Adolf von Harnack

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Adolf von Harnack

Karl Gustav Adolf Harnack , from 1914 von Harnack (* 25 April July / 7 May  1851 greg. In Dorpat , Livonia Gouvernement ; †  10 June 1930 in Heidelberg ) was a German Protestant theologian and church historian specializing in the history of dogma . He also worked as a science organizer in Prussia .


Adolf Harnack came from the world of Baltic German Lutheranism . His father Theodosius Harnack was a Luther researcher in Dorpat and Erlangen . His twin brother Axel became a mathematician, his younger brother Erich a pharmacologist and his younger brother Otto a literary scientist.

Adolf Harnack married on December 27, 1879 in Leipzig Amalie Thiersch (born August 31, 1858 in Erlangen , † December 28, 1937 in Berlin ), a daughter of the surgeon Carl Thiersch (1822–1895), professor at the universities of Munich , Erlangen and Leipzig, and Johanna von Liebig , a daughter of the chemist Justus von Liebig (1803–1873). The couple had seven children.

Ernst von Harnack's son Ernst von Harnack (1888–1945), who was executed by the National Socialists for participating in the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 , was involved in the SPD . The youngest son Axel von Harnack (1895–1974) was a historian and philologist and worked as a librarian. The daughter Agnes von Zahn-Harnack (1884–1950) was a prominent representative of the bourgeois women's movement and a member of the German Democratic Party . She was married to the ministerial official Karl von Zahn . The daughter Elisabet von Harnack (1892-1976) was an important social worker.

Arvid Harnack (1901–1942), executed as a resistance fighter against National Socialism, and his brother Falk (1913–1991), director and also resistance fighter, were sons of his brother Otto.


Berlin memorial plaque, building Fasanenstr. 43 in Wilmersdorf, Adolf von Harnack.jpg
Grave of Adolf von Harnack in the old St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof Berlin

Adolf Harnack attended grammar school in his home town of Dorpat, where he graduated from high school in 1868. He began studying theology at Dorpat University in 1869 and joined the Livonia Corporation . From autumn 1872 he studied Protestant theology in Leipzig , received his doctorate in 1873 and qualified as a professor there in 1874. The University of Leipzig appointed him extraordinary professor in 1876. He later worked as a full professor of church history in Gießen (1879–1886), Marburg (1886–1888) and the Berlin Friedrich Wilhelms University (1888–1924). In 1890 he became a full member of the Royal Prussian Academy in Berlin. Since 1897 he was a corresponding member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences .

From 1905 to 1921, Harnack was also general director of the Royal Library , which was renamed the Prussian State Library in 1918. On January 23, 1911, Harnack was elected President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (today the Max Planck Society ) by the Senate of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society . He held this office until 1930. In this function he was also a member of the Senate of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society from 1911 to 1930. In 1930 he died in Heidelberg after a short illness. His body was cremated and the urn was buried in Berlin in the Old St. Matthew Cemetery (Dept. C-Series 005-No. 005-009). The grave site has been dedicated to the city of Berlin as an honor grave since 1952 .

Theological work

As a young lecturer - influenced by Albrecht Ritschl's theology - he took a critical perspective on the history of Christian dogma . Harnack's understanding of Protestantism was that of Reformation and Revolution : Reformation of the doctrine of salvation and revolution against the authority of the Catholic Church , against its hierarchical apparatus with its own ecclesiastical legal order and against its religious order. Jesus pushed aside the cultic, which was valid in Judaism . He did not rely on cultic purification and sanctification, but only on the human soul. The moral action of the individual, his works of love would decide whether the individual enters a kingdom of God or not. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity are similar to the cult of Judaism. Only Protestant Christianity restored the message of Jesus in its purity.

His three-volume textbook on the history of dogma (1886–1890; several expanded new editions) is considered his most important theological publication. This work met with strong opposition from the conservatives and the Evangelical Upper Church Council, who wanted to prevent his appointment to Berlin. The matter was then decided by Wilhelm II in 1888, in the “ three emperor year ”, with the support of Bismarck . However, Harnack was not given permission to examine theological examinations throughout his life. Harnack was often at the center of ecclesiastical political conflicts such as the apostolic dispute and the Bible-Babel dispute .

In the Wilhelmine Empire Harnack taught at the University of Berlin. His sixteen lectures on The Essence of Christianity , which he gave in the winter semester of 1899/1900, were attended by more than 600 students from all faculties . However, these lectures were also the cause of intense criticism from conservative theologians, namely from Theodor Zahn . and Eduard Rupprecht . As early as 1895, the conservative theology professor Martin von Nathusius from Greifswald had criticized Harnack's theological point of view, which in his opinion was too closely related to this world. In his main work Das Wesen des Judentums , published in 1905, Leo Baeck critically examined the positions of Harnacks, but without mentioning his name.

Harnack as a science organizer

Harnack maintained a network of contacts with the scientists of his time and with his students. During his time in Leipzig he found friends with Julius Kaftan , Emil Schürer , Wolf Graf von Baudissin and Oscar von Gebhardt . In 1874 he founded a Church History Society in Leipzig . This group of friends included Caspar René Gregory , Martin Rade , Wilhelm Bornemann , Friedrich Loofs and William Wrede .

Harnack founded the Theologische Literaturzeitung together with Emil Schürer in 1876 , together with Oscar von Gebhardt in 1882 the series of texts and investigations on the history of early Christian literature , and in 1886/1887 the magazine Christian World .

When he entered the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1890, he began a major project with the edition of a critical edition of the Greek Christian writers of the first three centuries . The Academy appointed the Church Fathers Commission with Harnack as its leader. From the outset, the commission was multidisciplinary; Classical philologists, ancient historians and patristicians worked together. The edition was calculated to be around 50 volumes that should appear within 20 years; extensive research on this should appear in texts and studies . As an inventory for this work, Harnack wrote the history of early Christian literature up to Eusebius . The work of the Church Fathers Commission led to an upswing in patristicism. This work also brought him into close contact with Theodor Mommsen .

Harnack was involved in the lively women's movement around 1900. He belonged with Wilhelm Dilthey , Minna Cauer and Hans Delbrück to the association founded by Helene Lange in 1893 for the organization of high school courses for women , which campaigned in principle for the right of women to study at university. Together with Empress Auguste Viktoria and the women's rights activists Helene Lange and Gertrud Bäumer , he was committed to the major reform of the girls' education system in 1908. As a university teacher, he supported the first female students after women in Prussia had been allowed to attend universities since the 1890s. Among them was the women's rights activist Gertrud Bäumer.

For the 200th anniversary of the academy in 1900, Harnack wrote the four-volume history of the Royal Prussian Academy . He was also able to ensure that the Academy's commissions were given their own government-paid civil servant positions so that they could do continuous work and the members of the commissions could be relieved of organizational tasks. Harnack eventually became chairman of the academy himself.

In 1905 he became a part-time director general of the Royal Library .

Harnack was instrumental in founding the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science . From 1911 to 1930 he was its first president; at the same time he held a seat in the Senate. The structural approach, the establishment of institutes and research branches of this and the subsequent Max Planck Society to develop outstanding individuals with a high level of financial and content-related responsibility is often referred to as the Harnack principle - not to be confused with the Harnack principle .

Political commitment

Ceremony for the opening of the Royal Library in 1914 in the presence of Kaiser Wilhelm II , Harnack's keynote speaker as General Director
Harnack (right) at the inauguration of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Experimental Therapy

Harnack became a political advisor with a wide range of political contacts, including Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg . In close cooperation with the reformers of the state bureaucracy , he took a middle line, focused on the balancing of interests through social reforms , conflict avoidance and consensus, and turned against a culture-fighting polarization and intensification of class conflicts .

His values ​​were bourgeois-liberal, aimed at a parliamentary-constitutional monarchy and thus stood - not untypical for the upper class - against authoritarian tendencies in the empire. Basically he assumed that society was capable of reform. His personality religion, which was critical of tradition, contained strong social ideals which he saw symbolized in the kingdom of God. He interpreted the inner-worldly vocation of a Christian as a duty of service to the community .

In foreign policy, Harnack was committed to an understanding between England and Germany, turned against Pan-German imperialism and advised moderation and compromise, but he also signed the Manifesto of 93 , in which, among other things, Germany's opponents of the war are insulted as liars and a (Mit -) Germany's responsibility for the start of the war is denied. Together with the historian Reinhold Koser, Harnack wrote the national appeal to the German people! by Wilhelm II on August 6, 1914. It invokes Germany's role as a victim, God's support (“God with us”) and the readiness for total struggle “to the last breath of man and horse”. Its cultural-Protestant national history included the willingness to secure German culture in the east through vassal states . Harnack interpreted the war defeat and the November Revolution of 1918/19 as a transition to democracy and socialism . Against the line of majority Protestantism, which was almost entirely anti-republican, the conservative republican campaigned decisively for social democracy in the Weimar Republic .

Harnack was also a political writer: In his Augustin , published in 1922, Harnack postulated his political-theological demand for a “new Augustinism ” in which “ reverence for God as the source of all high goods permeates human knowledge and attitudes , the true one Establishes freedom and creates a covenant of justice and peace ”. In this work, Harnack's gaze was directed towards a renewal of culture in the sense of a spiritual idealism to be deepened , but without being directed against modernity . About Oswald Spengler's book The Downfall of the West , which was popular at the time and which Harnack dealt intensively with after 1918, he wrote that it had to be "thrown overboard" with a single name: Augustin . Harnack received extensive praise for his writing Augustin from the poet Gerhart Hauptmann , with whom he had been in close contact for a time since 1909.


GDR postage stamp from 1950 with the portrait of Harnacks

Harnack received numerous awards, for example in 1902 he became a member of the Pour le Mérite order for science and the arts , of which he was Chancellor from 1923 to 1930. In 1904 Harnack was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1907 as a corresponding member of the British Academy . He carried the title of "Royal Prussian Real Privy Councilor ". For his services he  was raised to the Prussian nobility on March 22, 1914 on the occasion of the opening of the new building of the Royal Library ( Unter den Linden 8) with a diploma from June 9, 1914. In 1925 he was awarded the Harnack Medal of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and in 1926 the eagle shield of the German Empire . Since 1903 he was a corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute . In 1928, Harnackstrasse in the planned Berlin-Dahlem science district was named after him - also because in 1910 he was a member of the Royal Commission for the division of the Dahlem domain .

The Max Planck Society awards the Adolf von Harnack Medal, originally donated in 1924, as the highest honor for special merits .

Impact history

Harnack's pupils and students included several generations of Protestant theologians, such as the church historian Ernst von Dobschütz (1870–1934) as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and, in the winter semester of 1904, the Marburg New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann .

Harnack's theological works are often characterized by a rejection of the Old Testament or by a clear anti-Judaism , which is why Pope Benedict XVI. 2007 saw in him a theologian who wanted to carry out the legacy of the heretic Marcion (85-160), namely to break Christianity from the connection to the Old Testament .

Charlotte Knobloch , former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany , classified Harnack's essay The Essence of Christianity as anti-Semitic . Adolf von Harnack, however, appeared as a vehement opponent of political anti-Semitism throughout his life.

Fonts (selection)

The first of 49 publications in Texts and Studies

2nd half of 1891http: //vorlage_digitalisat.test/1%3D~GB%3D~IA%3Dgrundrissderdog01harngoog~MDZ%3D%0A~SZ%3Dn4~doppelseiten%3D~LT%3D2.%26nbsp%3BH%C3%A4lfte%201891~PUR % 3D .

Texts and studies on the history of early Christian literature
In 1882, Harnack and Oscar von Gebhardt founded the publication series Texts and Studies on the History of Early Christian Literature . The first volume was published in 1883. He published 49 essays and treatises in this series over nearly five decades.


Lexicon article


  • Friedrich Smend : Adolf von Harnack. Directory of his writings. Hinrich, Leipzig 1927.
  • Axel von Harnack : Adolf von Harnack. Directory of his writings. Addendum 1927–1930. List of the writings dedicated to him. Leipzig 1931.
  • Jürgen Hönscheid: Brief directory of Adolf von Harnack's correspondence. In: Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 88, 1977, pp. 284–301.
    • New edition: Adolf von Harnack. Directory of his writings. With a foreword and bibliographical additions to 1985 by Jürgen Dummer. Zentralantiquariat der DDR, Leipzig 1990, ISBN 3-7463-0165-3 / Saur, Munich 1990, ISBN 3-598-10321-2 .
  • Björn Biester: Harnack Bibliography. List of literature on Adolf von Harnack 1911–2002. Self-published, Erfurt 2002.


  • Agnes von Zahn-Harnack : Adolf von Harnack. Berlin-Tempelhof 1936, 2nd edition De Gruyter, Berlin 1951.
  • Carl-Jürgen Kaltenborn : Adolf von Harnack as a teacher of Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Berlin 1973.
  • Christian Nottmeier: Adolf von Harnack and German Politics 1890–1930. A biographical study of the relationship between Protestantism, science and politics. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2004, ISBN 3-16-148154-2 .
  • Kurt Nowak , Otto Gerhard Oexle (ed.): Adolf von Harnack. Theologian, historian, science politician. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-525-35477-0 .
  • Gunther Wenz : The cultural protestant. Adolf von Harnack as a Christian theorist and controversial theologian. Utz Wissenschaftsverlag, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-8316-0038-4 .
  • Kurt Nowak, Otto Gerhard Oexle , Trutz Rendtorff , Kurt-Victor Selge (eds.): Adolf von Harnack. Christianity, Science and Society. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2003, ISBN 3-525-35854-7 .
  • Wolfram Kinzig : Harnack, Marcion and Judaism. In addition to an annotated edition of Adolf von Harnack's correspondence with Houston Stewart Chamberlain . Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig 2004, ISBN 3-374-02181-6 .
  • Stefan Rebenich : Classical Studies and the Church Fathers Commission at the Academy: Theodor Mommsen and Adolf Harnack . In: Jürgen Kocka (Ed.): The Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in the Empire . Berlin 1999 ( PDF ).
  • Stefan Rebenich: Theodor Mommsen and Adolf Harnack. Science and politics in Berlin at the end of the 19th century . de Gruyter, Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-11-015079-4 , p. 129 ff.


  • Peter C. Bloth : Adolf Harnacks Examenskatechese Dorpat 1872. In: Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte , Vol. 112 (fourth episode, 45), 2001, ISSN  0044-2925 .
  • Peter C. Bloth: Observations and questions about the edition of Adolf Harnack's first Marcion writing . In: Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, Vol. 116 (fourth episode, 54), 2005, ISSN  0044-2925 .
  • Constantine v. Freytag-Loringhoven: Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932). Living and learning in Dorpat as a lifelong reference for two Baltic German scientists . In: Einst und Jetzt , Vol. 59, 2014, pp. 41–90.
  • Felix E. Hirsch : The Scholar as Librarian: To the Memory of Adolf Von Harnack. In: The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul., 1939), pp. 299-320.
  • Wolfram Kinzig : Harnack, Marcion and Judaism. In addition to an annotated edition of Adolf von Harnack's correspondence with Houston Stewart Chamberlain (=  Works on Church and Theological History , Volume 13). Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig 2004, ISBN 3-374-02181-6 .
  • Erik Lehnert: Adolf von Harnack - the universal scholar at court. In: Men around Kaiser Wilhelm II. (=  Die Mark Brandenburg. Issue 73). Marika Großer Verlag, Berlin 2009, ISBN 978-3-910134-13-3 .
  • Karl H. Neufeld: Adolf von Harnack. In: Hans-Ulrich Wehler : German historians. Volume 7, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1980, ISBN 3-525-33449-4 , pp. 24-38.
  • Kurt Nowak: Adolf von Harnack. Science and shaping the world based on modern Protestantism. In: Ders .: Adolf von Harnack as a contemporary. Speeches and writings from the years of the German Empire and the Weimar Republic. DeGruyter, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-11-013799-2 , pp. 1-99.
  • Kurt Nowak: What is a nation? Ernest Renan's and Adolf von Harnack's answers . In: Rechtshistorisches Journal  20 (2001), pp. 311-324.

Web links

Wikisource: Adolf von Harnack  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Adolf von Harnack  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Alfred Seeberg (Ed.): Album of the Theological Association to Dorpat-Jurjew . C. Mattiesen, Dorpat 1905, p. 20.
  2. ^ Mathematics Genealogy Project .
  3. ^ History of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Vol. 3, p. 119.http: //vorlage_digitalisat.test/1%3D~GB%3D~IA%3Dgeschichtederk03harn~MDZ%3D%0A~SZ%3D119~doppelseiten%3D~LT%3DGeschichte%20der%20K%C3%B6nlichen%20Preu%C3% 9Fischen% 20Akademie% 20der% 20Sciences% 20zu% 20Berlin% 2C% 20Bd.% 26nbsp% 3B3% 2C% 20S.% 26nbsp% 3B119. ~ PUR% 3D
  4. ^ Martin Grabmann : Adolf von Harnack. (PDF) Obituary at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.
  5. Chronicle of the Kaiser Wilhelm / Max Planck Institute for Chemistry (PDF; 3.6 MB).
  6. Cf. Uwe Swarat: Old Church and New Testament. Theodor Zahn as patristic. Wuppertal 1991.
  7. Eduard Rupprecht: The Christianity of D. Ad. Harnack after his sixteen lectures. An investigation and a testimony to the Church of the Presence of all denominations , Gütersloh 1901.
  8. Cf. Martin von Nathusius: Der evangelisch-sociale Kongreß. A rejection. In: General Conservative Monthly for Christian Germany . Volume 52, January-June, 1895, p. 562.
  9. Receipts are missing.
  10. Harnack: History of the Academyhttp: //vorlage_digitalisat.test/1%3D~GB%3D~IA%3Dgeschichtederk0102harn~MDZ%3D%0A~SZ%3D1033~doppelsided%3D~LT%3D%27%27Geschichte%20der%20Akademie%27%27~ PUR% 3D , Vol. 1 Part 2, p. 1033.
  11. Angelika Schaser: Helene Lange and Gertrud Bäumer. A political community. Böhlau, Cologne 2010, p. 72.
  12. ^ Christian Nottmeier: Adolf von Harnack and German politics . Tübingen 2004, p. 270.
  13. Angelika Schaser: Helene Lange and Gertrud Bäumer. A political community. Böhlau, Cologne 2010, p. 106.
  14. ^ S. Rebenich: The ancient sciences and the church fathers commission . (PDF) p. 211.
  15. ^ Martin Stratmann: Max Planck Society: Dare more Harnack . In: FAZ.NET . ISSN  0174-4909 ( [accessed August 21, 2020]).
  16. ^ The "Max Planck" approach. The Max Planck Society in the German Science System. Perspektiven 2010. Max Planck Society, October 18, 2010, accessed on August 21, 2020 .
  17. Hubert Laitko: The Harnack principle as an institutional trademark: factual and symbolic . January 19, 2015 ( [accessed on August 21, 2020]).
  18. The Berlin University in World War I - "Germany's first intellectual arsenal" .
  19. To the German people! ( Wikisource )
  20. ^ A b Christian Nottmeier: Adolf von Harnack and German Politics 1890–1930. A biographical study of the relationship between Protestantism, science and politics . Tübingen 2004, ISBN 3-16-148154-2 , p. 487.
  21. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed June 6, 2020 .
  22. Harnackstrasse. In: Street name lexicon of the Luisenstädtischer Bildungsverein (near  Kaupert )
  23. ^ Benedict XVI .: Jesus of Nazareth. From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration . Herder, Freiburg 2007, ISBN 3-451-29861-9 , p. 80 ff.
  24. ^ Speech by Charlotte Knobloch on the occasion of the awarding of the Leo Baeck Prize on the website of the Central Council of Jews, with reference to Harnack's work .
  25. ^ Christian Nottmeier: Adolf von Harnack and German politics 1890-1930. A biographical study of the relationship between Protestantism, science and politics. Tübingen 2004, p. 513.
  26. ^ Carl Schmidt: Obituary for Adolf Harnack . In: Texts and Investigations. TU 47, 1932, no page number ( Wikisource ).