The Scapegoat Mechanism

Human societies are founded upon myths of sacrifice

Wynand de Beer
22 June 1998 E-Mail this page to a friend

Wynand de Beer asks interesting questions regarding the scapegoat phenomena. As a South African I find his questions specifically relevant as the country used to be the scapegoat internationally and now the whites are the scapegoats internally.

This piece was written in 1998.

5 June 2003

human societies are founded upon myths of sacrifice...
What is the foundation of human societies? Over the past few centuries various explanations have been offered as answers to this important question, and these explanations have fuelled extremely diverse ideologies. Let us consider the following examples. According to Rousseau, the darling of liberalism, society is based on an implicit social contract between rulers and ruled. According to Marx, the prophet of communism, most societies are based on capitalist ownership of means of production and exploitation of labour, to which class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat will put an end. According to Mussolini, the implementer of fascism, a healthy society is based on a corporative state in which capital and labour co-operate in the communal interest. These divergent views possibly all contain elements of truth, since no sociopolitical phenomenon can be reduced to a single explanation. Reality is far too complex to admit of a reductionist explanation.

A radically different approach is to be found in the works of French theologian René Girard, who argued that human societies are founded upon myths of sacrifice. These contain a (usually concealed) scapegoat mechanism that provides the community with a sense of collective identity. However, it takes place at the destruction of an innocent outsider. Girard analysed the medieval persecution of the Jews in Christian Europe as well as numerous myths from different parts of the world, especially Greece and Scandinavia, to illustrate his theory. He identified certain 'stereotypes of persecution' that may be found in all of them.

the scapegoat mechanism provides the community with a sense of collective identity

The first stereotype of persecution is the prevalence of socio-cultural chaos, whether caused externally by means of drought, floods or pestilence, or internally through religious or political upheaval. The second stereotype is an alleged crime believed to be the cause of the crisis by undermining social differentiation (for example, incest and parricide). The third stereotype is the identification of a culprit who bears the signs of a victim. These signs may be physical (for example, a hooked nose) or social (for example, being an outsider or being at an extreme of the social ladder). The final stereotype is collective violence against the victim. This violence may take the form of murder or exile and is often assigned a sacred character thereafter, since it served to restore social harmony and order. The victim thereby became a scapegoat who is in certain cases worshipped for his or her sacrifice on behalf of the community.

In order to demonstrate the validity of his theory, Girard discussed the historical case of Marie Antoinette, queen of France until the 1789 revolution. She conformed to all the stereotypes of persecution, and may therefore be regarded as a scapegoat. Firstly, the violence against her took place in a period of extreme sociopolitical chaos, namely the destruction of the centuries-old French monarchy and its replacement with the revolutionary tyranny of Robespierre and his cohorts. Secondly, she was accused of having committed incest with her son, a crime that undermines social differentiation. Thirdly, she had several signs of a victim: she was an Austrian, the daughter of ex- Empress Maria Theresa, and therefore an outsider. Furthermore, she was a queen, and thus at one extreme of the social ladder. Finally, she became the victim of collective violence - she was decapitated with her husband, King Louis XVI.

The victim thereby became a scapegoat who is in certain cases worshipped for his or her sacrifice on behalf of the community
Girard furthermore discussed the mythical case of Oedipus, perhaps the best-known of Greek myths. According to Sophocles, Oedipus became a scapegoat at a time of extreme social upheaval - his city, Thebes, was suffering under a severe drought as well as a pestilence. Secondly, he was guilty of crimes that were alleged by the oracle to have been the cause of the drought: Oedipus had (unwittingly) killed his father and committed incest with his mother. Thirdly, he bore numerous signs of a victim. As a baby he had been abandoned by his parents after they were warned by the oracle that their son would one day kill his father and commit incest with his mother. He had a physical deformity, the result of his feet having been nailed with an iron-pin on the instruction of his father. He was an outsider, having been raised in Corinth by the king of that city, although strictly speaking he was a native of Thebes. Finally, he was self-exiled from his city after having blinded himself due to his unspeakable shame and guilt upon learning of his crimes, even though it was done unwittingly. Oedipus was thus both a victim of a terrible fate decreed at his birth and the victim of collective violence, or a scapegoat.

So far, so good. Examples from both history and mythology appear to confirm Girard's theory of the scapegoat. Furthermore, according to Girard, the presence of two or more stereotypes of persecution in a text indicates an historical foundation for the events described therein. Such myths as those of Oedipus and the Germanic account of the murder of Baldur by Loki therefore refer to real events, although clad in mythological language. But what about more recent history, or has humankind at last learnt to free itself from the savage mechanism described above? Has there really been that much 'progress', or are most humans in fact still savages with a thin veneer of 'civilisation' to camouflage the reality?

a sober and unbiased analysis of modern history serves to confirm that the scapegoat mechanism is still with us....
Alas, a sober and unbiased analysis of modern history serves to confirm that the scapegoat mechanism is still with us, although operating in more subtle ways. Let us firstly consider the case of the most destructive war in human history. The guilt for the terrible events referred to as World War Two is conventionally ascribed to Germany, as was the case after World War One, and to a lesser extent to Japan. After all, it was Germany who invaded Poland, France, Russia and other countries, thereby unleashing the war in Europe and the Atlantic. And it was Japan who attacked Pearl Harbour, Burma, the Philippines and other countries, thereby precipitating the war in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Or so the official line goes. But what is the reality?

The reality is that World War Two was the result of several factors - political, economic, cultural and ideological. Considering the political and economic factors, the following becomes clear. Firstly, Hitler wanted Germany to expand towards the East, but not towards the West (that is, France and Britain). Secondly, Stalin was planning to invade Germany and the rest of Europe as soon as his military buildup was complete, but Hitler pre-empted him. Thirdly, France and even more so Britain was anxious and envious of Hitler's rebuilding of Germany into a world power, less than twenty years after its surrender to them at the end of the previous war. Fourthly, Japan was striving to control the Pacific in order to safeguard its empire-building in East Asia against American intervention. Fifthly, America was anxious to contain both German and Japanese expansion as a necessary condition for its own striving towards world control, a striving that was at last realised in the 1990's upon the collapse of the Soviet empire. And finally, the internationalist financiers with their headquarters in New York and London had to destroy Germany before its monetary and trade reforms could spread to other major powers and thereby weaken their own power base.

A careful analysis of the facts will reveal that Germany especially conformed to all the stereotypes of persecution
Enough of the the political and economic causes of World War Two. Culturally, it was a war between Europe (represented by Germany and Italy) and Asia (represented by Soviet Russia), between Europe and the Middle East (represented by Judeo-Christian America, Britain and France), and between the Middle East and the Far East (represented by imperialist Japan). Ideologically, it was a war between liberalism and communism on the one side, and national socialism and fascism on the other side.

Why then was Germany to receive the sole blame for the War in the Western hemisphere and Japan for that in the East? Did not Russia also invade Poland (two weeks after the German invasion, in accordance with their secret agreement), Finland and the Baltic countries? And did not Britain invade Norway and occupy Greece, only to be driven out from both countries by the Germans? Why blame only Germany and Japan and execute their leaders after the war, and not also those of Russia and Britain? A careful analysis of the facts will reveal that Germany especially conformed to all the stereotypes of persecution.

One 'crime' was the eradication of communism in the Third Reich
Firstly, most of the world was in a state of extreme socio-cultural instability during the 1930's, largely due to the severe economic depression which commenced in 1929 in the United States. It is worth noting that while most of Europe had largely recovered from the Great Depression by the late 1930's, it lasted until 1941 in the USA, to be overcome only through entering the war.

Secondly, Germany had committed several crimes in the eyes of especially the Anglo-American world. To begin with, comprehensive steps were taken to preserve the cultural homogeneity of the German nation, resulting in oppression and eventual genocide of its Jewish minority. Furthermore, Germany embarked on fundamental monetary and trade reforms, aimed at creating a self-sufficient economy. This was achieved by inter alia a system of barter with other countries, especially in the Balkans and South America, instead of being dependent on international financing. Needless to say, the megabankers in Britain and the USA perceived this as a potentially fatal threat to themselves.

This 'crime' gave Soviet soldiers the 'right' to launch a massive campaign of pillage, rape and murder in the Eastern parts of Germany
Another 'crime' was the attempted return of the German nation to its pre-Christian beliefs and values, strongly encouraged by the official ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, among others. This drastic reversal was naturally anathema to the Christian churches, although the majority of Germans remained members of either the Lutheran or Roman Catholic churches throughout the Nazi era. It would nevertheless be correct to describe Nazi Germany as a neo-pagan phenomenon, which was in principle irreconcilable with Christianity.

In communist eyes, a further 'crime' was the eradication of communism in the Third Reich by the secret police, the Gestapo. This occurred only after an extremely bloody struggle between the adherents of the two competing ideologies in Germany during the 1920's and early 1930's, a struggle that was finally won by Hitler's followers. This 'crime' gave Soviet soldiers the 'right' to launch a massive campaign of pillage, rape and murder in the Eastern parts of Germany during the final, terrible months of the war and afterwards.

Thirdly, Germany bore several signs of a victim. Together with Italy and Japan it was an outsider in the international community, all three having withdrawn or been expelled from the League of Nations during the 1930's. They were thus in the same outcast category as countries like Cuba, Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea in the American global empire of the present day. This stigma of the outsider opens the door to all sorts of victimization by the dominant power(s) of the day, who can then treat such a country with impunity, not having to concern itself with international repercussions.

Virtually all the German cities were systematically burnt and pulverised by Allied bombers
A further sign of a victim was the stigmatization of Nazi Germany as immoral and anti-Christian by several theologians, including such influential ones as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, and church leaders of that era. This accusation opened the door to the German people being treated in the same violent way as 'heretics' were treated in the past - especially torturing and burning. Thus Germany became the victim of collective violence. Virtually all the German cities were systematically burnt and pulverised by Allied bombers during the war, and the civilian population in the East raped and ravaged by the conquering Soviet armies. For the sake of balance it should be pointed out that the German bombing attacks on London and Coventry in 1940 took the lives of respectively 13 000 and 400 people, while in a single German city, the cultural gem of Dresden, around 200 000 civilians lost their lives in the Anglo-American firebombing of February 1945. Furthermore, several million German civilians died after the war when they were expelled from their ancestral lands in Eastern and Central Europe, and more millions died of starvation due to the destructive effects of the Morgenthau Plan. And since the end of the war, Germany has been paying billions of marks to the state of Israel and to individual Jews worldwide, as compensation for the Holocaust. Indeed, the 'heretics' had to be severely punished, in order to set a fearful example to future would-be rebels against Judeo-Anglo-American domination.

Did the scapegoat mechanism come to an end in 1945 with the Allied victory over Germany and Japan, thereby creating the 'free' and 'democratic' world they purported to have fought for? Alas, such was not to be the case. No sooner had 'peace' returned to the world, than another scapegoat was identified - one which would for the next four decades become the victim of a relentless international campaign of hatred, lies and violence.

All that has happened in the meantime is that the scapegoat mechanism had become more refined
That unfortunate country was South Africa. Once again the stereotypes of persecution were present, thereby demonstrating that humankind had apparently not progressed much, ethically speaking, since the so-called Dark Ages. All that has happened in the meantime is that the scapegoat mechanism had become more refined, relying increasingly on moral and legal 'justification' for its persecution of the victim.

In the case of South Africa the first stereotype could be found in the political instability and ideological conflict that characterised much of the world since the end of the Second World War. It was the time of the so-called Cold War between Anglo-American imperialism on the one side and Russian-Chinese communism on the other side, erupting into real war in Korea and Vietnam. It was also a period that saw the emergence of the so-called Third World, with the Afro-Asiatic bloc using their numerical strength to dominate decision-making at the United Nations. Interestingly enough, both the 'Cold War' and white-ruled South Africa came to an end at virtually the same time - the early 1990's.

As in the case of Germany earlier in the century, South Africa was accused of certain crimes by the international community, instigated mainly by the Anglo-American establishment and their media due to their virulent hatred of especially the Afrikaner/Boer people. What could have been the cause of this hatred, that gave rise to their anti-Boer campaigns which a hundred years ago already prompted no less than General Jan Smuts to refer to het eeu van onrecht - 'a century of injustice'?

The Anglo-American boerehaat (Boer hatred) of the 20th century can be ascribed to embarrassment and even shame...
The cause of the Anglo-American boerehaat (Boer hatred) of the twentieth century can be ascribed to embarrassment and even shame. This was prompted by events at the turn of the century, when a small, largely agrarian nation gave the British imperialists their hardest fought and costliest war between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the outbreak of the First World War. For this, and the fact that the Boer cause was supported by most European nations (thereby demonstrating the unpopularity of the British on their neighbouring continent), the Boers and their political heirs, the Afrikaners, could not be forgiven. As in the case of Germany, they had to be punished.

During the second half of the twentieth century the Afrikaner nationalist government of South Africa instituted a racial policy based on sociopolitical separation of the four main ethnic groups in the country, and the separate development of each. At least, that was the official view, however unjust it may have been applied in practice. This policy became branded worldwide as apartheid, and it culminated in the creation of 'homelands' for each of the black peoples in South Africa. Ironically, the same policy but in name was accepted during the 1990's when the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia split up along ethnic divisions. In South Africa's case it was not deemed wise by the United Nations, who condemned this policy as a crime against humanity - the same crime for which the German leaders were executed after the last world war.

We are not interested here in defending or condemning that which was done in the name of 'separate development'. Our approach is metapolitical, which means that we strive to understand the principles at work behind sociopolitical phenomena. We are furthermore stating certain facts, however inconvenient they might be to certain people or organisations.

SA was accused of practising an immoral and anti-Christian sociopolitical system
The third stereotype of persecution, signs of a victim, could also be discerned in the case of South Africa. The country became an outsider in the international community already before the Afrikaner nationalist government took power in 1948. For fighting on the Allied side in the war, South Africa was 'rewarded' by being condemned in the newly-created United Nations for the alleged mistreatment of its Indian population. Later its continued rule over Southwest Africa became a constant source of international opposition and the further isolation of South Africa in the world. But the main cause of its isolation was the 'crime' of its racial policies.

As in the case of Nazi Germany, South Africa was accused of practising an immoral and anti-Christian sociopolitical system. This accusation was levelled by especially the English-speaking churches and their leaders, some of them going so far as supporting brutal acts of violence against representatives or supporters, real or imagined, of the regime. Clearly, such 'leaders' never took the Gospel of Christ seriously, or else they totally misunderstood the nonviolent nature thereof.

the gravest acts of violence can be cloaked in moralistic and self-justifying terms
For several decades, South Africa thus became the victim of collective violence at the hands of the international community. It commenced with arms embargoes and sports boycotts in the 1960's and escalated to comprehensive diplomatic, economic and cultural isolation by the 1980's. In the meantime certain organisations claiming to represent the non-white population, one of which was later to become the country's government, embarked on a guerilla war against both military and civilian targets, in which large numbers of South Africans of all population groups were maimed or killed. This violent campaign was supported by the international community in order to bring the hated white government to a fall. By the early 1990's it was Afrikaner leaders themselves who succumbed to international pressure and who handed the country over to their former enemies.

So what do we learn from all this? Firstly, that the scapegoat mechanism is alive and well in our 'progressive' and 'enlightened' era. Secondly, that it is tragic for a country to lose a war against the Anglo-American global rulers. Thirdly, that even the gravest acts of violence can be cloaked in moralistic and self-justifying terms. And finally, that it is futile in the long run to fight a losing battle.

But do we really learn at all?

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Bozhairybill_at_hotmail.comDe Beer's scapegoat essay
this is a virulent little tract plagued by misinformation and ideological suppositions that has no right to masquerade as onjectivity

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