as Christians can contribute to the avoidance of war by working in wartime and peacetime to live in God’s heavenly reality and (it seems) to draw the rest of society around us to live with us in that reality. His main point, again, is that confidence in human institutions, progress, and goodness will not prevent war in the future any better than it had done in the time leading up to World War I.
Barth’s encouragement to his parishioners is not to be fearless by an act of will. Rather, it is to allow oneself to “be introduced by Jesus into fellowship with God … if we feel only a little bit of his way, of his love and his trust in the Father, then there is no need of ‘we should, we would’; we are then fearless because we are with him in the realm of the heavenly Father, even if it has to be, in the middle of war, in tears and partings and perplexity.” The solution to our fear is neither confidence in humanity generally nor in ourselves individually. We cannot make ourselves be fearless. We can only receive fearlessness from a relationship with God in Christ. Within such a relationship, we can fearlessly see the apparent chaos of our world the orderly outworking of God’s justice and good will.
What interests me especially in this sermon is Barth’s critique of the liberal theology/philosophy in which he had been educated and with which he had, until very recently, been enamored. Confidence in human progress cannot provide the security it promises, he realized. As far as he was concerned, the outbreak of war proved that incontrovertibly. But this confidence in human progress was inextricably bound up with the liberal Neo-Protestant theology of the 19th century. We see in this sermon a strong indication of his break with liberal theology which was to become so pronounced in just a few years.
You can find an English translation of Karl Barth’s sermons from July to November of 1914, as well as a very helpful Introduction to Barth and the impact of World War I on him and his world, in A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, translated and edited by William Klempa.