On Institutionalised Killing

Gunnar Heinsohn teaches at the Raphael Lemkin Institute for Xenophobia and Genocide Studies at the University of Bremen. His research focuses on the Theory and History of Population Development, and the Theory of Civilisation.

You write in Die Erschaffung der Götter1 about the rise of a civilisation based on human sacrifice. When did it come about?
In the Bronze Age the life of man was shattered when huge meteorites crashed to earth. Compared with the dimensions of these all-embracing global crises and their profound effects, the grandiose exploits of military conquerors and the depradations of political leaders are as nothing. So the course of the Bronze Age was not a peaceful one. Catastrophes2 occurred at regular intervals. Climate research has revealed upheavals in nature at the beginning and end of the “age of sacrifice”. Changes in temperature and sea level have been established between the Early Stone Age and the Bronze Age, exactly at the critical point when sacrificial cults came into existence. A further radical climate change occurs when iron is just coming into use, so exactly on the threshold of the epoch in which radical movements towards blood sacrifice begin to appear.
The simultaneous development of high cultures all over the world was triggered by these far-reaching catastrophes. They provided the impetus for the emergence of high religions and holy archaic texts. The creators of these became the first individuals to take an elevated position in society as priests. Human sacrifices produced a new sense of community among the survivors after these disastrous cataclysms.

Did the sacrifices protect against further retaliatory attacks? What function did these sacrificial cults have?
People in the Bronze Age could react to the terrible events neither by attacking, nor fleeing, nor negotiating. Their boundless panic was thrown back at them in traumatic fashion and found expression in crippling paralysis or uncontrolled outbursts of aggression. In this situation it was the boldest who came up with rituals and thus became the first priests. They made entire communities re-enact calamitous experiences as a curative measure. Those who were redeemed of course paid with a sense of guilt for venting their pent-up rage on killing one or several victims in order to recover their spiritual equilibrium. The slaughter of the victim formed the finale and the cathartic climax of the sacrificial ceremony. With this bloody enactment men rid themselves of the in-turned rage that had previously plunged them into helpless rigidity, psychosomatic pain or bouts of aggression that endangered their fellows. Everything in heaven and on earth that had produced an overwhelming impression on them had to be re-enacted in their ceremonies to effect a cure.

How did they cope with the feelings of guilt?
The bodies of the victims were raised up in full astral costume, so that gestures of commiseration, prostration and reconciliation could take place. With this “adoration” humanity created heavenly gods for itself, and these had by now assumed animal, human, or composite shapes. In technical terms erecting them like this means that parts of the body, for example the head, or even the whole body were either hung up or attached by ropes and nails to poles or trees etc. to prevent them from sagging. These temporarily or permanently elevated bodies of animals or humans with their terrifying masks became the first statues of gods.

Are there surviving documents which describe these cults of blood sacrifice?
The texts and pictorial representations that have come down from ancient peoples contain extensive reports of elaborately decorated performers who represent the destructive astral bodies and confront one another in blood sacrifice. The pictures of gods—they tell us—themselves arose out of the sacrifices. Floods and worlds on fire were represented in the sacrifices by humans and animals. The sacrificial victims themselves were stabbed, beheaded, and dismembered or castrated in order to make them resemble the exploding comet. The rain of ash and rubble from meteorites was simulated by ritually rubbing in ash and casting stones and grain. Even the untold terror of the humans who escaped the sudden destruction found its way into the rituals. The participants uttered rehearsed howls of panic, and grown men took laxatives and defecated in their clothing, in order to be able to re-enact the terror which had befallen the survivors at the spiritual collapse of even the greatest heroes.

How did tragedy arise; did it also originate in human sacrifice rituals?
In the Greek Pharmakos-rituals, a man—Pharmakos by name—is killed in order heal communities ravaged by catastrophes, epidemics or failed harvests. This spiritual healing coincides directly with the discovery of religious salvation. This survives to this day in words like pharmaceutica—healing drug. Later Pharmakos is replaced by a goat—in Greek tragos. In Egypt male gazelles replace the human and play Seth or Apophis, the “evil” astral body that must be ritually killed. The ritual of the “Pharmakos-ody” has now become the “tragos-ody”. So tragedy begins as a fixed sequence of utterances, sounds and movements alongside the slaughter of the sacrificial goat. The play arises in this way out of the survivor’s compulsion to re-enact precisely the behaviour of the afflicted human, and the destructive cosmic powers. They act exactly like children, whose acting equally isn’t fortuitous; both have to play out something that has made an excessive impression on them. Only by so doing can they escape the pressure and retain the necessary, or possibly the pure information.

Can the wars, or the great genocides of this century be understood as collective salvation rituals, as “sacrificial deaths”? This idea occurred to me in relation to events in 1999 in Borneo, Indonesia. The native tribes of head-hunters, the Dayaks, took their revenge by slaughtering the immigrant Madurese. Can we regard dismemberment and beheading as a re-enactment designed to bring salvation from traumatic oppression, in the same way as the civilisation of sacrifice in the Bronze Age was a means of coping psychologically with natural catastrophes?
You’re seducing me into speculation. Human sacrifice, for example in the case of the Maya in Central America, was a very special event. The sacrifice was performed perhaps once a year, so that the sun “would not be consumed” and nothing would go wrong in the heavens. Immediately after the sacrifice a star was named after the victim. This symbolised and at the same time commemorated him. I am not sure whether the Maya were particularly fierce warriors. Even in the preparations for war, sacrifice was part of the war. The participants were very clear about the difference between sacrificial killing and killing the enemy, even if an enemy prisoner was used as the sacrifice. The difference is clear, which is why I am always hesitant to compare the war with the victim.
Perhaps the warrior who actively seeks a hero’s death is most closely comparable to the ball player, who only has the chance to be ceremonially sacrificed and then elevated to a star which takes his name, if he is the victor. I see a parallel to the sacrificial victim not so much in the slaughtered foe as in the valiant soldier who risks his life and thus earns veneration. The daring hero is closest in meaning to the elevated sacrifice, remembered with pride by his own people.

What connection is there between the themes that you examine in relation to the beginnings of human sacrifice in antiquity and the themes in genocide and genocide-research?
In Rolf Knieper’s 1974 book Theorie des Familienrechts3 there was a footnote on the adoption by the Roman Empire in the year 318 of the Jewish ban on infanticide. Soon afterwards I was living in Israel and asked various specialists about the source of this ban, which gives Western ethics their deep structure. I nowhere ever received an acceptable explanation. They could tell me that my works on sacrifice, killing, genocide, the Jews and Auschwitz all began with this footnote. A good half of what I have since written is based on this question. I wanted to tug at this little Jewish corner and get a quick answer, but the more I pulled, the longer the fabric requiring explanation became. My thoughts in Erschaffung der Götter provide my own answer to the question of the source of this ban on infanticide. This taboo forms one of the three pillars with which the Jews set about eliminating infanticide.
I am constantly made aware of how little thought is given to death—even in the current terrorism discussion. You can’t understand a phenomenon if you exclude the ultimate access to it. Part of the reason is probably that we are no longer brought up to kill. European man until 1945 was brought up to kill as a soldier. This training at the same time ensured that they would be prepared to die. The principal means of doing this is by inculcating courage. When the time comes, you have to fight, it’s life or death: “you don’t run from enemy fire.” For my father that went without saying. He suffocated as a U-boat captain with his entire crew in 5000m of water off Newfoundland. In all the great historical epochs sons were trained to kill and to die, to be brave and courageous. We no longer belong to a society with that code of honour. However those who come to us, and kill stem from societies where it is still a matter of course to kill in the defence of honour. Even killing your own daughter without a thought, if she has put honour and therefore your whole family in jeopardy. Scarcely anything is more foreign to us today. Male honour, which is essential for bearing arms, was only able to disappear so fully, because we in Europe scarcely fight wars any more. In the last 55 year’s this field of action for male honour has almost disappeared. That too is a reason why the old concept of honour disintegrated. The simultaneous dismantling of the morality of virginity of course also played a part.

Would honour come back again as soon as it was necessary to go into battle?
We now have the problem of the so-called “youth bulge”. That’s a concept from demography. If you have a more than average number of persons between the ages of 15 and 25 in the population range, this peak is known as a “youth bulge”. The first world, including Russia, has 100 million sons under the age of 15. The rest of the world has 1000 million sons under 15. That is ten times as many. If you look at the explanations given by American strategic thinkers, they say with one voice, that the war on terror will continue for the next one and a half decades, because that’s the length of time it takes for today’s 15 year-olds to become 30 year-olds and leave the best time of life for fighters behind. This is the reason why America is reckoning with a long phase of very, very bloody conflicts.
To date these follow a standard pattern that was established, say in South America, between 1960 and 1990. At the time these countries were in their relevant “youth bulges”. The young men without prospects of satisfactory jobs split into two groups. The guerrillas fought for justice, the others fought on the side of the State for the law. And so they went about killing one another for ten, twenty, thirty years, until in the end the survivors betook themselves to a peace conference and shared the state gravy train among themselves. El Salvador is a classic example. In a country of 3.5 million inhabitants, 70,000 sons wiped each other out. Transferred to the Federal Republic of Germany that would mean far above one million—a really colossal amount of killing.
So in a normal case the sons start a civil war at home. Hardly anybody from outside gets involved. Nowadays the fear is that the many hundreds of millions of young, healthy men with no future prospects will not limit their activities to the homelands, but will engage in protracted international conflicts. Terrorism is thus founded not on particularly convincing ideas, but on a highly volatile surplus, which is prepared to take up any conceivable idea to justify itself. Young men without a career are in the majority at the moment in Islam and in black Africa. Those who are already fighting there, or are merely admiring their older brothers, are not active in the cause of any dangerous religion. Behind their activities lies the hard fact that a dying father leaves behind three sons. Even a wealthy society with a constantly growing economy could not accommodate so many sons. Perhaps one might offer an opening to one here or there, two even, but three is out of the question. It can’t be done. America is preparing for this share of the 1000 million young men—perhaps 300 million in number. Now they have special units, Navy Seals and Rangers and Marines, very highly trained soldiers, but these are relatively small groups, and they are precious, not only because their training was very expensive, but also because for every single man who dies, an American family loses its only son. One-son countries can’t really fight wars. With 30 million young men under 15 the Americans are outnumbered 10 to 1. Military pacification exercises will certainly be required of them regularly, and they may even want them. But how long do we send our only son to stop ten others out there from fighting?

So the war against terror can’t defuse any of the dangers?
No lasting peace can be made. What we are seeing is the dramatic decline of America’s power. When empires build walls, like the limes built by the Roman Empire, or the Chinese wall against the Mongols, they are in decline. Now the Americans are building a wall too, right up to the sky, “Star Wars”. Before World War I and between the World Wars America was very isolated, and had very few soldiers or weapons, but was so strong, that she could, so to speak, win two World Wars with one hand tied behind her back. In World War II the Americans conquered two great empires, the German and the Japanese. At the same time they kept two world empires—the British and the Soviet Russian—afloat. They were tremendously strong then. Today they are building—or rather having to build—a wall.

So religious or ethnic differences are not the dominant motive for the struggles in the world today?
No, I think not. Young men building a movement will always find a reason which was previously of no account. During the German Student Movement the Communist student could hate the other student because he was a Social Democrat. The Communists could hate the young Social Democrats in 1970 because in 1918 the Social Democrats had betrayed the proletarian revolution. Their thought processes could be that complicated. As soon as there are young men on the scene en masse, they’ll start to move. Then they’ll look for ideas. Then they’ll turn into little historians, who have overnight studied all the injustices that are still waiting be to be avenged. Then they’ll write books. Then they’ll read the books. Then there will be a regular explosion of debate. That is to say the movement will reach for one book. People then think that this bad book has created the movement, or the Holy Scripture, but it’s the other way round. Just look at a country like Nepal. In the newspapers you nowadays often read, “Maoists shoot policemen.” And you think for God’s sake why Maoists? Even the Chinese have done with that. But Mao is now in print in Nepalese. Bakunin, who was an anarchist has not been translated. If they had been able to read Bakunin in Nepalese, you might have read in the newspaper, “Anarchists shoot policemen.” Young men will always find something. The public however persists in thinking it’s the heretical book, or the inflammatory religion that causes everything. I don’t believe it.

What does this “youth bulge” mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
It means the Israelis have no chance. The Palestinians alone have 3.6 million children under 15 and the Jews only 1.5 million. That makes me pessimistic. You can’t promise the young Arabic men a future. It is not a problem of hunger, they have enough to eat, and they have better medical treatment that the Sudanese or the Algerians, but what they also have now is a great stomach for the struggle for positions. After the Jews they will turn on their own elite.

  1. Gunnar Heinsohn, Die Erschaffung der Götter. Das Opfer als Ursprung der Religion, Reinbek, 1997.
  2. Gunnar Heinsohn, “‘Über die heiße Venus, das dunkle Zeitalter Griechenlands und Zittern im akademischen Lehrgebäude: Leben und Forschen von Immanuel Velikovsky”, in Freibeuter, Vol. 1, No. 2, Dec. 1979.
  3. Gunnar Heinsohn and Rolf Knieper, Theorie des Familienrechts: Geschlechterrolenaufhebung, Kindervernachlässigung, Geburtenrückgang, Frankfurt am Main, 1974.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Tragedy, pages 129-135