Far-Right Violence and World Community

Josefin Graef

University of Birmingham

Dr. Josefin Graef is a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow from June to October 2023.

Dr. Graef holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Birmingham and was a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School in Berlin (2018-2019) and at Aston University in Birmingham (2022-2023). From 2017 to 2023 she also co-convened the German Politics Specialist Group of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA).

Her work examines the place of far-right violence and terrorism in the social and political imagination of the European and global “West” since the end of the Second World War with a particular interest in Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States. Her current research focuses on how these imaginations help to (re)produce liberal-democratic orders and what role whiteness and white supremacy play in this context.

She has published on political violence, the populist radical right, German politics, and narrative methods, including a special issue on “Narrative, Political Violence and Social Change” (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2020) and her book Imagining Far-right Terrorism: Violence, Immigration, and the Nation State in Contemporary Western Europe (Routledge, 2022).

At AGI, she will continue work on a major strand of her current research that deals with the intellectual legacy of U.S. theologian and political advisor Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Through archival research and interviews, her project explores how Niebuhr’s (transatlantic) thinking about hope, sin, power, and self-criticism can help advance our understanding of white supremacist violence in Germany and the United States at a time of political polarization. The key questions driving her research are (1) What kind of problem is white supremacist violence, and how should we talk about it? (2) What kind of illusions do Germany and the United States hold about themselves and how can they confront them in light of their different histories of state- and nation-building, immigration, and violence? (3) Can the United States learn from Germany, and vice versa?

An Evolving Threat in a Changing World

What the life and work of German-American Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) tells us about an old problem in a new context.

Far-right violence in the West is changing. While we can observe no overall rise in attacks, some countries—in particular Germany and the United States—have experienced a series of mass-casualty attacks in recent years. Many perpetrators now operate on their own without an affiliation to any organized far-right group but are simultaneously embedded in transnational far-right networks and communities, especially (though not exclusively) online. This makes it more difficult to detect and disrupt violent plots. They also make use of advanced technology, such as using 3-D printed weapons and livestreaming their attacks.

While Nazi symbolism remains very much present (for instance, the rifle with which a 21-year-old white supremacist killed three black Americans in a store in Jacksonville, Florida, on August 26, 2023, had a Swastika emblem), many attacks now also draw their inspiration from a powerful and adaptable superconspiracy narrative, the “Great Replacement.” According to this narrative, national and international (Jewish) elites conspire against the indigenous, white populations of the West by orchestrating the mass immigration of “non-white” people, in particular Muslims. Violence serves to spur on the conflict between these evil traitors and outside “invaders” on one side and the altruistic defenders of European or Western civilization on the other, from which the latter will emerge victorious, thus proving that the conspiracy existed all along.

In response to these developments, Germany and the United States have declared far-right violence a major security threat. The United States’ first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism published in June 2021, for example, speaks of “domestic terrorism” and far-right (including white supremacist and anti-government) violence almost as synonyms and as a “a direct challenge to America’s national security, our democracy, and our national unity.” The 2022 report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesverfassungsschutz), Germany’s domestic secret service, identifies right-wing extremism as “the greatest extremist threat to our democratic polity.” At the same time, the way in which governments have handled recent attacks has highlighted pressing issues of national identity, some of which they share (like the need to acknowledge the problem of structural racism) and some of which are more nationally specific (e.g., Germany’s Holocaust-centred memory culture, the U.S. culture of civil liberties).

A New Perspective

To address the problem in its complexity, a new perspective on far-right violence that extends beyond the Western nation-state is required. The most promising push in this direction has come from New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after a white supremacist shot and killed fifty people at two mosques in Christchurch, the country’s second-largest city, during Friday prayer on March 15, 2019. The perpetrator, who had recently moved to New Zealand from Australia, evoked the “Great Replacement” conspiracy in a 74-page manifesto and livestreamed his attack on Facebook. Inspired by previous attacks, he has since inspired others elsewhere in the world, including one targeting a synagogue in Halle, Germany, in October 2019 and against black Americans in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022.

In her address to the General Debate of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 24, 2019, Ardern warned that, just like climate change, far-right violence was becoming a global issue that individual countries could not solve on their own. Not only would perpetrators use social media and other modern technology to build global networks (this is the impetus behind the “Christchurch Call” to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online”). Local acts of violence also spread fear to targeted communities worldwide, thereby threatening freedoms beyond the borders of the country where the violence was happening: “what happened in Christchurch, as well as a profound tragedy, is also a complex and ongoing problem for the world.”

Just like climate change, far-right violence was becoming a global issue that individual countries could not solve on their own.

Ardern then called on political leaders to adopt a humanistic universalism inspired by the Māori, the first people of New Zealand, and become “guardians” not just for their own people, “but for all people”—consciously analogous to the idea of environmental guardianship (kaitiakitanga) enshrined in New Zealand law. This proposal prioritized the transnational effects of far-right violence on target communities rather than states, which still often go unacknowledged.

Is this vision an idealistic utopia or can it be reconciled with national self-interests and sensibilities? In my research, I explore how the life and work of German-American Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) can help us think about far-right violence and world community.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the foremost public intellectuals of the twentieth century. While he spent most of his career as Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1928-1960), he was also a preacher, activist, fundraiser, political advisor, and commentator on current affairs.

Respected during his lifetime by U.S. leaders like George Kennan, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy for his intellectual contributions and sincere commitment to social justice, Niebuhr has continued to provide orientation at moments of crisis since his death in 1971. Sometimes, this has been grounded in a reductive reading of his work for political ends. Both the post-9/11 “Niebuhr revival,” which searched for the kind of moral clarity that Niebuhr defied, and the prominent description of Barack Obama’s presidency as “Niebuhrian” are examples of this. Niebuhr’s name has also surfaced in recent debates around a new Cold War Liberalism, although his place within this intellectual tradition is debatable.

As a German-speaking American with an English-born wife, pastor and theologian Ursula Niebuhr, his work is also woven into the fabric of transatlantic relations in the twentieth century. In 1972, German Chancellor Willy Brandt received the (short-lived) Niebuhr prize for making a democratic Germany possible through his “practical realism” and “creative statesmanship.”[1] In his reception speech, Brandt said that there were only “few theologians who have had such a strong impact on the Western world.”[2] German President Gustav Heinemann, by his own account, also revered Niebuhr.[3] In 2005, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer quoted from Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952) in his book “The Return of History” to explain the post-9/11 challenge facing the United States: reconciling its superpower status with its longing for a new peace of mind.

When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons on November 11, 1947, that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” it is likely that he was actually referencing Niebuhr’s famous democracy dictum: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” In April 2022, President Obama used these words to introduce his keynote speech at the “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm” symposium at Stanford University.

Christian realism acknowledges the dominance of national self-interests but also considers cooperation between states beyond a mere equilibrium of power possible and morally imperative.

In political circles, Niebuhr’s ideas on power, democracy, and justice have come to be subsumed under the label of Christian realism. Unlike classic realism, Christian realism acknowledges the dominance of national self-interests but also considers cooperation between states beyond a mere equilibrium of power possible and morally imperative. This reflects Niebuhr’s biblical view of the human condition: we shape the dramas of history by using our God-given creativity to imagine life in new ways, but we are also bound to nature and therefore limited—by our fears, hopes, desires, and inability to fully understand ourselves (and others). We are “both creature and creator of the historical process.” Since this state causes us anxiety, we try to escape it by overestimating our power and ability to control history. We become prideful, which leads to injustice. However, we cannot retreat from the world altogether either, because we have to take responsibility. This is our dilemma: acting in the world knowing that, consciously or unconsciously, we will fall into sin. We cannot rely too much on our virtues, powers, and achievements, because they are always ambiguous and insecure. We have to remain humble and skeptical of ourselves. Neither self-righteousness nor inaction are options. This dialectic makes history full of paradoxes, tragedies, and ironies.

Niebuhr on World Community

In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), Niebuhr outlines what this Christian dilemma means for national and international politics. The book’s title references the Gospel of Luke (16:8) in the New Testament: “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” As the subtitle suggests, it vindicates Western liberal democracy, which Niebuhr saw as the best way to balance humans’ need for freedom and order, but is critical of its “traditional defence” in moral terms.[4] For Niebuhr, the overly idealistic democratic children of light, who strive toward a universal good, naively believe that harmony between groups and nations can be easily achieved. They underestimate the power of self-interest in all human life and therefore also their own weaknesses. The children of darkness, meanwhile, are cynical and malicious because they fully embrace “self-interest without regard to the whole.”[5] But they know how to exploit the naivety of the children of light by appealing to social groups’ self-interests. The German Nazis, Niebuhr writes, successfully used this strategy to pit groups against each other—the poor against the wealthy, patriots against communists.

The same problem exists on the international level, where the good of humanity as a whole is stake. In Niebuhr’s estimation, interwar initiatives such as the League of Nations had failed because the children of light had been too naïve about the power of national self-interests—whether in the form of German revanchism for the Treaty of Versailles or American isolationism. The “Nazi effort to unify the world under the dominion of a master race”[6] had proved again that a moral imperative was not enough to transform an idea into reality. In fact, it could backfire: the Nazis had used the forces of history that were pushing toward a world community for their own purposes—and almost succeeded.

In the post-war moment, as the Cold War split between the communist and the “free” world began to emerge, Niebuhr observed a new wave of rushed attempts to transcend national sovereignty through world government, in spite of past experiences. It was, he wrote, like an “errant husband [who], finding difficulty in working out the day-to-day conditions of happy marital life, beguile[s] his leisure by writing a book on The Ideal Marriage.” He was skeptical that even the precondition for world government—world community—could be achieved, at least in the short to medium term. But if nations wanted to pursue this “difficult but not impossible”[7] task, Niebuhr believed they had to begin with culture—the ways in which humans express their God-given freedoms. He dedicated much of his time in the 1940s and 1950s to this task.

On the eve of the United States’ entry into the Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined in his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, his vision of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms”—of speech, of worship, from want, from fear—as “the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” Roosevelt’s vision subsequently informed the Atlantic Charter, co-signed with Winston Churchill on August 14, 1941; the pamphlet “The United Nations Fight for the Four Freedoms” published by the Office of War Information in 1942; and, “after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny” (as the sixth paragraph of the Charter puts it), the creation of the United Nations on October 24, 1945, headquartered in New York City.

In 1948, Niebuhr became an advisor to the Commission on the Occupied Areas of the American Council on Education on cultural and educational relations with Germany.[8] In fall 1949, he was part of a five-person U.S. delegation to the 4th General Conference of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. At a “sometimes lively discussion” by the joint meeting of the Programme and Budget and Official and External Relations Commissions, Niebuhr spoke in favor of continuing UNESCO’s educational programs in (West) Germany. Support came, among others, from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (second President of India 1962-67) who praised the work that UNESCO had done “teach[ing] German youth to follow Goethe and Kant.”[9] Several of Niebuhr’s books were also translated into German and Japanese to aid the U.S. reorientation programs.

All of this work in the service of developing “common social and cultural tissue” required a “‘long pull’ and not a short one,” as Niebuhr wrote in a reflection on the 1949 conference. From 1950, Niebuhr served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in various capacities until a severe stroke eventually forced him to resign in 1953.[10]

The new children of darkness?

Today, the problem of the “children of darkness” presents itself in a new context. Globalization has made many societies, not only in the West, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally more heterogeneous than Niebuhr could have imagined. A world community in the shape of the “liberal international order” has been created both in spite of and through this hyper-pluralization, not least by the United Nations—and largely in service of maintaining Western hegemony.

At the same time, like the children of darkness of old, the contemporary violent far-right draws on universal principles for particularistic ends, but in different ways. They rely on the internet, part of the modern “global commons” (Ardern), for organizing and promoting attacks and increasingly appeal to the ideals of freedom, democracy, and individual rights to assert the supremacy of “Western civilization” that transcends national and even continental borders. In Niebuhrian terms, we might say, the “Great Replacement” conspiracy narrative plays with the idea that immigration denies a particular group—white Christians—their (God-given) freedoms.

Ardern’s call for states to act as guardians not only for their own citizens but “for all people” counters this vision of “far-right civilizationalism.” It echoes Roosevelt’s vision of a world built on the freedom from fear: “Feeling safe means the absence of fear. Living free from racism, bullying, and discrimination.” Predictably, far-right commentators picked up on this part of Ardern’s 2019 UN address. Dieuwe de Boer, Secretary General of New Zealand’s New Conservatives party, claimed that Ardern wanted to take away other nations’ pride and sovereignty and make herself their “unelected leader”—as U.S. President Donald Trump had warned in his own address earlier that day.

The challenge for today’s children of light consists not in building a world community from scratch, as was the case eighty years ago, but in rethinking the one that has been built since because it is ill-suited to deal with contemporary forms of far-right ideologies and violence.

Ardern herself spoke about such tribalism as the biggest obstacle to tackling far-right violence on the global level because it provides inspiration to violent perpetrators while making it more difficult for liberal democracies to respond to this threat and its underlying causes, especially if far-right parties (or their ideas) enter government. Indeed, the precondition for confronting far-right violence as a world community is that states are committed to protecting not only the lives of others but also the lives of their own minority population. As the far right is gaining more power across Western countries, this commitment is beginning to erode.

Thinking of far-right violence as a problem for the world community has thus become both more difficult and more necessary. The challenge for today’s children of light consists not in building a world community from scratch, as was the case eighty years ago, but in rethinking the one that has been built since because it is ill-suited to deal with contemporary forms of far-right ideologies and violence. That is, they have to confront their own self-interests. Seen through Niebuhr’s eyes, this is not a failure of history, but an expression of history itself as even the “highest achievements of human life are infected with sinful corruption.”[11] This also applies to existing bi- and multilateral policy initiatives in the area of counterextremism and counterterrorism (such as the Christchurch Call or the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact) which are important for monitoring and minimizing the threat, but also reflect and reproduce the unequal global power structures that factor into far-right ideas themselves.

Niebuhr’s idealist-realist view of international politics gives us hope that we have the capacity to rethink world community but warns us not to harbor illusions that this can be done quickly or easily. If it is to succeed, it seems, it also needs to start with culture. To make her argument about transnational far-right violence, Jacinda Ardern drew on the culture of the Māori—both a colonized people and a national minority in New Zealand, founded in 1840 by the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Māori chiefs. Ardern emphasized that New Zealand was not “perfect” because of its legacy of racism in a settler society. The “hard and difficult questions” that the attacks in Christchurch had brought up, she implied, were also questions about this legacy. Rethinking far-right violence as a problem for the world community also means acknowledging these legacies and underlying ideas of “civilization,” which are not as innocent as Niebuhr’s writings sometimes suggest.


Violent far-right networks are emerging as a global security challenge that no individual country can handle on its own. This calls for a new perspective that approaches far-right violence as a problem for the world community, part of a new ethics of global governance. Niebuhr reminds us that the power of national self-interests makes this a difficult task. The United States and Germany, two countries that like to think of themselves as children of light, stand to gain from engaging in this task but also have an important contribution to make based on their historical experiences. In practical terms, campaigning for the nomination of a Special UN envoy (analogous to previous envoys for climate change) is but one option.

The world has changed considerably since Niebuhr’s days. In particular, it has become more multipolar. This does not allow drawing simple analogies between his concerns then and political concerns today. His thinking was also shaped by a rather forgiving (though thoughtful) perspective of the West that is increasingly moving into the center of political conflict. But as a Niebuhr expert put it to me in an interview: to address contemporary political challenges, we can and should use Niebuhr to go beyond Niebuhr.

[1] Award citation, September 1972, Reinhold Niebuhr Papers, Box 36, Folder 4, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[2] Translation of Willy Brandt’s reception speech, Bonn, September 26, 1972, Reinhold Niebuhr Papers, Box 69, Folder 10, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Letter of Gustav Heinemann to Ursula Niebuhr, October 2, 1972, Reinhold Niebuhr Papers, Box 35, Folder 5, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[4] Niebuhr’s famous democracy dictum appears in the foreword.

[5] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defence, in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics, edited by Elisabeth Sifton (New York: Library of America, 2015 [1952]), p. 362.

[6] Ibid., p. 443.

[7] The UNESCO Courier, July-August 1966, p. 47.

[8] Information leaflet about the advisory committee 1948, Reinhold Niebuhr Papers, Box 3, Folder 11, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[9] The UNESCO Courier, November 1, 1949, p. 18.

[10] Letter to Chairman Walter H. C. Laves, June 15, 1953, Reinhold Niebuhr Papers, Box 12, Folder 26, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[11] Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, p. 458.

Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.