When Charlotte von Kirschbaum first heard Karl Barth lecture in 1924, she was 24 years old, financially almost destitute, and in poor health. Deeply religious and a voracious reader with a keen interest in theology, she had already devoured Barth’s 1919 Römerbrief, at the recommendation of her pastor, shortly after it had appeared, and then avidly kept up with Barth’s work through the journal Zwischen den Zeiten. At a time when only a tiny fraction of the general population, virtually all male, went on for a university education, she had been trained for a career as a Krankenschwester or Protestant nurse. It was George Merz, her pastor, who first recognized her intellectual gifts. After guiding her through confirmation in the Lutheran church, Merz included her in the intellectual circle he had gathered around him in Munich, which included Thomas Mann. It was also Merz, by then editor of Zwischen den Zeiten and godfather to one of Barth’s children, who had taken her with him to that lecture, and who introduced her to Barth afterwards. Barth invited them both for a visit to his summer retreat, the Bergli, in the mountains overlooking Lake Zurich.Merz and von Kirschbaum went to the Bergli that summer and returned the next. Von Kirschbaum made a very good impression. She was drawn into the circle of theological friends who spent their summers at the chalet. Pastor Eduard Thurneysen, Barth’s closest friend, and Gerty Pestalozzi, owner with her husband of the Bergli, took an interest in furthering her education. (Becoming a Krankenschwester had required no special academic training or higher degrees.) Ruedi Pestalozzi, Gerty’s husband and a wealthy businessman, paid for her to receive secretarial training, after which she became a welfare officer at Siemans, a large electronics firm in Nuremburg.
In October 1925 Barth switched university teaching appointments from Göttingen to Münster. His wife and family remained behind until a suitable residence could be found. In February 1926 von Kirschbaum visited Barth for a month in Münster, shortly before his family was to join him, but while he was still living alone. Barth’s situation at this time is worth noting. He was 39 years old, had been married to Nelly (then aged 32) for nearly 13 years, and had five young children. The marriage, not a particularly happy one, had by his own account left him feeling resigned to loneliness. After his parents had prevented him in 1910 from marrying Rösy Münger, whom he deeply loved and never forgot—and who died in 1925—he had submitted in 1911 to an engagement and then in 1913 to a marriage, with Nelly, that had in essence been arranged by his mother. (Barth always carried a photograph of Rösy with him for the rest of his life, sometimes wept when looking at it, and would continue over the years to visit her grave.) Although we do not know exactly what happened between Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum in that fateful encounter of 1926, we do know that from that point on they were in love with each other, that Barth immediately gave her manuscript after manuscript for advice and correction, and that she committed herself henceforth to doing everything she possibly could to advance his theological work.
After spending a sabbatical at the Bergli in the summer term of 1929, with von Kirschbaum at his side as his aide, Barth announced in October that she would be moving into the family household to be a member of it. This arrangement—convoluted, extremely painful for all concerned, yet not without integrity and joys—lasted for nearly 35 years until 1964 when von Kirschbaum had to be admitted to a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease. These were exactly the years of Barth’s most productive intellectual life. As his unique student, critic, researcher, advisor, collaborator, companion, assistant, spokesperson, and confidant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum was indispensable to him. He could not have been what he was, or have done what he did, without her.
The reverse would also seem to have been true. Von Kirschbaum was a strong, noble and unconventional woman who made her own choices and willingly bore their great costs. The costs of the arrangement with Barth were many, not least a total rejection by most of her own family, and a thousand constant humiliations from church, society, and the larger Barth clan (not excluding Barth’s mother, who eventually tempered her harsh disapproval). Many real exits opened up along the way (such as a proposal of marriage from the philosopher Heinrich Scholz), but she never took any of them. What she once wrote in particular to a friend would seem to hold true of her whole life: “It is very clear to me that Karl had to act in this way, and that comforts me whatever the consequences.” From her first encounter with his theology in her youth to the very end of her life, she felt gripped by a sense of the greatness of Barth’s contribution, an excitement that she once described simply with the words, “This is it!” During one of Barth’s last visits to her in the nursing home, she said, “We had some good times together, didn’t we?”
We may well wonder also where Nelly Barth was in the midst of all this. There is undoubtedly much we will never know. But we do know that in her own way she never ceased to believe in her husband and his work. We know that the two of them experienced a reconciliation after Charlotte departed the household, that she and Karl both visited her at the nursing home on Sundays, that she continued those visits after Karl died in 1968, and that when Charlotte herself died in 1975, Nelly honored Karl’s wishes by having Charlotte buried in the Barth family grave. Nelly herself died in 1976. Visitors to the Basel Hörnli cemetery today can see the names of all three together engraved one by one on the same stone.
The book by Suzanne Selinger is not the first to cover this territory, nor will it be the last. As a study in the history of theology, it succeeds reasonably well. The sections on how Barth and von Kirschbaum respectively viewed male/female relationships as bearing the image of God are interesting and worth reading. As a biographical study, however, the book seems less successful. The author seethes with so much resentment toward Karl Barth that as I closed the book I had an image of him as St. Sebastian. At the level of adjectives, he takes a lot of hits. Unfortunately, Charlotte von Kirschbaum fares little better. The author unwittingly undermines her purposes of sympathy and compassion—unless one can persuade oneself that it is not demeaning to scorn the life that Charlotte von Kirschbaum actually chose for herself and openly affirmed, as opposed to one that could not have been and never was.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.