fFor the influential American theologian and political theorist Reinhold Niebuhr, who described himself as a “socialist Christian,” September 1938, the month of the Munich Agreement, was the moment when he left his radical pacifism behind. Shortly before, he had sharply criticized Roosevelt’s rearmament, claiming that the best way to avoid war is not to prepare for one. But now, under the impression of the German and Japanese policies of conquest, he decided that inaction could bring about an even greater disaster, and accused modern pacifism of failing to recognize the “tragic elements” that existed in social reality.
The point of his criticism, however, was that he also found the same kind of denial of reality in the opposite attitude, into which pacifism easily changes when the framework conditions change: the belief that history can be controlled by force of arms, i.e. destroy evil and enforce the good. Both are based on the same basic error about human nature: that one should only act when the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad. In 1940 he wrote: “Self-righteousness or inaction are the alternatives of secular moralism”, which he identified as the common denominator of the only apparently contrary positions. At the beginning of the Cold War, Niebuhr observed in his major work, The Irony of American History: “Our idealists are divided into those who renounce the responsibilities of power to preserve the purity of our souls and those who are willing to accept any ambiguity to conceal good and evil in our actions.” Although Niebuhr considered the use of military force in certain cases to be unavoidable on moral grounds, he also opposed war as a means of achieving moral ends. It is no coincidence that Presidential candidate Barack Obama named Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher after Bush’s attack on Iraq.
Niebuhr can also be a key to digging deeper into the special envelope that the Russian invasion of Ukraine produced for us. Not only the Greens, but also many others who, for moral reasons, naturally maintained a certain distance from the sphere of geopolitical power and even more so from the sphere of military power, find themselves in a situation in which it seems downright immoral not to speak like a commander. In many ways, the situation is similar to that found by Niebuhr: the aggression that has become manifest, the military attack inevitably changes the perspective; instead of strategies for avoiding conflict, it must be about strategies for overcoming the conflict. The only question is in which political framework this “turning point in time” will take place. The debate about what it means in the long term has not even really started, despite the Bundestag’s decision on Thursday. To what extent does this turning point in time apply to Niebuhr’s accusation that it is just a reversed pacifism that shares the same bottomlessness with it?
#Debates #War #Reversal #Pacifism