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Rassenmutter und Rebellin: Hexenbilder in Romantik, volkischer Bewegung, Neuheidentum und Feminismus.

Rassenmutter und Rebellin: Hexenbilder in Romantik, vdlkischer Bewegung, Neuheidentum und Feminismus. By FELIX WIEDEMANN. Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann. 2007. 465 pp. 58 [euro]. ISBN 978-3-8260-3679-8.

Felix Wiedemann's book, originally the author's dissertation, focuses on the image of the witch in four movements. One lengthy chapter is devoted to each; they are followed by a fifth on the origins of the witch-myth, a five-page 'Zusammenfassung', and a 76-page bibliography and list of homepages.

The study compares fictional and non-fictional texts from four different contexts with the goal of uncovering the following commonalities in their view of the witch: that witches existed; that witches ('wise women') were members of a pre-Christian cult; that witches lived in touch with nature and rebelled against the Christian order, and that they were deliberately eradicated by the Church. Wiedemann's twofold point is that the images of the which advanced in German Romanticism, National Socialism, and post-war right-wing extremism, neo-paganism, and feminism are ultimately equivalent and that they are founded upon anti-Semitism. To establish this, the author links some motifs recurring in all four movements, for example the revalidation of and identification with the which in conjunction with the Germanic or Celtic origin attributed to her, and the critique of inquisition and patriarchy (which he equates with 'anticlericalism' equalling 'anti-Christianism' equalling, in recourse to Christianity's origins, anti-Semitism).

To link a movement commonly considered 'progressive', such as feminism, directly with one commonly thought of as one of the darkest moments in history, namely Nazism, does have a certain shock value, particularly in the light of the author's comment that there is no such thing as 'innocent' anti-Semitism and that all brands of anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz (p. 19). Thus readers doubtful of his claims are placed in a position of ideological vulnerability: faced with the indirect accusation of anti-Semitism, it becomes difficult to insist on the outstanding documentation that one would normally expect in support of outrageous claims. And outstanding documentation is precisely what this book withholds. Evidence consists of similar-sounding quotations from texts of each movement and relies heavily on the conflation of movements and ideas that might be considered as quite different. The book allows no distinction between Bible criticism, anticlericalism, and anti-Semitism, or between history and mythology. Although the introduction mentions this briefly, there is no acknowledgement, in the interpretations, that feminism is a highly diverse movement espousing actually rather different convictions. Feminist historical research on the which-hunts is discredited wholesale--without documentation, 'da sich eine derartige "Korrektur" aufgrund der Absurditat vieler hier dargelegter Ansichten von selbst erubrigen durfte' (p. 31)--by reducing it to its most dubious and controversial claims. The one to which Wiedemann returns several times throughout the book is the estimate of nine million victims, which he considers 'Eine absurde Ubertreibung der Opferzahlen' (p. 3a). While there is now broad agreement with this view, there is by no means a general consensus on the much lower number he presents as 'correct'--50,000 victims--and Wiedemann does not help his cause by citing only one single study as 'Die heutige Forschung' (p. 32). In his efforts to create the impression that 'feminist' research throughout the ages has unilaterally and wilfully exaggerated the number of victims to range in the millions, Wiedemann suppresses the fact that this issue has actually been the subject of an extensive debate among feminist historians for nearly thirty years. Even the near-universal (and well-documented) assumption that women were the primary targets of witch-hunts is contemptuously dismissed, strangely in the same paragraph in which Wiedemann admits that some 80% of all victims were female (p. 3 a).

Wiedemann's disparaging comments on feminist historical research provide the backdrop to his attack on feminist and neo-pagan spiritualism, specifically the identification with the symbolic 'witch' as a healer, child of nature, and rebel against Christianity. His approach is best described as a refusal to distinguish between the historical/academic, which requires argument, methodology, and documentation of claims, and the mythological/symbolic, which is not beholden to such rules. In pointing out, for example, that the modern neo-pagan view of the witch as a healer, a 'wise woman', or shaman is 'vom wissenschaftlichen Standpunkt aus gesehen seit langem uberholt' (p. 386), he measures what is essentially modern mythology and symbolism with an academic yardstick. And in his hopeful speculation that the repudiation of the 'Nine Million Myth' might deprive feminists and neo-pagans of the ability to view themselves as descendants of a persecuted minority (p. 251)--a 'mere' 50,000 victims, the implication seems to be, would not suffice for such an identification--he crosses over into sermonizing.

Ultimately, this is the impression the reader is left with: that of a 388-page sermon. The book's rather convoluted style and its huge bibliography certainly create the impression of a serious academic study, but in its insufficient differentiation and documentation, it falls short of scholarly requirements. Claims are restated rather than substantiated: the same conclusion, or rather the same simple equation--reclaiming the witch = anticlericalism = anti-Christianism = anti-Semitism--is repeated in the first four chapters, reiterated at exhausting length in Chapter 5 and again briefly in the 'Zusammenfassung'. Throughout the book, there is no qualitative difference between claim, support/documentation, and deduction; at its end, there is no conclusion and no sense that something further, or furthering, might be concluded after all this repetition. The bibliography mirrors the book's predilection for suppressing differences in favour of very often superficial similarities. Central works, particularly feminist works debating some of the very issues Wiedemann raises, have not been read. Anne Barstow's book Witchcraze (London: Pandora, 1994, and in it, her seminal essay 'Why Women?') is missing, as are Lyndal Roper's Witch Craze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), Gerhild Scholz-Williams's Defining Dominion (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), Sigrid Brauner's Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) and her work on the links between Lutheranism and witch beliefs, Diane Purkiss's highly critical chapter A Holocaust of One's Own' in her The Witch in History (London: Routledge, 1996), Christina Larner's Enemies of God (London: Chatto & Windus, 1981) and Witchcraft and Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), and above all Gerda Lerner's seminal works The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). These and other works would have been of obvious relevance to Wiedemann's project since they grapple with the same questions he raises, including, but not limited to, the uncertainty about the actual number of victims; the preponderance of old women and midwives among them (Roper); the problematic nature of the modern symbolic revalidation of the witch; the problematic nature of Holocaust comparisons; and links between Bible criticism and anticlericalism (Lerner's 'One Thousand Years of Feminist Bible Criticism' in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness). Inclusion and honest discussion of these works would have complicated matters considerably. Not only do they disprove Wiedemann's rather undifferentiated view of feminist scholarship on the issue, they also show the exact opposite of what the author was clearly looking for, namely 'ein relativ konstantes Wahrnehmungsund Interpretationsmodell' (p. 14) of the historical witch, the contemporary witch, and the mythical witch throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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Title Annotation:text in English
Author:Kord, Susanne
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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