George Orwell & Karl Barth: On The Irruption Of a Third Reich Of Madness

Barth meets Orwell 5

Karl Barth’s context and history add weight to the vein of thought that connects him with the socio-political point of George Orwell’s, 1984. It isn’t that Barth is agreeing with Orwell or that Orwell is agreeing with him. I doubt if the latter even knew the former existed. Let alone whether Orwell read the 677 page monolith that is Church Dogmatics II:I.

Both, do however, hit on a sad, emerging reality.

In his long discussion on the Omnipotence and Constancy of God, Barth’s context shines through:

‘If we abandon and pay no attention to the question of obedience to God’s Word, but try to seek the limit of the possible in an absolutised system of relationships alongside or in place of God’s Word, we discover and imaginary God and an imaginary world, the fundamental dissolution of all systems of relationships and therefore complete sceptisim and anarchy in the realm of creation, the irruption of a Third Reich of madness.’    (CD.II:I p.537)

To further this, in ‘Hitler’s Traitors’, Susan Ottaway notes:

‘Karl Barth wrote a scathing criticism of German Christian Doctrine in which he stated that the source of their errors was that they maintained that in nationality, history and politics was a revelation that should be given equal weight with the Scriptures. This led Pastors to resign from the Church and annoyed Reich Bishop Müller so much that he issued a decree which became known as the ”Muzzling Decree”, which forbade pastors from criticizing the German Christian church or from discussing anything to do with it [politics; anti-nazism]. He insisted that the only thing they were allowed to speak of in the sermons was the Gospel.’
(Ottaway, 2003:81)

From here, the Confessing Church was born. Supported by Karl Barth and other Pastors, it ‘flourished and continued to spread the Gospel, attacking Nazi beliefs and persecution throughout the rest of the Third Reich.’ (ibid, p.82)

Adding more to Barth’s context, Ottaway continues:

‘Barth, who had refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Führer that didn’t include an additional clause addressing his religious beliefs [simply put: Jesus is Lord – the Führer isn’t] , was deported in the autumn of 1934. Many other Pastors and Church officials who had spoken out against the government were arrested and send to concentration camps without trial.’ (ibid, p.82)

There are nine years between Barth’s and Orwell’s books.Their genre’s are completely different. The first, a Pastor and Theologian. The second, a journalist and author. Though their contexts don’t exactly match, this doesn’t halt the gravity of their shared themes. Such as legalistic coercion, the imposition of new cultural laws by a unilateral act of government , control of the narrative, excessive political correctness, excessive shaming, blurred distinctions, a forced allegiance to false ideologies, false gods, political systems, and ultimately the inhumane servitude demanded by totalitarianism.

Barth and Orwell share a deep respect for freedom and responsibility.

Pre-dating Orwell’s portrait of truth and those twisting it, Barth wrote:

‘It is only wantonly and irrationally that we can aspire to the statement that two and two are five.’ (CD.II:I p.538)

What makes Barth’s statements all the more striking is that he witnessed and wrote about the very thing that Orwell later fictionalised.

 “Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?” “Yes,” said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended. “How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?” “Four.” “And if the party says that it is not four but five—then how many?” “Four.”
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased. (Orwell, 1940:261-262) […]
“You are a slow learner, Winston,” said O’Brien gently. “How can I help it?” he blubbered. “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.” “Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
“How many fingers, Winston?” “Four. I suppose there are four. I would see five if I could. I am trying to see five.” “Which do you wish, to persuade me that you see five, or really to see them?” “Really to see them.” “Again,” said O’Brien (ibid p.263) […]
“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?” “I don’t know. I don’t know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six—in all honesty I don’t know.” “Better,” said O’Brien. (ibid, p.264)
(George Orwell, 1984)

As I pointed out here, such is the misery behind the masquerade.

Despite “muzzling decrees”. Despite forced allegiances. Despite what the manipulative propagandists say.

“The truth has always been the truth, just as 2 × 2 = 4’

(Leo Tolstoy, 1882 A Confession)

‘It is only wantonly and irrationally that we can aspire to the statement that two and two are five.’ (CD.II:I p.538)


Barth, K. 1940 Church Dogmatics II:I, Hendrickson Publishers

Orwell, G.1949 1984,  Wildside Press. Kindle Ed.

Ottaway, S. 2003 Hitler’s Traitors, Leo Cooper, Pen & Sword Books U.K

5 thoughts on “George Orwell & Karl Barth: On The Irruption Of a Third Reich Of Madness

  1. Drewe says:

    I think in part they also shared the common experience of the Third Reich, and saw the fallout of it. They both saw the doctrines, which Barth speaks to and Orwell uses in his work. So whilst they may not have been brothers in arms, they did share (along with much of the world of that time) a common experience – and as thinkers they both ended up in similar places!

    Liked by 1 person


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