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A vicious circle.
What should we learn from history and witch hunts?

Weronika Peek, University of Warsaw

It did not start in Salem, England, or Poland. Nobody knows why it began, but everybody knows how it looked like. Breaking wheels. Pulling off nails. Burning at stakes. Over four hundred years after the witch hunts, history entrapped its haunting memories into symbols. Schools provide a handful of information about the hunts without going into much detail. 


Historians have not yet reached an agreement when it comes to the reasons for witch hunts. Several theories are listing various factors: geographical location, mass hysteria, pagan worship, or even the will to increase state power. Most of the time, though, it all comes down to the fact that the 15th-century rulers needed a scapegoat for the misfortunes happening all over Europe (as the witch hunts were not the doing of the Middle Ages, but of the Renaissance, the era of ‘humanism’). Back then, the continent struggled with the feudal crisis, as well as numerous epidemics which were the gleanings of the Black Death. People wasted by plague, wars, and famine needed an explanation – why would a merciful God allow this?


The origins of witch hunts

If anybody was to blame, it would be the common scapegoats at the time (Jews, foreigners, and sodomites, to name a few). Unfortunately, their existence did not clarify how the pestilence wreaked such havoc. Pitiful times called for a new, unfamiliar threat. Something otherworldly enough to seem dangerous, but human enough to tame it. That is how witches came to existence. It was a perfect threat – human cohorts of demons, diabolic vessels of dark forces which sought nothing else but destruction.


Once the threat was established, it was time to back it up with evidence. In 1486, following the papal bull from 1484 that admitted the existence of witches and allowed ‘correcting them,’ one of the most popular witchcraft treatises ever written came to life. Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of Witches’) quickly gained traction thanks to being published just after Gutenberg's printing revolution. It aimed to prove that witchcraft was a real threat and those who refuse to believe it were heretics, supported by the methods of finding, arresting, and punishing witches for their ‘agreements with the Devil.’ However, the hunts were not the initiative of any church, which, although inevitably connected to the State (and vice versa), did not want to be associated with blood-spilling. Even so, they still remained a predominantly political issue, performed equally in very religious and strongly secular countries.


An American scholar Silvia Federici states the witch hunts were ‘The first persecution in Europe that made use of multimedia propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population.’ Witches were everywhere, while the printing press made it easy to create pamphlets denunciating Satanic deeds. At first, the hunts were organised only by those in power. It was not until the fear of witches had been entrenched in general consciousness that common people joined in. Local antagonisms finally came to light, which resulted in mass murder all around Europe.

The mark of the Devil

Everybody could be accused, but not everybody could be associated with dark forces. In the first decades of witch hunts, many influential figures were accused of witchcraft but escaped punishment, such as Martin Luther or the Pope. The ones that were thoroughly investigated and later executed were women. They were considered weaker, and thus more prone to Devil’s temptations. Some per cent of the victims were actual criminals such as murderesses or women accused of infanticide. Despite a variety of types within this group, there was one key trait that connected all of them: poverty. The vast majority of the victims were peasants, often responsible for local revolts against the feudal lords. Their tormentors, on the other hand, were mostly men in positions of power. It seems, then, that even though gender was a decisive factor, the main conflict rested in the disparity of wealth.


The accusations were followed by lengthy, sadistic torture. Their whole body stung with long needles so that their oppressors could find ‘the mark of the Devil.’ Depending on the type of accusation, witches were often raped, hung, or burnt at stakes. Other popular methods involved tearing apart limbs or crushing bones. During the executions, authorities made sure the townsfolk would learn their lesson. Hence, the inhumane death of a witch was watched by the whole village.


As morbid as it may seem, witch hunts help us remember how far we have come as a society, yet how many elements of discrimination have not changed. For the last few centuries, humans have been busy inventing new weapons of mass destruction, such as gunpowder, gas chambers, and nuclear weapons. Propaganda has also come a long way since the Gutenberg times. Human and women’s rights are supposed to be respected throughout the globe, yet people of our times are still being persecuted. However, the persecution itself has taken a more sublime, modernized shape. And perhaps, we are not as far from a witch-hunt-like genocide as we think we are.


Modern genocides 

In 2002, professor Gregory Stanton answered the question a lot of us have pondered upon: how come an annihilation happens and why is there no one to stop it? He argued there are ten stages of genocide: classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, preparation, persecution, extermination, and denial. At first, a group of people needs to be classified as different and labelled a threat. Later, the authorities deny their humanity, often comparing them to animals or insects. After a notorious period of propaganda and preparation of a mass killing, the victims are separated, persecuted, and finally – exterminated. Later on, the authorities wash their hands of any events that happened.


Witch hunts are a perfect example of genocide. So are the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge persecutions, and the Rwandan genocide. Hatred is on the rise everywhere around the globe. Many modern countries have already completed the first three stages of Stanton’s model: distinguished ‘them’ and ‘us,’ marked both groups with appropriate symbols, then elucidated those symbols in a hostile light.


It is also visible in Poland, where the rainbow flag stopped being a neutral sign almost overnight. After LGBT+ activists displayed their flags on a few Warsaw monuments [Read more here], the authorities did their best to present it as a weapon against the ‘common people,’ a public menace against the traditional values. Polish authorities probably will not go as far as to organise the official purge of LGBT+ communities. Probably. And even so, it feels strange that we have to consider such a possibility in the first place.


Yet, such purges are already happening in Chechnya. Though Russian federations have always been against gay rights, it was not until 2017 when Chechen authorities started actively persecuting LGBT+ communities. Their members were imprisoned, tortured, and interrogated to sneak on other homosexuals. Months of humiliation and torture often resulted in death. Some people were sent back to their families by the police, who strongly pressured the family members to kill the victim. In this case, the process described by Stanton came full circle. A significant difference from his model, though, is that Chechnya did not wait for the final stage to deny the killings. Despite thorough documentation, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, kept denying the purge as it was taking place.


The methods of persecution may have changed, but the patterns of manipulation have remained the same for centuries. Unless we try to understand each other and overcome the fear of powers with which authorities try to threaten us, vicious circles will keep happening. Of course, it would be naive to think we can stop discrimination from happening. As alluring as it seems, personal choices like ceasing to buy Russian products or adding a rainbow frame to your profile pic are probably not going to help anybody – that is why the hope lies in organised action. The only weapon we should wield now is solidarity. It is high time we learn how to use it.

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