Even today, individual people are still held responsible on the general behalf for societal problems.


Whether in prehistoric times, in the Middle Ages or today, society needs a scapegoat. By channelling its aggression on to a single victim, a community strengthens it cohesion.

In September 2018, there was an incident at the Swiss air defence force’s cadet school. On the orders of the platoon leader, a Ticino recruit was ‘stoned’ by his comrades while being filmed on a mobile phone. The film, later circulated in the media, shows the recruits throwing nuts and stones at the victim’s back. It also came to light that the recruit in question, and others, had previously been subjected to other humiliating treatment. The video unleashed a wave of angry debate. The mechanism that underlies the behaviour of the recruits and the officer can be seen in every era and every culture of humankind: it is the compliant collective violence of the group against an individual. Often this individual is already an outsider. The group channels its day-to-day rivalries, aggression and violence on to this one victim in order to strengthen cohesion within the community.

Ritual killing of human beings

In primitive times, human sacrifices were often triggered by a crisis – acute or imminent – such as a flood. People who had no conception of geophysical and meteorological processes were thrown into panic, believing the misery caused by the natural disaster was a punishment meted out by a higher power. But who had done something wrong, who had aroused the wrath of the gods? Rather than trailing off into an endless loop of mutual recriminations, in such situations the community will soon single out a small number of individuals, project on to those people the sole blame for the crisis, and punish them. The victim now not only propitiates the gods, but also reconciles the group itself.

The universality of these rituals is shown by the fact that human sacrifice can be found among all ancient peoples. In Bronze Age Europe, children could also be the victims of these acts, as indicated by five children’s skulls discovered near a former pile-dwelling settlement. Thanks to the three best-preserved skulls, we know that the children died violent deaths. A plausible interpretation is that these are human sacrifices.


Modern violence

In Europe, the practice of ritual killings only came to an end two to three hundred years ago. Peter Sloterdijk writes in some bafflement: “Nothing is as surprising in the human world as the ability of people living together to cope with the differences between them (…)” – but, he goes on to add: “with the exception of those moments in which they also indulge, as if for relaxation, in rabble-rousing and agitation.”

While the Enlightenment, based on the Judeo-Christian religion, put an end the ritual sacrificing of human beings, the underlying mechanism still continues to govern human co-existence. These days, however, it is quite subtle in most cases and ends in psychological violence – ostracism or public humiliation, for example. We may simply be shocked by the scapegoat mechanism when it leads to physical violence, as in the incident mentioned above. As a rule, the mechanism is only recognised and understood from the outside. Perpetrator and victim have internalised their roles, as the recruit concerned has: the military justice system was only called on to take action when his father discovered the mobile phone footage.



Geneva Peace Week, CAGI Geneva

5.11. - 8.11.19

The exhibition examines collective violence of groups against individuals, from antiquity to the present day. It explores prehistoric human sacrifices, lynching (including burning at the stake) and violence in our times. At the same time, the exhibition looks at the forces that have attempted to oppose violence, such as Religion and Enlightenment.

Alexander Rechsteiner on EmailAlexander Rechsteiner on FacebookAlexander Rechsteiner on TwitterAlexander Rechsteiner on Wordpress
Alexander Rechsteiner
Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.


Sharing is caring
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Email this to someone

Your comment


Verena Bosshart says:

Mit grossem Interesse habe ich mich in die Ausstellung ‘Sündenbock’ vertieft.Sie ist sehr anregend, sehr eindrücklich! Was ich nicht verstehen kann: warum wird das gesamte Ausstellungsmaterial zerstört nach der Ausstellung in Genf? Was für eine Verschwendung! Es gäbe so viele Orte, wo die Ausstellung plaziert und sicher hochwillkommen wäre!

Gifty Mensah says:

The International Geneva Welcome Centre (CAGI) and the Angie Brooks International Centre (ABIC) is showing parts of the Scapegoat – Bouc Emissaire at the 2019 Geneva Peace Week from 5th November to 8th November at the CAGI. The time for each day is 9:00 – 17:00. The CAGI is located at; La Pastorale “Maison de Maitre”, Route de Ferney 106, 1211 Geneve 20. Hope to see you there!

RUSSIG, Gudrun says:

In the framework of the Geneva Peace Week at the beginning of November 2019, I visited the exhibition “Scapegoat”.

It clearly shows that, unfortunately, “nothing is new under the sun”. Collective violence still unchains itself against individuals, groups or families considered at the root of misfortune, unemployment, illness or the like. Anything, even trivial, can spark off the cycle of such violence. The collective hatred and frustration is directed at anybody not conforming to the perpetrators’ convictions – and those are manyfold.

It is frightening how such actions, not to say attacks, pull in other people, bystanders, people on internet, spectators of all sorts, inciting them to partake in the collective rage…

Nowadays, the fact of scapegoating has become far more insiduous and subtle compared to ancient times:

It has basically become unnecessary to commit physical violence like torture, strangling, killing and bloody acts.
Much more sophisticated:
The social media now allow harressing and mobbing the “culprit” on an unprecedented scale and publishing hate messages often drive victims into despair or even suicide.

It is frightening to see that such violence existed and still exists worldwide:
in every culture, country, religion, age group, irrespective of gender, origin, skin colour, ethnic belonging, sexual orientation, etc.

This exhibition helps sensitize each one of us to this omnipresent phenomena and – maybe – make us realise how easy it is to criticize someone and thus create the basis for dislike and negative behaviour towards this person…

A powerful and necessary exhibition! May it help create a more peaceful world to live in !

Rachel Phillips says:

A real eye opener as to what is still going on in modern society. Made me realise that we all seem to find a scapegoat at some point in our lives and we are often the scapegoat. In both situations, sometimes we are not even aware.

An exhibition which hits where it should. Let’s hope it raises awareness.

Thank you for bringing this to Geneva Peace Week.

Madhumita says:

The scapegoat exhibition has been very well made and is an apt addition to Geneva Peace Week. It reminds us all that regardless of where we come from, our privilege, age, gender, sexual orientation or religious belief we too can be targeted as scapegoats. It is also a reminder that we have not fully learned from history and that we continue to make the same mistakes. That being said, I am glad that this exhibition was part of Geneva Peace Week, where policy makers and practitioners from around the globe are reminded of this on-going issue. This brings me some hope that these issues will be tackled more and more.

Eduard G. says:

In most of history, people have used scapegoats as the causation of their problems which has led to some of the worst crimes mankind has ever commited. This orginization brings to light the true horrors of casting stones at those who we see as different for whatever prejudice may exist within us. I truely appreciate the effect of such an exhibition as scapegoating others is not merely a subject of the past, but is a strong driving force of the many conflicts that are present in our modern society.

Marissa says:

It was a great exibit! Heartbreaking to see all of the moments in history where humans look for a scapegoat in life, but fascinating to learn about. I truly enjoyed my time and would reccomend it to anyone visiting Switzerland.

Margareta says:

I was deeply moved by this exhibition and feel that us is something everybody should see. I wish it could become a permanent exhibition somewhere or online.

Kate says:

The exhibition was very moving. It was especially interesting to track to history of a “scapegoat” throughout the ages. A particularly impactful series of displays for me, was the final room which showed modern victims of abuse and hate crime. It was very saddening to see what humans could be capable of, and the way in which such violence was inflicted upon innocent people. The stories of young children committing suicide saddened me, and I hope that more work can be done to stop bullying in schools and to encourage a respect of one another, differences included. It is so important to respect each other… Societies will be much better when we can learn respect.

Gifty Mensah says:

The transfer of societal ill to one person who is classed as an outsider and brutalized or humiliated as a scapegoat may have been commonplace historically, but that action was not necessarily prudent or totally virtuous. When I first heard about the exhibition, I was overwhelmed with disbelief. I couldn’t believe civilised societies would subject members within their community to such barbaric acts. The collective violence referred to and applauded at by bystanders, is in truth contra good Samaritan which Biblical condemnation decries. We also see clearly the flaws in summary judgements subscribed to and societally adopted by constituents of communities existing time after time. This is because it has never been easy or correct, for anyone to establish any veracity or certainty that the ‘scapegoat’ used, truly bore representation of the cause or causation of whatever was assumed to be the societal problem.

As societies have been global in their creative discoveries, modernity of violence has taken on a different semblance much later. Ostracism, subtle humiliation, fake news and cyber bullying have simply substituted for the harshness of ritualistic killings, which had its own share of brutality and heathenism. They are only, at best, name change for conveniently referring to identical acts frowned on by society in general, but without ending the problem. In short, the modernity of times changed only what society allowed to be changed. The irrevocability of other practices remains either seen or practiced, or both. We, as vital constituents of society, acquiesce in not only accepting such alterations, but succinctly give our individual approvals to the change by our collective reticence as the silent majority.

I am very grateful that we; the Angie Brooks International Centre (ABIC) and the International Geneva Welcome Centre (CAGI) were able to bring this exhibition to the Geneva Peace Week 2019. I sincerely do hope that it will continue to spark conversations given that slowly but surely this system we largely dislike, may eventually phase away.

I was always an outsider because my Father was sent to prison. Strangely he was sent to prison for abusing ME physically. Some how this was interpreted by my family as shameful and I was seen as the root of all their problems, but it did not stop there but followed me to school. I was bullied at school and heard a teacher say what can you expect, look what she comes from! I had to emigrate and build a new life on my own before it stopped.