Reviewed by Edward T. Oakes

By an odd coincidence (or is it really coincidence?), the two most influential theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, both lived and worked in Basel. In fact, they weren’t just neighbors, but friends. Occasionally, after a day of astonishingly productive work at their respective desks, they would meet in a Basel pub called the Charon. According to Barth’s biographer Eberhard Busch, it was at this tavern that Balthasar first told Barth of his then“developing theory of universal redemption: “The dogma is that hell exists,” Balthasar said at the time, “not that people are in it.” After one such evening Barth wrote to a colleague to express his astonishment that this Catholic theologian was, in his words, “envisioning a kind of reformation of the Catholic Church and of Catholic theology from within. And now I am to be introduced like a new Trojan horse to bring it about (against Thomas and also against Augustine!).”


Lionel Gossman does not mention this anecdote in his teemingly rich and wondrously entertaining history, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt , for the very good reason that the book concentrates almost entirely on the nineteenth century (with the exception of a brief survey of Basel’s earlier history at the outset of the book and a glance forward to the twentieth century in the last chapter). But after reading his account of the influence of Basel’s intellectual atmosphere on such giants as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacob Burckhardt, Johann Bachofen, and Franz Overbeck, the theological daring of Barth and Balthasar no longer seems so exotic or extravagant.


Did the city workers in Basel’s waterworks treat the Rhine with some kind of special chemical that made intellectual boldness seem as easy as hopping on a bus? And if so, did that same chemical perhaps also insure that all these Baselers would express their radical daring, not in revolutionary politics, but in a sharp critique of liberal bourgeois civilization, the same civilization that gave them their platform and their living in the first place? Was it, in other words, Basel itself that made each man within his chosen field the scourge of his liberal colleagues?


Gossman seems to think so, for toward the end of his book he quotes a telling passage from Barth’s monograph Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century . “The Basel theologian,” Barth claimed, “is from the start and in all essentials conservative . . . . At the same time, however, he takes secret, almost sympathetic delight in the radicalism and extravagances of others.” With the exception of Overbeck, none of the figures treated by Gossman was a theologian: Bachofen was a philologist, Burckhardt an historian of the Renaissance, and Nietzsche the famous philosopher. But what emerges from Gossman’s portrait of them all is a kind of “conservative radicality,” meaning that all four Baselers were intensely antiliberal, even antistatist; but even so they never fell prey to the revanchist temptation of trying to restore some long“lost ancien régime. All four men knew that European consciousness had been irrevocably transformed by the French Revolution.


These men also had a highly skeptical attitude toward Christianity, to put it mildly. But as Gossman often makes clear and sometimes merely implies, their main bogeyman was a liberalizing Christianity that tried to combine the message of the New Testament with nationalism, progress, and science, a program that to their minds only put a patina of Christian rhetoric over the bourgeois etiquette and aggrandizing ambitions of the business classes. And precisely because all four men harbored the deepest suspicions about the very civilization that exalted those same bourgeois virtues, they could only abominate a religion that sought to make peace with such a Leviathan.


Burckhardt, for example, grew increasingly dismayed at the direction that German civilization was taking in the two decades leading up to the revolutions of 1848, and in the light of later German history his misgivings sound remarkably prescient. “The messianism, nationalism, and militarism he sensed among the German radicals of 1848 filled him with misgivings,” says Gossman, “and led later to his well“known predictions of despotic and militarist regimes to come once nationalism and democracy had triumphed.”


Nietzsche’s own contempt for German culture is even more well known: he called the opening line of the German national anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles “the most idiotic phrase ever uttered,” attacked Bismarck’s united Germany as “one more stupidity in the world,” and famously sneered that German intelligence came from beer, not brains.


But Nietzsche’s diatribe was not the result, as it might first seem, of the sour grapes of a sickly man, but was ultimately rooted in a shrewd diagnosis of nineteenth“century European civilization in its entirety, across all boundaries. As he said of his Basel days in Ecce Homo , “In defiance of all the known prejudices of our democratic age I insisted that the great optimistic“rationalist“utilitarian victory . . . was at bottom nothing other than a symptom of declining strength, incipient senility, somatic exhaustion” it , and not its opposite, pessimism.”


For the same reason the other Baselers were united in their attacks on Prussian academic culture centered in Berlin. Burckhardt attacked the Prussian historiography of Leopold von Ranke with its attention to nation“states, diplomacy, and battles, and called on the historians’ guild to concentrate its energies on the more humane topics of culture, art, and daily life. And theologian Overbeck could be even more scathing than Nietzsche when speaking of liberal theologians, especially the Berlin“based Adolf von Harnack, whom he called “the supreme salon professor,” “the Protestant Abbé,” “the court friseur of His Majesty’s theo logical wig,” and so forth.


All four subjects of Gossman’s absorbing civic history were convinced that the German union of state and culture would prove disastrous for culture. They feared the very same expansion of state power that other German academics had considered necessary if German culture were to be preserved and promoted. For the Baselers, this was a Faustian bargain. “In fact,” says Gossman, “they were convinced that far from promoting culture, the alliance of power and culture was a threat to genuine culture and had already resulted in the contamination of culture by power, both directly as a result of state patronage of the arts and control of the institutions of culture, such as the schools and universities, and indirectly through the mechanisms of the market, the media, and fashion.” As Bachofen said with typical Basel hyperbole, “It is because I love freedom that I hate democracy.”


Of course such an above“the“fray attitude would hardly have been possible for Barth and Balthasar after the debacle of Nazi Germany, and both were politically engaged citizens of the Swiss Federation to the extent consonant with their respective roles as Protestant minister and Catholic priest. But Switzerland’s neutrality perforce limited their influence, such as it was”perhaps providentially. Gossman mentions how German“speaking historians had used Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great and the military conqueror of the Greek city“states) and Demosthenes (the Athenian orator who bitterly but vainly opposed Philip’s designs) as code figures representing Bismarck and his well“intentioned but ineffective opponents. Predictably, the Prussian historians praised Philip for finally bringing the political chaos of the Greeks under control, thus allowing Hellenism to spread throughout the known world, from the Himalayas to Gibraltar.


But from their Basel redoubt, “conservatives” like Bachofen and Burckhardt would point out how Greek culture thereupon sank into mediocrity, with bombastic sculpture, second“rate philosophy, and political lassitude constituting its main legacy to the Roman Empire. It was thus not the job of a historian to salute historical necessity, Burckhardt insisted, especially not when the apologist was being paid by the Prussian government (both Hegel and von Ranke were professors at Berlin and thus on the payroll of the King of Prussia). As Gossman summarizes Burckhardt’s view of history: “If there was a historical necessity, the proper way for men to serve it was not by trying to anticipate it and sacrifice everything to it, but by acting according to their own best judgment . . . just as it had not been Demosthenes’ job to recognize the historical ‘necessity’ of the triumph of Philip of Macedon.”


Both Barth and Balthasar, in my opinion, share something of this same attitude. Liberalism in the culture, democracy in more and more parts of the world, globalization in the world economy, pluralism in theology”everywhere these trends are triumphant. So it does not surprise one to learn that, after a brief moment of influence, Barth holds hardly any sway in the Protestant churches now. And if Balthasar is ever to exert major influence it will have to be in the future, for at the moment the professional clerisy of theologians keeps him carefully cordoned off, so that only true aficionados devote much time to him.


But knowledge of such outcomes would never have deflected either of them, any more than hopeless prospects kept Demosthenes from his mission, or than the approaching vulgarity of the twentieth century kept Bachofen, Burckhardt, Overbeck, and Nietzsche from arguing their views. So before rejecting Barth’s or Balthasar’s critique of liberalism, one should recall that Burckhardt was right: ever since the French Revolution, continental Europe has known only one despotism after another. Just because we have escaped them all now, doesn’t mean there isn’t another one coming.



Edward T. Oakes, S.J., translated Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius) and teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.