Franz Overbeck

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Franz Overbeck and his wife Ida, ca.1875

Franz Camille Overbeck (born November 16, 1837 in Saint Petersburg , † June 26, 1905 in Basel ) was a church historian and professor of Protestant theology . He specialized in early Christian literature, sympathized with their culture-critical movements such as monasticism , but criticized both liberal and conservative theology. He published very little and during his lifetime remained an outsider with his thoughts on theology in the professional world . He is best known as Friedrich Nietzsche's friend and correspondent .


Origin and studies

Franz Overbeck during his studies in Göttingen

Overbeck was the son of the German-British businessman Franz Heinrich Herrmann Overbeck and his wife Jeanne Camille Cerclet, a French woman born in Saint Petersburg. His upbringing was correspondingly European- humanistic , first in Saint Petersburg, then from 1846 to the February Revolution of 1848 in Paris , then again in Saint Petersburg and from 1850 in Dresden . In keeping with his multinational origins, Overbeck was fluent in all the major European languages.

From 1856 to 1864 Overbeck studied Protestant theology in Leipzig , Göttingen , Berlin and Jena . In Göttingen, Overbeck became a member of the Hannovera fraternity , which made him close friends with Wolfgang Helbig and Heinrich von Treitschke . He was critical of official theology from the start, primarily through reading Carl Heinrich Wilhelm Schwarz and, subsequently, the historical theology of Ferdinand Christian Baur . He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1859 and qualified as a theologian with Karl von Hase in 1864 with a thesis on Hippolytus of Rome . From 1864 to 1870 he taught as a private lecturer in Jena.

Theologian in Basel

In 1870 he was appointed professor for New Testament exegesis and older church history at the University of Basel and lived in the same house one floor below his colleague Friedrich Nietzsche until his departure in 1875 . During this time, the two housemates formed an important and lasting friendship for both of them.

In 1876 Overbeck married the Swiss Ida Rothpletz (1848–1933), who was born in Neustadt in Haardt. In the same year he was rector of the University of Basel.

In 1873 Overbeck published his most important work on the Christianity of our today's theology . In it he stated his view that “historical Christianity”, which was founded by the Church Fathers, no longer had anything to do with the original idea of ​​Christ and could not have either. “True primitive Christianity ” was in opposition to every kind of history , culture and science ; consequently a “Christian theology” is impossible. In this work Overbeck criticizes both the conservative ("apologetic") theology , which is dogmatically based on beliefs, and the liberal theology , which endeavored to reconcile belief and knowledge: According to Overbeck, both miss the essence of Christianity, the exclude any kind of knowledge .

On the occasion of this writing, he had taken the writings On Old and New Faith by David Friedrich Strauss and On the Relationship of the German State to Theology, Church and Religion by Paul de Lagarde . Both were attempts to create a "modern (Christian) religion" with the help of theology. Overbeck thought this was impossible and a mistake. In his afterword to the second edition of 1903 he renews this criticism of the leading theologian Adolf von Harnack and his work Das Wesen des Christianentums , which, according to Overbeck, “has proven to me the 'inessentiality' of Christianity far more emphatically than ' Essence '".

With his book he had - quite consciously - blocked every possibility of a professorship in Germany. As a result, he stayed in Basel, where he held the same introductory lectures for decades and by no means spoke about his provocative theses. According to his own admission, he did this to protect his students.

In his private life, he made extensive records for a "church encyclopedia", in which he wrote comments, reflections and commented bibliographies on theological, but also on political, cultural, philosophical and personal matters. The aim of this collection was what Overbeck saw as the only task of a genuinely scientific theology: a profane church history. Overbeck felt that this would not explain or even understand Christianity itself, but would destroy it in his opinion, as a fundamental dilemma.

Friendship with Nietzsche

The Christianity of our today's theology appeared at the same time as Nietzsche's first Untimely Contemplation (also against David Friedrich Strauss ), but - although similarly "untimely" - did not attract as much attention as this one. Both friends had a "twin copy" of both books bound together, and they also agreed on their basic theses. Similar theses as Overbeck's can be found in Nietzsche's The Antichrist in his works, and conversely Overbeck may have benefited from conversations with the philosopher. The extensive correspondence between Overbeck and Nietzsche later attracted some attention, for example Walter Benjamin selected a letter from Overbeck for his collection of German people .

The personal friendship with Nietzsche did not end even after his mental derangement began at the end of 1888. At the beginning of January 1889, Nietzsche von Turin sent one of his so-called "madness notes" from his colleague Jacob Burckhardt, who were highly valued by both , whereupon Overbeck alarmed. When Overbeck himself received a confused letter, he traveled to Turin on the same day and brought the sick Nietzsche and his manuscripts to safety. In the following time he remained one of the most important contacts for Nietzsche's mother Franziska , who cared for the mentally ill patient until her death, and intervened once more when Julius Langbehn tried to bring Nietzsche under his control.

Due to his intense friendship with Nietzsche, Overbeck considered it necessary that he rejected the beginning hero worship and transfiguration of Nietzsche and that he himself did not behave uncritically to Nietzsche's writings. In letters and private notes, he protected himself against the legends and distortions about the philosopher, which came from his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the Nietzsche archive she founded . Resigned in old age and physically weak, he largely avoided a public controversy, but strictly refused to comply with Förster-Nietzsche's demand that his Nietzsche correspondence be handed over to her Nietzsche archive.

Through their mutual friend Nietzsche, Overbeck also got to know and appreciate the philologist Erwin Rohde . This friendship persisted even after Rohde and Nietzsche were far apart.

Age and aftermath

Franz Camille Overbeck-Rothpletz (1837–1905) church historian and professor of Protestant theology.  Grave in the Wolfgottesacker cemetery, Basel
Grave in the Wolfgottesacker cemetery

In 1897 Overbeck retired after a long illness. In the years that followed, he also resigned his honorary posts in Basel, becoming weaker and weaker. In 1903 he got - without it was pleased - from the University of St Andrews the title honorary doctorate awarded. In 1905 Franz Overbeck died of organ failure.

Overbeck found his final resting place in the Wolfgottesacker cemetery , Basel.

Shortly after Overbeck's death, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche began another campaign against him, but this was skilfully parried by his wife Ida and his student and friend Carl Albrecht Bernoulli . In the following years, Bernoulli published Overbeck's posthumous notes and his correspondence with Nietzsche, thus establishing the Basel tradition in Nietzsche research.

It was not until a few decades after Overbeck's death that his (anti) theological views found interested academics, including Karl Barth , Karl Löwith and Moses I. Finley . Since around 1980, the interest in Overbeck has increased again, as can be read from the number of publications about him (see below).


"Theology [...] makes Christianity problematic as a religion, that is, [questions] it as such at all [...], since an apologetic theology, if Christianity were scientifically proven by it, would have destroyed it as a religion."

"[T] he knowledge can destroy a religion [...], never rebuild it as such."

“I can say that Christianity cost me my life. In so far as, although I never owned it and only became a theologian through 'misunderstanding', I needed my life to get rid of it entirely. "

“All the beautiful sides of Christianity are linked to Jesus, all unsightly to Paul. Jesus in particular was incomprehensible to Paul. "



  • Franz Overbeck: Works and Estate . Metzler, Stuttgart 1994-2010, ISBN 978-3-476-01210-4
    • Volume 1: Writings up to 1873
    • Volume 2: Writings up to 1880
      • Studies on the History of the Old Church (1875)
      • On the Church Fathers' view of the dispute between Paul and Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2, 11ff.) (1877)
      • From Augustine's correspondence with Hieronymus (1879)
      • On the history of the canon (1880)
    • Volume 3: Writings up to 1898 and reviews
    • Volume 4: Church Lexicon A – I
    • Volume 5: Church Lexicon J – Z
    • Volume 6: Church Lexicon / Materials
      • Volume 6.1: Christianity and Culture (critical edition of the estate material compiled by CA Bernoulli in 1919)
      • Volume 6.2: Church encyclopedia complete register
    • Volume 7: Autobiography
      • Volume 7.1: "Concerning myself"
      • Volume 7.2: "My friends Treitschke, Nietzsche and Rohde"
    • Volume 8: Letters
    • Volume 9: From the lectures on the history of the ancient Church up to the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.


With Friedrich Nietzsche

Katrin Meyer / Barbara von Reibnitz (eds.): Friedrich Nietzsche / Franz and Ida Overbeck: Correspondence . Metzler, Stuttgart 1999, ISBN 3-476-01617-X

With Erwin Rohde

Andreas Patzer (ed.): Franz Overbeck, Erwin Rohde: Correspondence . de Gruyter, Berlin and New York 1999, ISBN 3-11-011895-5 (Supplementa Nietzscheana, Vol. 1)

With Heinrich Köselitz

David Marc Hoffmann (Ed.): Franz Overbeck, Heinrich Köselitz (Peter Gast): Correspondence . de Gruyter, Berlin and New York 1990, ISBN 3-11-013023-8 (Supplementa Nietzscheana, Vol. 3)

With Paul de Lagarde

Niklaus Peter / Andreas Urs Sommer (eds.): Franz Overbeck's correspondence with Paul de Lagarde , in: Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte 3 (1996), 127–171

Letters from Franziska Nietzsche to Overbeck

Erich F. Podach (ed.): The sick Nietzsche. Letters from his mother to Franz Overbeck. Bermann-Fischer Verlag, Vienna 1937.

With various recipients

Franz Overbeck. Works and Estate, Vol. 8: Letters. Selected, edited and commented on by Niklaus Peter and Frank Bestebreurtje with the assistance of Andreas Urs Sommer. XLVII + 558 pages. Stuttgart / Weimar: Verlag JB Metzler, 2008 ( ISBN 978-3-476-00970-8 ).


About Overbeck and his work

To Overbeck and Nietzsche

  • Carl Albrecht Bernoulli : Franz Overbeck and Friedrich Nietzsche. A friendship . Diederichs, Jena 1908.
  • Hermann-Peter Eberlein: I'm sure I'm a flame! Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Overbeck and their friends . Schmidt von Schwind, Cologne 1999, ISBN 3-932050-15-0 .
  • Andreas Urs Sommer : The Spirit of History and the End of Christianity. On the “Waffengenossenschaft” of Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Overbeck . Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-05-003112-3 .

Web links

Commons : Franz Overbeck  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Franz Overbeck  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Carl Albrecht Bernoulli : Franz Overbeck and Friedrich Nietzsche. A friendship. Diederichs, Jena 1908, page 3: It was also the cap of the “green” Hanoverian that, so to speak, established the friendship with Treitschke as an older cartel brother from Frankonia in Bonn - in which Nietzsche later also became active! - brought under one roof. They met in Dresden in 1857, brought together by Overbeck's best schoolmate, Wolfgang Helbig.
  2. Deutschlandfunk November 29, 2012
  3. from: Christianity of our today's theology
  4. from: Christianity of our today's theology
  5. Quoted from Joachim Kahl : Das Elend des Christianentums ; Hamburg (rowohlt) 1968 p. 13
  6. from: Christianity and Culture. Thoughts and Notes on Modern Theology. Basel 1919, p. 55. Quoted from Karlheinz Deschner : The false belief. Munich 2004, p. 77.