When the western part of the former Third Reich transformed itself with lightning speed into a stable democratic republic and economic powerhouse, it was the ultimate post-World War II success story. The story is true enough, but it wasn't quite that simple. In fact, the defeated German people were shattered after the war. Countless thousands were refugees, prisoners of war and rape victims, collectively blamed for the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, these conditions caused widespread tension, illness, emotional breakdown and deep denial.
They also caused a now-forgotten witch panic. Historian Monica Black surfaces this deeply buried episode in her riveting A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghost of the Past in Post-WWII Germany, which explores the connection between Germany’s trauma and an upsurge in superstitious hysteria. Included in this wave were Germans who accused their neighbors of being witches, a charismatic faith healer named Bruno Gröning who attracted thousands of followers and others who reported sightings of the Virgin Mary.
From 1947 to 1956, there were 77 “witchcraft” trials in Germany. To be clear, these were not trials of witches; they were cases brought by people accused of witchcraft against their accusers. (The word “witch” was seldom used; the accusers called them “evil people.”) The most notorious trial involved Waldemar Eberling, a lay healer and exorcist who told clients they had been bewitched by neighbors. He was called Hexenbanner, "witch banisher," and both he and his nemesis, a retired teacher who crusaded for the accused, had been anti-Nazis.
Black focuses much of the book on Gröning, a former Nazi believed by his legion of followers to possess magic healing powers against illnesses caused by evil. He eventually went to trial in a tragic case involving a teenage girl with tuberculosis who stopped medical treatment because of her faith in him.
All these cases were studied by doctors at the time they occurred, but Black perceptively points out that none of them ever publicly faced up to the heart of the matter. The terrible societal conditions that led to this outbreak, the experts said, was the fault of the Allied occupation. Guilt and shame over Nazi crimes were never mentioned. Only Eberling’s teacher-enemy pointed out—privately—that a hunt for “witches” was not unlike blaming the Jews.