When Democracy Ails, Magic Thrives
West German witchcraft trials after World War II reveal how political rupture can fuel magical thinking. What lessons might we draw for our own age of QAnon conspiracies, anti-vaccination, and strange COVID-19 cures?
October 29, 2020
Oct 29, 2020
12 Min read time
West German witchcraft trials after World War II reveal how political rupture can fuel magical thinking.
A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post–WWII Germany
Metropolitan Books, $29.99 (cloth)
On August 31 President Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people in “dark shadows” were controlling Joe Biden. When pressed by Ingraham, Trump elaborated, “We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that.”
The irrational was never absent from the postwar order, and florid eruptions of mystical thinking often accompany periods of extreme political upheaval.
The president’s ravings might have seemed psychotic had they not fit a Zeitgeist of paranoid, conspiratorial, and even magical thinking that has arced across our land over the last four years. Earlier this year, Trump praised Stella Immanuel, a Houston minister and pediatrician who believes, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sexual intercourse with demons. A swell of right-wing voters have taken to the QAnon conspiracy, the belief that a cabal of left-wing politicians and Hollywood elites lead an international child sex ring. In response to the swelling number of deaths caused by COVID-19, Vice President Mike Pence told the Republican National Convention, “America is a nation of miracles,” and that there would be a COVID-19 vaccine “by the end of this year.” Trump has also recommended injecting sunlight and bleach as possible COVID cures.
While such thinking is undoubtedly on a tear among right-wing Americans, the left too has indulged in its share of conspiratorial and mystical thought. The anti-vaxxer movement started among well-to-do liberals. High concentrations of unvaccinated children are to be found in some of the country’s wealthiest cities and suburbs, and Democrats are more likely to believe in astrology than the average American.
This preponderance of the mystical, the miraculous, and the conspiratorial may seem at odds with our supposedly rational, modern democracy. Yet a new book by historian Monica Black suggests that the irrational was never absent from the postwar order—and, moreover, that florid eruptions of mystical thinking often accompany periods of extreme political upheaval. Black’s A Demon-Haunted Land makes this case by examining the spasm of magical thinking that convulsed West Germany in the decade after World War II. During this time, the Federal Republic of Germany, which today stands as a beacon of liberal democracy, was beset by witch scares and false messiahs. Painting a portrait of a land unable to come to terms with its violent past—and with the crimes of Nazism in particular—Black also suggests troubling parallels between the young republic and our own.
• • •
Between 1947 and 1956, there were 77 witchcraft trials in West Germany, and the new country’s newspapers were full of reports of witches and medicine men roaming the countryside.
Black is an evocative writer, and, as befits her subject, she describes Germany at the cataclysmic end of World War II in epic terms. As it became clear that the Allies would win, Nazi leaders, many of whom had long held an interest in the occult, began to hold out hope for “wonder weapons” that might save the collapsing country. Meanwhile, ordinary Germans turned to magical thinking:
People did what human beings have long done when faced with a void of understanding: they scanned nature for portents. . . . In fall 1944, in the Sudetenland, people reported an enormous cloud of smoke in the eastern sky, and a bloody fist, shaking threateningly. In Lower Silesia, people saw the sun ‘dance’ and look as though, at any moment, it would collide with the earth. Those who witnessed it believed that the world would soon ‘sink in flames and death.’ A fiery sword materialized over the Bohemian Forest. Someone witnessed an immense cross in the heavens, with the full moon at its center. In Friesoythe, in Lower Saxony, a local man with the gift of second sight had a vision: his whole town consumed in flames.
Apocalyptic portents abated with the war’s end in 1945, but belief in the supernatural remained alive and well. Between 1947 and 1956, there were seventy-seven recorded trials that involved accusations of witchcraft in West Germany, a number that does not account for the scores more accusations of witchcraft that never ended up in court. At the time of West Germany’s founding in 1949, the new country’s newspapers and tabloids were full of reports of witches and medicine men roaming the countryside. Black asks readers to consider how it changes our perspective of the young German democracy—and its relationship to the Nazi past—if we treat these incidents not as fringe occurrences, but as moments when something true about its culture was revealed.
Scholars long painted West Germany as a success story: in the ruins of National Socialism, the country forged a stable parliamentary democracy. While the land was devastated in 1945—Allied firebombing had reduced some 80 percent of all urban buildings to rubble—the West German economy rebounded aggressively in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, a period of growth that contemporaries termed “the economic miracle.” In 1955, restored to most of its sovereign rights, West Germany remilitarized and joined NATO as a partner in the Western globalist project.
But over the last twenty years or so, historians have increasingly cast doubt on these simplified success narratives, especially as they relate to West Germany’s first decade. Scholars now point to the country’s extreme misogyny and patriarchal structures as well as its persecution of gay men (over 50,000 men were convicted under Nazi-era homosexuality statutes before they were abolished in 1969). The idea that a “zero hour” starkly separated the Nazi era from the postwar seems now to have been primarily a product of midcentury optimism.
For Black, who shares this skepticism, it is of paramount importance that West Germany did little to purge itself of Nazism. Most historians today agree that denazification efforts in West Germany were failures. Few Nazis were put on trial and even fewer were convicted. Most of those convicted were released in the 1950s under new amnesty laws. The government of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, allowed many former Nazi bureaucrats to reclaim their pensions and their jobs, leading to what some have called a “renazification” of the civil service and the judiciary.
At the same time, a profound silence hung over the crimes of the Nazi era, a tacit understanding that one simply did not speak of those years. “Silence,” writes Black, “was what allowed a society riven by the knowledge that it contained all sorts of people—those who had worked to support the Nazis, those who had actively opposed them, and everyone in between—to rebuild a country together.” But the repression of one kind of memory, Black contends, is precisely what gave rise to another. “The past often slipped into view,” in the form of witches, wonder doctors, and miracle workers, “like a ghost that wants to remind the living that its work on earth is not done.”
Black’s narrative is chock-full of colorful anecdotes and charismatic figures. One of its chief protagonists is Bruno Gröning, a miracle worker who roved West Germany for a decade, from 1949 until 1959. He first surfaced in the Westphalian city of Herford, where he had allegedly cured Dieter Hülsmann, a nine-year-old boy who had never been able to walk properly. When the Hülsmann family brought Gröning to see their son, in March of 1949, “the boy suddenly had feeling back in his legs. . . . There was a burning sensation in his legs and back. His cold limbs had suddenly warmed. The next morning, however unsteadily or hesitantly, Dieter, who had spent much of that bleak postwar winter in bed, got up and walked.”
News of the “messiah of Herford” spread like wildfire across the land. Black recounts how West German media eagerly began covering the new “wonder doctor” and how crowds ravenous for salvation flocked to the small hamlet in northwest Germany. Over the next several years, Gröning traveled around the country, falling in with different businessmen and ne’er-do-wells looking to profit off his mystical powers. Lawsuits too trailed Gröning wherever he went, as well as accusations that he had violated German medical law. Eventually, Gröning stood trial in Bavaria, accused, among other things, of negligent homicide. Before the court cases and appeals were wrapped up, though, he died of stomach cancer in 1959.
The salvation that wonder doctors offered was not purely physical, it was a salve on the conscience of those who knew themselves to be guilty of complicity in the crimes of National Socialism.
Gröning was only the most prominent of the many West German wonder doctors in the 1950s. Black’s approach to these events is psychoanalytic: in her estimation, these faith healers represent a “vertical” form of “the haunting of postwar West German society.” That is, “individuals who felt afflicted, guilty, or damned looked up to a savior, who just happened to show up in the moment of their direst need.” The salvation that figures such as Gröning offered was not purely physical, it was a salve on the conscience of those who knew themselves to be guilty of complicity in the crimes of National Socialism.
Belief in wonder doctors was not the only way that this “haunting” manifested. In the same years that Gröning worked his magic in front of large crowds, accusations of witchcraft rocked West Germany, especially in small communities in the country’s northern marches. Black transports her reader to the far reaches of Dithmarschen, “one of the more rural parts of an overwhelmingly urbanized country, a singular and sometimes uncanny landscape of tidal flats and heaths and bogs.” In October 1952, Hans and Erna, who were innkeepers in a Dithmarschen village, asked Waldemar Eberling, a cabinetmaker endowed with certain magical abilities, to heal their sick baby. “Eberling came to the family’s home and treated the baby with Besprechen, medicine that relied on charms, gestures, and words,” Black reports. Later on, Eberling informed the family that they “were in the clutches of an evil force,” and identified the former mayor, Claus, as well as one Frau Maassen as witches.
While these sorts of accusations did not lead to torture, trials by fire, or executions, they did tear communities apart. Frau Maassen in Dithmarschen became physically ill after hearing the allegations. Claus filed suit against the rumormongers. The accusations intersected in complex ways with denazification. Another of Eberling’s patients in the town was the daughter of the former Nazi-era mayor. She said that people had treated her father “very badly” after “the ‘downfall’,” and buttressed the claims that Claus—who had been installed as mayor under the Allied occupation and overseen the redistribution of seized property—was an “evil force.”
Such allegations—dozens of them in the years after West Germany’s founding—rippled across northern Germany in the early 1950s. They had been “stirred up by unresolved grievances, fears of exposure, and suppressed hostilities related to the Nazi era and to denazification.”
• • •
In a country hollowed out by decades of neoliberal policies, it seems little surprise that Americans have turned to irrational and conspiratorial explanations, from QAnon to fears of poisonous vaccinations, for all that ails them.
A Demon-Haunted Land not only offers a brilliant rethinking of postwar German history, but also asks us to see the irrational as an integral part of modernity. Black urges us to understand that such eruptions of magical thinking were not only real to West Germans at the time, but gave their lives and actions meaning. Without them, we miss something critical about the period.
It’s a good lesson for understanding our current politics as well. Magical thinking and witchcraft, Black tells us, “are more likely to surface in moments of instability, insecurity, and malaise.” She might as well be writing about the present-day United States. In a country hollowed out by decades of neoliberal policies—with a yawning wealth gap that separates the very privileged from the rest—it seems little surprise that Americans have turned to irrational and conspiratorial explanations, from QAnon to fears of poisonous vaccinations, for all that ails them.
Present economic and political woes may only tell part of the story, though. As Black argues throughout A Demon-Haunted Land, a lingering sense of guilt for the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes helped to inspire both the rapturous reception of wonder doctors such as Gröning and frenetic accusations of witchcraft. Hermann Zaiss, another of the 1950s messiahs who roamed West Germany, told his followers: “We knew that . . . the Jewish people among us were despised, mocked, beaten, and robbed—one only has to think of Kristallnacht—everyone knows what happened then. . . . Six million Jews were killed, and our people did that.” His mass healing sermons held out hope for redemption.
Just as Germans were forced to reckon with their own complicity in murder, so too Americans have begun to reckon with our country’s centuries-long legacy of racist violence and dispossession. “Tales of hauntings express an otherwise unspoken and sublimated terror at the center of white American life,” Black suggests, “that vengeful ghosts will come back and reclaim what’s theirs.” Magical thinking offers a way of refracting responsibility for such evils—either by seeking spiritual salvation or by sublimating guilt into a mysterious and demonic other.
How do societies that commit monstrous atrocities recover from them?
How do societies that commit monstrous atrocities recover from them? An escape into the realm of the mystical was, as Black shows, one of the answers West Germans had recourse to in the late 1940s and early 1950s. To say that these avenues were irrational is not necessarily the same as saying they were ineffective: for West Germans, they may well have functioned as part of the healing process, an escape valve for those things that could not be admitted, could not be discussed, could not even be whispered.
But for us Americans, it is difficult to arrive at the same conclusion. Magical thinking does not look like a release valve. Rather it looks like a way to turn on one another, to undermine our political, medical, and social systems. In the person of Donald Trump, and the Republican Party that enables him, such magical thinking is a tool for toppling the liberal, democratic order. For those who follow the pied pipers of the extremist right, this effect may indeed be part of the appeal. Many Americans evidently prefer to believe in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic prophecies than to confront our country’s racism or its social inequities: perhaps it is easier for them to believe in magic than to accept that they live in an unjust society.
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October 29, 2020
12 Min read time