I just finished the Dutch translation of Monica Black’s A Demon-haunted land: witches, wonder doctors, and the ghosts of the past in post-WWII Germany. Up until then I thought that Western belief in witches in the twentieth century and later was either based on wicca or based on individual cases of wise women or cunning men. But no, Black’s book makes clear that even in our modern times, actual witch hunts can still take place in the Western world (I already knew they still happen in other parts of the world).
Black describes a landscape of war trauma, defeat, denial and suspision during the aftermath of World War II. This period is mostly known for the miraculous transformation of (West-)Germany from a war torn country to a modern, forward looking country that fully participates in the Western world. But WWII and the crushing defeat of Germany did not just disappear from people’s memories. And nazis did not just disappear either, despite a vigorous campaign of denazification. A lot went on behind closed doors, especially in the decennium or so after the end of WWII.
In this period as in every other period in human history, in their search for healing (mental as well as physical), people sometimes clung to wonder doctors in their uncertainty. Black’s book describes the case of Bruno Grüning, a German miracle healer opperating in the years after WWII who at one point drew thousands of people who were looking for healing. According to Grüning, some people were simply evil and could not be helped. Another folk healer, Waldemar Eberling, pointed to an accidentally passing neighbour, Frau Maassen, as the source of child’s disease. She was branded a witch.
These cases were not rare. It’s a strange idea that even in our so-called enlightened times, people can still be so scared and distrustful that they need an external source as the reason for their discomfort that they can exterminate. Think of the Satanic Panic of the eighties or people who are openly pagan or wiccan receiving threads even in the 21st century. Luckily we do not have an Incquisition anymore, but these cases could still be very harmfull. Poor Frau Maassen was treated as a pariah by many people in her community and became so upset that she lost ten pounds.
These histories strike me as very important lessons even for today – especially for today. Here in the Netherlands, there is a tendency among a not-so-small subset of people to blame everything, from the lack of affordable houses to street harassment – on foreigners, especially non-western Muslim foreigners. They are not called witches, but the hate these people have to endure from a subset of my fellow Dutch people is sometimes downright irrational and certainly scary.
Despite what many modern day witches want to believe, many non-witches still see witchcraft and the word “witch” as something decidedly negative. I guess communities, at least most people, need adversaries, someone or something they can blame when something goes wrong. Sometimes these are witches, sometimes these are Muslims, Jews or another group of people.
But I do not believe that is the whole story. There is also a sense of wounded superiority. Some people hold the conviction that that man is better than woman or white is better than black. When these ideas are attacked and/or proven false, someone whose worldview is built on these ideas could lash out. I do not have a solution for any of this. (Wouldn’t it be great of one person could solve this?) Some part of me thinks it is not just a social issue but also a personal issue – some individual will always seek ways to make themselves feel superior to others and will always seek external scapegoats for when something goes wrong. In a climate full of tension, this can ignite and turn into something bigger. What we can do is learn to see this behavior and make a stand against it.