The attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand this week that left forty-nine people dead and scores more injured was not a lone wolf attack or the work of a few isolated radicals. It was part of the white power movement, a broad groundswell that has joined people together in common purpose, social relationships, and political ideology. This movement formed in the United States after the Vietnam War, using narratives of violence and the symbols and weapons of that conflict to bring together Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white radicals.
The materials left behind by the alleged Christchurch attacker—not just the manifesto, but also the social media posts and the white messages scrawled on the weapon and magazines used in the attack—definitively locate his ideology in this movement. He references the Fourteen Words, a slogan written by the U.S. white power activist David Lane, who was incarcerated in the late 1980s after his participation in a white power terror cell called the Order. That group robbed millions of dollars from armored cars to distribute to white power cells around the country, assassinated enemies, and attacked infrastructure targets in an attempt to foment race war.
The Fourteen Words refer to the central mission of the white power movement, which is to ensure a white future and the birth of white children. The Christchurch gunman also refers to a “future for our people,” expressing the apocalyptic fear of racial annihilation that has animated white power activism for decades. The manifesto ends with highly stylized, idyllic images of white mothers and children. This focus on women is also a mainstay of the white power movement and its intense emphasis on white reproduction, worries about the hyperfertility of people of color, and the fear of racial extinction.
These ideas about genocide and population replacement aren’t new, nor do they constitute a conspiracy theory responding only to growing populations of Muslim immigrants. White power activists share views with other conservatives on many social issues, but they understand these issues as deeply related to racial extinction. They have written about this in precisely this way for decades. They opposed interracial marriage, abortion, and gay and lesbian movements, they said, because these would decrease the white birth rate; they opposed immigration because they feared they would be overrun. They framed these issues with ideas about the purity of white women—who, they said, would have to bear three children each in order to avoid racial extinction—and with hateful invective about hyperfertile racial others.
Many have understood the events in Christchurch as anti-immigrant and Islamophobic, and to be sure, the attack was motivated by those ideologies. But by locating this event in the broader white power movement, we can see it as part of a wave of violence that includes attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue and the would-be attack by a Coast Guard officer on members of Congress and other political enemies.
In other words, if we break these stories apart, we have a series of isolated incidents— one anti-Semitic, one anti-immigrant, and one attempt at political violence. Naming them as part of the white power movement reveals a wave of mass attacks: three in the last six months, even if one was not successful. A longer list of such attacks would include those carried out recently in Norway, Quebec, and Charleston, and would stretch back to the Oklahoma City bombing.
As a historian of the earlier white power movement, I often wish for the kind of sources that would allow us to see the violent underground that motivates and connects these activists. They are hardly ever available in real time. Indeed, in the earlier period, the underground is visible only through 1996, when government response to the Oklahoma City bombing pushed such action further underground.
But the archive makes inescapably clear that in that earlier period, white power activists paired public-facing events like marches and rallies with violent underground machinations and cell-style terror that delivered a wave of attacks and bombings around the United States and the spectacularly destructive 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. That attack killed 168 people, the largest deliberate mass casualty event on the U.S. mainland between Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001—and yet we still have a popular understanding of that event as the work of one or a few actors. It wasn’t. It represented the result of years of organizing, shaped by a social movement and carried out by people with deep ties—both social and ideological—to that movement.
The white power movement was profoundly transnational, motivated by ideas that have long roots in the United States and elsewhere but not bounded by nation. As with many transnational movements, white power was both shaped by inflows from other places—like skinhead culture from Great Britain—and exported a specific white power ideology, shaped by U.S. paramilitarism, abroad. Groups like Aryan Nations sent their materials around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, and activists in Australia and New Zealand could read white power newspapers from the United States and send for materials. White power groups like Wotansvolk and the World Church of the Creator even set up chapters and memberships in other countries. Wotansvolk had representation in forty-one countries by 2000, and World Church of the Creator had chapters in a multitude of places including New Zealand, Canada, Norway, and South Africa. The language and strategy of white power also spread through books like The Turner Diaries, a novel-turned-manual-turned-lodestar that appeared in places like Apartheid South Africa and sold more than 500,000 copies in the few decades after it was released. The places white power activists chose to pollinate map onto an idea of whiteness that transcends national boundaries.
This transnationalism is part of why I argue for calling this “white power” rather than white nationalism. The nation in white nationalism is not the United States or New Zealand, but rather the Aryan nation.
The end goal of this movement is also profoundly radical, and not just an overzealous patriotism that many people think of when they hear the word “nationalism.” Indeed, the mass casualties wrought by this movement are not, in themselves, the movement’s goal. They are means to an end, a way to awaken a broader white public to what white power activists see as obvious: the threats posed to the white race by immigration and racial others. The violence is meant to mobilize white people around the world to wage race war.
The Christchurch manifesto talks about just this strategy. In a section about the use of guns, the attacker writes about how he hopes to spur a seizure of guns that would then enrage the right in the United States and provoke further conflict. This strategy is directly out of The Turner Diaries.
Understanding these acts of violence as politically motivated, connected, and purposeful would fundamentally change the way we understand, speak, and write about such attacks—a crucial first step toward a different response.
Kathleen Belew is the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America and is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago.