- The Reception of the Mimetic Theory in the German-Speaking World
“René Girard’s thoughts on the connection between religion and violence are just now becoming known in Germany,” wrote the philosopher Eckhard Nordhofen at the beginning of 1995 in the influential German weekly Die Zeit.1 Was Nordhofen correct with this assessment back then, or was he rather mistaken? Had not a first phase of reception of Girard’s works in the German-speaking world already begun in the late 1970s, or at the latest by the mid 1980s? One must note, though, that Girard [End Page 25] was never in fashion during the 1970s or 1980s and that these first attempts to incorporate his works into academic discussion came from individual scholars such as the Swiss Jesuit Raymund Schwager; Konrad Thomas, a sociologist based in Gottingen; and the trio of Dietmar Kamper, Gunter Gebauer, and Christoph Wulf, who formed the Berlin-based interdisciplinary research group Historische Anthropologie [historical anthropology]. One of the main impediments preventing a broader initial reception was that Girard’s major works—with the exception of Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde [German: Das Ende der Gewalt; English: Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World], itself severely abridged and inadequately translated in 19832—were not made available in German until the late 1980s or early 1990s.3 As much praise as the Swiss publishing house Benziger Co. deserves for its thorough publication of Girard’s important early works—even if they were relatively expensive hardback editions—the reception of these works was primarily constricted, at least initially, to a small circle of academics and intellectuals.
This changed in 1992 when Fischer Verlag published a paperback edition of Das Heilige und die Gewalt [Violence and the Sacred].4 The same year, the same publishing house released a paperback edition of The Scapegoat, albeit under the revised title Ausstoßung und Verfolgung [Expulsion and persecution].5 Both publications resulted in a rapid and significant increase in the number of academic publications on Girard, as well as articles that appeared in influential German newspapers. One article by Botho Strauß, “Anschwellender Bocksgesang” [The swelling scapegoat chant], published in 1993 in the respected news magazine Der Spiegel,6 was of particular significance, because it gave rise to intense debate and referred explicitly to Girard’s Violence and the Sacred as a reference text. We will return to the specifics of this discussion, as well as to the problematic role of Strauß’s essay, later on in our discussion of the German literary reception of Girard’s thought.
In addition to this unintended media attention, there were also three important conferences—all of which took place within six months—that bore witness to the newly awoken interest that Girard’s mimetic theory enjoyed in the German-speaking world. The first, an interdisciplinary conference, Zur Theorie des Opfers [On the theory of the sacrifice], in November 1993, featured Richard Schenk, Robert Spaemann, Horst Bürkle, Franz-Xaver Kaufmann, and Peter Koslowski, among other important scholars.7 In June 1994, the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), [End Page 26] an annual gathering of Girard scholars founded in 1991, met for the first time in Europe for a conference in Wiesbaden. Girard himself, in Germany for only the second time, gave a talk at the conference that addressed the topic of “Theology and/or Secular Thinking: Discussion on Political Philosophy, Economy, and Sociology.”8 The third conference, Mimesis, Poiesis, Autopoiesis—technically a workshop—took place shortly thereafter in Berlin, and the Gebauer, Wulff, and Kamper trio invited Girard, Niklas Luhmann, Peter M. Hejl, Siegfried J. Schmidt and several representatives of the mimetic theory. The lectures given at the conference were published in the journal Paragrana: Internationale Zeitschrift für historische Anthropologie.9 If one takes the interest in Girard displayed by this small circle of scholars as a frame of reference, as well as the media attention he received from the more general public, one could very well agree with Nordhofen’s assessment presented at the top of the present essay. Girard...