How Karl Barth Celebrated His Birthdays

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was born May 10th, making today his 130th birthday. To celebrate, I've collected anecdotes from Karl Barth's birthday celebrations from Eberhard Busch's Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. After the Church Dogmatics were printed, Barth's birthdays were celebrated world wide and in great fanfare, building up to Barth's 80th birthday celebrated on May 8th, 1966 where he received "1000 letters, 50 telegrams, and enough tobacco to keep him for the rest of his life. One slanderous message addressed him as 'a worthless old fellow'" [1] Happy Birthday, Uncle Karl!

Karl Barth stamp celebrating 100 years since his birth

Barth's 50th Birthday:

The book "Theological Articles for Karl Barth's Fiftieth Birthday 1936" . . . contained a bibliography of Barth's work which amounted to 202 items and showed that 'some of my books and other writings have now been translated into all kinds of foreign languages'. Barth also received all kinds of honours at the time, one of which was very curious: 'Enthusiastic friends have managed to give my name to a snow-capped mountain in New Zealand. On cannot ask for more. Yet amidst all this I have remembered that according to the gospel no one can add so much as a cubit to his stature.'

At the same time the anniversary inevitably reminded Barth that he was gradually growing older: for some time he had 'seen the ranks of his contemporaries growing thinner . . . and could already hear behind him the steps of younger ones. Old age is coming nearer and with it what comes at the end of old age--if it does not come suddenly before then.'[2]

Barth's 60th Birthday:

They joined him on 10 May to celebrate his sixtieth birthday with utmost simplicity at the Bleibtreus (Ernst Wolf had also come over from Göttingen). The birthday meal consisted a dish of potatoes and salad—'and it was at least as meaningful and enjoyable as the finest cake at Pilgerstrasse could have been'. He was also delighted to have a birthday letter from England signed by leading churchmen and theologians of all denominations. This was followed by a Festschrift, Reformation Old and New, edited by his theologian friend, Frederick Camfield, which appeared rather late. He also had a Festschrift from the French and French-speaking Swiss, and birthday greetings from the Social Democrats, the trade unions, the Rhine church, and so on. [3]

Barth's 67th Birthday:

On his birthday that summer [of 1953] a flute trio, 'played by two students and our university proctor, who was a master of the viola . . . opened the day in such a festive manner that I asked the artists to repeat the performance (it was, of course, Mozart) the next day in the lecture room to an audience of 120 dogmatic students, with the result that even in this place there was an unusual splendour of light.' [4]

Barth's 70th Birthday:

So 10 May 1956 also began with a service here. Following that, Heinrich Held, the President of the Evangelical Church of Rhineland, gave Barth birthday greetings 'in an unmerited personal eulogy'. Barth spent the afternoon with his family. They performed a short play for him in which Karl Barth, over a hundred years old, arrived at the gates o heaven, delivered his Dogmatics and eagerly asked to see Mozart. Some of his closest friends also took party in this family festival -- all of them were now getting on in years or were already old. Others he would never see again, above all his beloved friends Pierre Maury and Arthur Frey, who had died shortly beforehand. 'Every Wednesday and every Saturday Arthur Frey would telephone me for a long conversation ("Arthur here"); and he was a good and utterly faithful friend to me (and to Lollo)'. This was also true of Maury. . . .

In addition to Antwort there was also a series of further Festschriften from his Basle colleagues, form youn Swiss theologians, from America, from Japan, from Lutheran theologians—and a volume of sermons by Rhineland pastors edited by Martin Rohkrämer. Barth was highly pleased with all these assessments, and with the flood of good wishes, but was bothered by the question 'What would Kierkegaard have said of such an occasion? How does it compare with the New Testament? What will it look like in the light of heaven?' 'The prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New couldn't have seventieth birthdays like this.' [5]

Barth's 74th Birthday:

On 10 May [1959], his seventy-fourth birthday, Barth this time found himself 'on a lightning journey to Fulda—not as a pilgrim to the tomb of St Boniface . . . but for a meeting of German prison chaplains and counselors, who had invited me there for a conversation about the theological problems of this particular sphere of work . . . This journey could not be more than a short diversion, undertaken in the middle of a semester, but in Würzburg we allowed ourselves to be held quite seriously by Tilman Riemenschneider.' [6]

Barth's 75th Birthday:

Barth celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in May with a group of his closest friends. These were joined by Bishop Jacobi of Oldenburg and Joachim Beckmann from the Rhineland. On this occasion, 'I made my Dutch friend Mikotte fearfully angry by saying that I was waiting for an opponent—but for an opponent who met me on the same ground, at the same length, and got the better of me. For I was well aware of the transitoriness of my work.' 'I never thought that I had the last word in the Church Dogmatics. It is very clear to me that the thing could have been done differently and better on every page.' For the celebrations, 'a collection of my articles was edited by Karl Kupisch in Berline under the remarkable title Der Götze Wackelt (The Idol Totters). When he told me that he wanted to give the book this title, I was first somewhat shocked . . . and told him that everyone would connect it with me! "So he is now seventy-five years old: the idol totters." But he told me that he did not mean it that way. [7]

Barth's 76th Birthday:

He celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday in Richmond—and the students there sang 'For he's a jolly good fellow'. [8]

Barth's 80th Birthday:

[Rudolf] Bultmann wished Barth 'good courage' on his eightieth birthday; this was the last personal word exchanged between them.

As a curtain-raiser to the birthday celebration there was a Mozart concert in St. Martin's church under the direction of Max Gieger. At the official birthday celebration on 9 May, a great many dignitaries were present in addition to Barth's closest theological friends, from Switzerland, East and West Germany, France, Norway (Professor Reidar Hauge), Holland, the USA and the USSR. There were such different people as the politician Gustav Heinemann; the diplomat and historian Hans Bernd Gisevius; the historian Edgar Bonjour; the physicians Fritz Koller, Gerhard Wolf-Heidegger and Paul Kielholz; the corps commander Alfred Ernst; Paul Vogt and Gertrud Kurz (who were involved in 'peace' work); and the von Stockhausens (a husband and wife who were painters, and whom Barth had got to know in Ticino). The Rector of Bonn hung round his neck 'a heavy golden chain which was worn by the same Federal President Heuss (when he was an honorary senator of the University of Bonn) who did not want to have me in Frankfurt that time'). [9]


[^1] Thompson, John. Theology beyond Christendom: Essays on the Centenary of the Birth of Karl Barth, May 10, 1886. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1986. 323. Print.
[^2] Busch, Eberhard. Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976. 227. Print.
[^3] Ibid. 334.
[^4] Ibid. 395.
[^5] Ibid. 415-7.
[^6] Ibid. 443.
[^7] Ibid. 450-3.
[^8] Ibid. 459.
[^9] Ibid. 477.


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  1. What a fun read … thanks.

  2. Isn’t the spelling of his Dutch friend’s name “Miskotte”?

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