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Review of Wolfgang Behringer, "Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History" (2004). This version published in Adam Jones, "The Scourge of Genocide: Essays and Reflections" (Routledge 2012). Originally published in Journal of Genocide Research, 8: 4 (2006).
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Wolfgang Behringer , Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History . Cambridge : Polity ,
2004 .
For most Western readers and scholars, the phenomenon of “witch-hunts” brings
instantly to mind the persecutions that ravaged Western, Central, and Northern
Europe during the early modern period, with offshoots in the American colonies.
The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of scholarly interest in the
European and North American hunts, and the rich literature that has resulted has
done much to challenge and undermine earlier (often sensationalist) framings.
We now know that, despite radical-feminist claims in the 1970s that the victims
of the “gynocide” totaled in the millions, in fact the death-toll in Europe over
three centuries was in the tens of thousands. And while a misogynist dimension
was prominent, it was not always predominant. Males accounted for some
25 percent of total victims, and in some countries and regions (Iceland, Estonia,
Normandy) they formed a majority. Likewise, it was far from generally the case
that the poor and marginalized, whether female or male, were uniquely vulnera-
ble to accusations of witchcraft. “In the course of large-scale witch-hunts the
social profi le of the victims changed decisively,” writes Wolfgang Behringer in
Witches and Witch-Hunts , shifting from “old and impoverished widows from
rural milieus” to “wealthy urban housewives and their husbands.” In many cases
in Germany, the heart of the witchcraft persecutions, “the richest citizens, clergy,
noblemen and members of the government” were swept up in the slaughter,
indeed the entire “male ruling elite.”
What we have not had, to this point, is a clear sense of how these witch-hunts
of the early modern period fi t into the broader spectrum of world history, begin-
ning in ancient times and continuing to the present. Providing such a synoptic
overview is the task that Behringer, a professor at Saarland University in
Germany, has set himself in this volume. His book is an eye-opening accomplish-
ment that should intrigue all scholars and students of genocide.
The author challenges our expectations from the outset. He begins not with the
Europe of centuries ago, but with an anecdote from late-apartheid South Africa;
and he points out that “more people have been killed for suspected witchcraft in
the second half of the twentieth century than in most other periods in the history
15 Witch-hunts and genocide 1
240 Practice
of mankind, as far as we can judge from the existing sources.” He then casts his
eye over millennia of human history, drawing support from Africa, Asia and the
Americas for the notion “that not only the belief in witchcraft, but also the prac-
tice of witch-hunting [is] a universal phenomenon.”
Two lengthy chapters examine “The European Age of Witch-hunting” and the
process of “Outlawing Witchcraft Persecution in Europe.” Both could serve as
solid overview readings for specialized courses and seminars, though the general
reader may feel fatigued by the intricate details Behringer provides of the decades
of European hunts, which blend into centuries. The overlapping levels of political
authority at this early stage of European state formation also, and inevitably,
spawn some confusion.
How to explain a tendency to witch-hunting? Behringer supplies an eclectic set
of variables in his analysis of the European hunts. They include ideological,
anthropological, and epistemological factors, such as high levels of religiosity and
an abiding belief in innate human evil. The “lack of any concept of coincidence”
in many societies, both ancient and modern, spawned a search for scapegoats.
Figure 15.1 Anonymous engraving of the burning at the stake of Anne Hendrick, con-
demned for witchcraft, in Amsterdam in 1571.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Witch-hunts and genocide 241
Depictions of females, in particular, as “associated with changeability and disor-
der…uncontrolled forces and danger,” and as uniquely susceptible “to the tempta-
tions of the devil,” featured in many societies, especially Western European ones.
In other settings, though – such as many African societies of past and present –
“witches are expected to be male.” This assumption is “closely related to the
cultural affi liation of witchcraft and violence, and witchcraft and wealth.”
Environmental, demographic, and sociopolitical factors also weighed in the
equation. Bursts of witch-hunting in early modern Europe correlated strikingly
with adverse climatic shifts, and the privation, disease and mass desperation
caused by crop failures. The pattern remains prominent today, notably in Africa.
Overpopulation taxes available resources, and fuels confl icts in which accusations
of witchcraft can more easily be leveled. Rapid political upheavals, especially the
collapse of traditional ruling structures and the rise of modern or postcolonial
formations, play a central role. The rise of new loci of economic wealth “caus[es]
new confl icts of values and giv[es] rise to new jealousies or new envies.”
The process of witch-hunting often transforms local and limited persecutions
into broad, open-ended reigns of terror. The use of torture in the European hunts
led “to chain-reactions, resulting in massive witch-hunts.” The printing press
allowed for the mass production and dissemination of such notorious and
immensely popular witch-baiting tracts as the Malleus Malefi carum (Witches’
Hammer) of the late fi fteenth century. However, modernity also produced a
strong counterweight to the hunts. The same printing press was used to dissemi-
nate skeptical and satirical works deriding the excessive zeal of the witch-hunters.
And it was “the disenchantment of the world” – the gradual erosion of supersti-
tious sensibilities by rationalist strains, associated with the Enlightenment and
more loosely with the Protestant Reformation – that prompted Europeans increas-
ingly to view witchcraft as mythical, and witch-hunts as an embarrassing anach-
ronism. This was a protracted and painful process, however. “Even in the second
half of the eighteenth century there were still a surprising number of death penal-
ties for witchcraft to be found in Europe,” and Witchcraft Acts remained in force
in many European jurisdictions until the early nineteenth century.
For the general reader, probably the most fascinating chapter of Witches
and Witch-Hunts is the one addressing “Witch-hunting in the Nineteenth and
Twentieth Centuries.” Behringer analyzes the impact of Western colonialism on
witchcraft beliefs and persecutions in Africa and Asia; legislation aimed at
suppressing witch-hunts “was misunderstood by many natives as a law that
protected the witches,” and killings of “witches” continued apace. Indeed, some
colonial policies exacerbated witch hysteria, such as the vast destruction of native
populations and the confi nement of survivors to grim reservations. We see again
the function of witch-hunting “as a ‘social strain-gauge’” (citing Max Marwick),
much as in Western Europe. The overriding impression left by this vivid,
cogently written chapter is that witchcraft and witch-hunting in the colonized
world displayed most of the same features and dynamics as their Western coun-
terpart. The myriad examples that Behringer cites from contemporary Africa
suggest that while the specifi c contexts of stress and social breakdown may
242 Practice
change – as seen with the rise of “new diseases, like AIDS” – the results, such as
popular agitation for the persecution of witches and evildoers, remain depress-
ingly familiar. Additional though somewhat cursory examinations of South Asia
and Latin America bolster this portrait. Behringer concludes the book with an
evaluation of “Old and ‘New Witches,’” exploring how New Agers have sought
to validate witchcraft traditions through wiccan practices, while radical feminists
have often made the European witch-hunts central to their “dark dreams of
women’s suffering and omnipotence.”
What place do witches and witch-hunts hold in comparative genocide studies?
First, one can inquire whether campaigns against accused witches, undertaken as
a form of state terror or of grassroots vigilantism, can be considered genocidal in
themselves. The question arises most sharply in the case of the European hunts.
Should a total death-toll of 50,000 to 80,000 over several centuries legitimately
be termed “genocide” – or perhaps “gendercide,” given that approximately three-
quarters of the victims were female? Behringer is skeptical of such arguments,
writing that “clearly the witch persecutions cannot be equated with genocides
of the twentieth century, systematically organized and enforced by modern state
administrations and political parties.” In my view, though, a coherent case can be
made for extending the genocide or gendercide label to the most severe, system-
atic and enduring witch-hunts.
We should also consider the metaphorical dimension of the “witch-hunt,”
which has become common currency in analyses of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the
McCarthy era in the United States, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
3 Two points
can be made. The fi rst is that “witch-hunts” such as these, which are normally
viewed as political in essence, may contain both overtones of supernatural evil,
and an association of gender identities – usually and perhaps counterintuitively
masculine identities – with that evil. Consider the thoughts on “some of the most
virulent of the twentieth-century ‘witch-hunts,’” notably Stalin’s purges, supplied
in Deborah Willis’s cogent study of the English hunts, Malevolent Nurture .
Willis writes that in such cases, “violence…[was] directed against symbolic
‘fathers’ or other fi gures of authority.…Rather than the female witch…it was the
male possessed by evil spirits who anticipated the typical target of persecutory
violence – the ‘evil spirits’ of foreign, class-alien, or counterrevolutionary
ideas.” 4
Another important aspect of “witch-hunts” is the fact that designated targets
generally do not, in fact, claim or subjectively possess the identity that is imputed
to them; and only a very limited number of victims can be said “objectively” to
play the roles assigned to them by the witch-hunters. In early modern Europe,
there were certainly women and men who dabbled in the supernatural, but they
were probably a small minority of those accused as witches. Likewise, of those
designated “enemies of the people” under Stalin or Pol Pot, only a tiny proportion
can be said, in retrospect, to have been working to subvert the regime. In such
instances, the victims’ identity is imposed by the perpetrator – a point that has
now found expression in the international case-law of genocide, with the delib-
erations of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The ICTR ruled that
Witch-hunts and genocide 243
“Tutsis,” whose supposed characteristics often confounded traditional defi nitions
and distinctions of ethnicity, should be viewed simply as those designated as such
by their killers.
Finally, witch-hunts of past and present serve as a cautionary reminder
that persecution and large-scale killing are far from exclusively state-initiated
phenomena – though a high degree of state sanction does regularly feature. The
extensive research on the European hunts has painted a memorable portrait of
societies under enormous and diverse stresses, and experiencing rapid, disorient-
ing, and often terrifying change. Its methodological approach is also heavily
micro-sociological (particularly village-level), though macro-sociological explo-
rations of the roles played by dominant classes and ruling elites are also common.
Analyses of witch-hunts today, with their focus in the developing world, have
become mostly the province of anthropologists, on whose contributions Behringer
expertly draws. Research on both ancient and contemporary cases demonstrates,
in his summary, that “witchcraft persecutions were initially demanded by the
populace, and often carried out against the wish of the authorities.” His careful
and nuanced volume attests to the erstwhile human tendency, still tragically
prominent, to succumb to paranoid fantasies about one’s neighbors, colleagues
and constituents: to accuse them of being in league with dark forces; to work to
isolate, hound and even expunge them from the body politic. Works like Jan
Gross’s Neighbors and Benjamin Lieberman’s Terrible Fate have begun to offer
similarly micro-sociological accounts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
5 Perhaps
this may augur a relaxation and diversifi cation of the heavily state-centric character
of genocide research so far.
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