Satanism and Satanic Ritual Abuse in Germany

Satanism has established itself as a controversial topic of socio-political discussion about so-called sects and new religious movements. The repeatedly expressed suspicion that in such groups ritual (child) abuse and ritual killings regularly take place has made a significant contribution to this. Although practically no objective proof could be found for the reality of such actions and the true extent of the phenomenon is disputed, this idea spread (not only) in Germany and, as a discourse of danger, led to lasting public concern and to repeated demands for special state repression measures.

As part of a discourse analysis with a background in the sociology of knowledge, the research project reconstructed the current discourse on Satanism and satanic ritual abuse in Germany. The study focused on four dimensions: (1) Chronological development of the discourse, (2) Content-based structural features (interpretation repertoire and interpretation patterns), (3) People involved in the discourse as well as (4) The role of the public media and discourse strategies. The analysis focused on a wide range of documents from heterogeneous public arenas: newspaper and magazine articles, TV documentations and feature films, scientific essays, information brochures, articles from specialist and non-fiction books, parliamentary reports, documentations of specialist conferences, online presences and reports from persons concerned.

Central findings: First of all, the chronological development and the ideological sources of the discourse which advanced to a virulent, emotional and morally highly discussed topic at the beginning/middle of the 1990s, were reconstructed. The development of the discourse is highly complex and made up of a combination of international dissemination processes, activities of various players, a danger-focussed sect discourse and various waves of mass media coverage. In addition to the mass media, the discourse of danger predominantly owes its dissemination to the commitment of a small but effective discourse community, namely three discourse groups:

  1. A "therapeutic disclosure milieu" with players of the feminist abuse-, trauma- and multiple personality movement, who particularly participate in the discourse with regard to the reality and normality of sexual violence, the identification and "disclosure" of individual abuse experiences, as well as corresponding traumatisation and dissociation theories.
  2. An "apologetic-ideological enlightenment milieu", consisting of experts of sects, cults and new-religious movements as well as political players, who communicate the issue of Satanism and its inherent danger with regard to antichristian and criminal tendencies.
  3. An "investigative journalistic disclosure milieu", i.e. specific representatives of the public media, such as publicists and editors, who increasingly expose, document and scandalise societal problems.

The background knowledge acquired from these various problem and player fields also forms the outline for the content of the discourse. The many individual contributions from various sources can be allocated to three central interpretation figures, which give the problem perception plausible content, theoretic compatibility and make the demanded needs for action a moral imperative:

  1. "sexual abuse" as pattern of interpretation (declares an individual victim status and the social reality of sexual abuse);
  2. a myth of Satanism (attributes perpetrators);
  3. a horizon of thinking and evaluation which is based on conspiracy theories (avoids contingency).

In addition, the project illuminated the rhetorical means that have to be used in order to arouse public attention and cultural resonance for the discourse of danger. It could be shown in detail how the interaction of dramatisation and moralisation mechanisms, immunisation strategies, opinion-, quotation- and speaker cartels, as well as special rhetorical figures (circular arguments, urban myths and conspiracy theories) were used to discursively establish the reality of a problem interpretation that cannot be objectively proven.

Project Leader: PD Dr. Michael Schetsche

Staff Member: Ina Schmied-Knittel, M.A.


Ina Schmied-Knittel, Michael Schetsche (2011): Zwischen Erinnern und Vergessen. Ritueller Missbrauch, Recovery-Paradigma und die Konstruktion von Wirklichkeit. In: Soziologie des Vergessens. Theoretische Zugänge und empirische Forschungsfelder, Hrsg. Oliver Dimbath, Peter Wehling, Konstanz: UVK, S. 339-359. [Between Remembrance and Oblivion. Ritual abuse, recovery paradigm and the construction of "Wirklichkeit"]

Ina Schmied-Knittel (2008): "Satanisch-ritueller Missbrauch". In: M. Schetsche: Empirische Analyse sozialer Probleme. Wiesbaden: VS, S. 209-232. [Satanic-ritual abuse]

Ina Schmied-Knittel, Michael Schetsche (2008): Erbfeinde aus dem Innern – Satanisten in der christlichen Gesellschaft. In: Exklusion in der Marktgesellschaft, Hrsg. Daniela Klimke, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, S. 215-228. [Enemies from within? Satanists in the christian society]

© 2007 IGPP  (imprint)
last revision: 10 feb 11