/ theol / cover / bulletin / xtexte / bulletin09-11.html

COV&R Logo

Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 9 (Oct. 1995)

Girard, Bloody Sacrifices, and the End of the Cold War: Recent References to Girard's Mimetic Theory in the Cultural and Political Debate in Germany

Although Raymund Schwager has discussed and applied the mimetic theory in his theological work since the beginning of the 70s, René Girard's theory is still not very well known in Germany. This may change in the near future. The discussion of Girard's work has entered the cultural and political debate in Germany. Botho Strauß, a well-known German author and essayist, published a highly controversial essay with the title "Anschwellender Bocksgesang" in the weekly magazine Der Spiegel in February 1993. In this essay Strauß challenges several dogmas of the intellectual left in Germany and deals among other things with the problem of xenophobia. He claims, for instance, that racism and hostility to foreigners were originally sacred passions of cultures to create order. In this part of his essay he refers explicitly to Girard's book Violence and the Sacred to explain the archaic roots of xenophobia. Strauß' essay led to a very controversial intellectual debate. Many participants in this debate accused Strauß of having intellectually legitimized recent acts of hostility against foreigners in Germany. Others defended Strauß' attempt to search for the deeper roots of xenophobia. Eckhard Nordhofen (Die Zeit Nr. 15 [April 9, 1993]), for instance, called Strauß a representative of the Enlightenment after the end of the Enlightenment. According to Nordhofen, Strauß tried to explain the connection between the scapegoat mechanism, ritual sacrifice and those mechanisms that lead to the creation of a community. Nordhofen claims that such an enlightening explanation should not be mixed up with political proposals of the extreme right to expel foreigners and emphasizes that Strauß' reference to Girard clearly shows that his thinking is rooted in the Enlightenment.

In their recent book Endzeit-Propheten oder Die Offensive der Antiwestler: Fundamentalismus, Antiamerikanismus und Neue Rechte (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1995) Richard Herzinger and Hannes Stein reflect in detail on Strauß' remarks about sacrifice and his reference to Girard. The main aim of their book is the defense of the liberal and open society of the West against its enemies, like anti-American intellectuals, fundamentalists and the European New Right. One chapter of the book ("Sündenböcke und Bocksgesänge: Die Sehnsucht nach dem Blutopfer"; pp. 190-200) deals explicitly with Strauß' essay. According to Herzinger and Stein, Strauß' remarks about the function of archaic sacrifices show that he is actually longing for sacred violence. Strauß is associated with the sacrificial thinking of Ernst Jünger and with antisemitism. They criticize Girard's theory in the same fashion. The two authors, however, have not studied the mimetic theory very carefully. According to them, Girard legitimizes bloody and violent sacrifices because he proposes sacred killing as the only alternative to civil war. Girard's actual proposal of reconciliation to overcome mimetic violence, which is in line with the core of the Judeo-Christian revelation, is completely overlooked in this book. The conclusion of Herzinger and Stein's chapter on Strauß sounds rather naive: "Like Girard, Strauß forces us to accept the gloomy alternative: human sacrifices or civil war. He forgets that there is something else beside community: society. It is not held together by stoning scapegoats but by contracts." (p. 200)

In view of the fact that civil wars around the world and violence in the big cities have increased after the end of the cold war, it is really naive to believe that contracts are sufficient to sustain our societies. One does not have to be a member of the extreme right or favor bloody sacrifices to reject such naivety. Antje Vollmer, Vice-president of the German Bundestag and member of the Green Party in Germany, claims in her recent book, Heißer Frieden: Über Gewalt, Macht und das Geheimnis der Zivilisation (Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1995), that the hopes of humanism and the Enlightenment--according to which social order could be built on the social contract, the separation of powers and the state's monopoly on violent means--have come to an end. These hopes belong to the second period of European culture that started with political absolutism and ended with the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. According to Vollmer, the mythic-religious period that started after the fall of the Roman empire preceded this period and lasted until the religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries. Vollmer calls the current situation in Europe "hot peace," which means that civil wars and the beginning of new disorder have followed the end of the cold war. To overcome all the current threats she proposes a third period of civilization and regrets that no social group has yet been found to build the core of this third period.

Vollmer's book is part of the new German interest in Girard's theory. She not only gives a short introduction into Girard's mimetic theory in one chapter (pp. 109-115), but uses the mimetic theory throughout her book to explain the way in which the different cultural periods tried to control violence. Following Girard, she explains, for instance, the importance of traditional religions to overcome internal violence in human societies. The central thesis of her book is closely connected to the mimetic theory, too. According to Vollmer, the taming of violence is the core of human civilization. When both the traditional religious means and the modern idea of the state have lost their power to control violence, however, world wars or civil wars are very likely to emerge. In Vollmer's view, Europe went exactly through such a crisis in the first half of this century. The cold war with its nuclear deterrence created again stability and peace for a certain period. Violence was contained anew. Now, after the cold war, violence and civil wars have re-emerged in Europe. According to Vollmer, it is necessary to form a new type of civilization to overcome these news threats. This third period of civilization should be respectful toward all former human cultures that tried to control violence without, however, forgetting the reasons that led to the downfall of these cultures. Vollmer expresses the vague hope that artists, musicians, and poets could form the core of this new civilization and could help to overcome the hot peace of today just as they fought the Vietnam-war in the fields of Woodstock. Vollmer's vague hope does not sound very convincing. Besides that, it should be mentioned that Vollmer, who is also a theologian, sees no future for a religious answer to our current problems. Whether or not one agrees with her in that respect, her opinion on the future role of religion shows that many European intellectuals do no longer regard churches as important institutions to overcome our current crisis. Facts like this should lead European churches to think about their role in society.

Beside her general thesis, Vollmer's book deals with a great variety of different issues, which are related to questions about power, violence, and civilization. In her book we can find chapters on the relationship between the church and the state, on the possibility of a pacifist foreign policy, on the question how the state should deal with terrorists and on the role of sport, music, and the media in our modern societies. Regarding her interest in theories beside Girard's mimetic theory, she reflects on Hannah Arendt's distinction between power and violence (pp. 103-108) and on Mahatma Gandhi's belief in the power of nonviolence (pp. 116-122). On this theoretical level, however, Vollmer's book has some weaknesses. She does not confront these different theoretical approaches with each other, but discusses and applies them side by side. In her book On Revolution Arendt, for instance, rejects all political theories that maintain a violent origin of political power in order to support her distinction between power and violence, whereas mimetic theory claims the violent origin of all culture. These two theoretical approaches are to a certain degree incompatible. A reading of Arendt's theory from the perspective of the mimetic theory would uncover Arendt's blindness to structural violence. In her book On Violence Arendt's insight that "the extreme form of power is All against One" clearly shows that her notion of power is not fully detached from violence but bears traces of its root in the scapegoat mechanism. Unfortunately Vollmer's book excludes such questions and remains quite superficial in regard to systematical and theoretical problems.

Concerning the current cultural and political debate in Germany, however, it is definitely an important book that provides many new and provocative insights on current political questions. Her rather critical view of equality alone is a provocation to the intellectual left in Germany. For a serious discussion of mimetic theory in Germany it is an important book, because it will introduce many people to the work of Girard who may not know Schwager's theological application of mimetic theory or have only heard about Girard in books like that of Herzinger and Stein.

Wolfgang Palaver