14 June 2021

THE GHOSTS OF THE ZEITGEIST

Monica Black. A Demon Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors and Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany. Metropolitan Books, 2020.

Looking at Germany today it is almost impossible to imagine the wrecked and devastated nation described in this book. After the moral collapse of society in the Nazi years, the country was plunged into near-anarchy with the disappearance of all the arms of government, the destruction of the physical infrastructure, and the arrival of millions of homeless refugees.
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The Allied occupying powers struggled to establish a civil society, whilst at the same time obliterating all traces of the previous regime. This was in practice impossible, and despite a policy of ‘denazification’ many of the old administrators continued in-situ into the post-was years, through necessity, or corruption. The local doctor treating you for an injury may less than a decade earlier, have been listing you for sterilisation – or worse.

At the same time a large proportion of the population was in denial of what had happened in that decade. There was still the fear that one might be denounced, or reported to the authorities, by someone with a grudge, or who was seeking vengeance for something that happened in the ‘recent past’, no matter which side you felt you were on.

In the years immediately after Germany’s defeat there was little trust in any of the news media, and after the de-rationing of newsprint a wealth of sensational magazines burst into print. Apocalyptic predictions flourished in the new, freer climate, and in 1949 papers screamed headlines like. “On March 17th the World Will end”, and “Families Want to be Together for the End of the World”.

It was in that apocalyptic March 1949, with people looking for signs and miracles and the end of the world, that the figure of Bruno Groening appeared in the small town of Herford in North Rhine-Westphalia. Attaching himself to the Hulsmann family and their disabled son Dieter, he launched himself as a healer, although, as Germany had strict controls on ‘folk-healers’ and unregistered practitioners he was very careful never to quite describe himself as such. Over the following years Groening travelled around Germany, attracting crowds of thousands, many coming for physical cures, others for some more spiritual or psychic form of redemption.

There were many other post-war occult or quasi-religious expressions of faith in Germany, such as the Virgin Mary apparitions at the village of Heroldsbach, near Nuremburg in Bavaria, historically a strongly Roman Catholic area. Between 1949 and 1952 an estimated million and a half people visited the village, for spiritual uplift and many seeking healing. There were several other BVM apparitions in other locations in the same period although none drawing such huge numbers as Heroldsbach.

Groening’s mass rallies – a phrase which in itself caused concerns in 1940s Germany – drew huge crowds in all parts of Germany, the Protestant northern lander as well as strongly Catholic regions like Bavaria. His meetings and individual consultations did not have any specific rituals or forms of words to ‘treat’ people, or any overtly religious content or ritual. Simply being in his presence was enough for people to feel that they had received some kind of cure. Although he later dabbled with the idea of setting up a chain of what we might now call ‘health spas’ nothing really came of it, following a disastrous business venture. Most people who came to him received only a small rolled-up ball of silver paper to mark the meeting. This seems to have started as a spur-of-the-moment gesture with some cigarette packet silver foil he happened to have in his pocket.

People who sought his help called for ‘seelenbehandlung’ - ‘soul treatment’, implying that his work was less to do with technique and practice than with him having some “inborn facility with hearts and minds.” He spoke of his followers illnesses and psychological problems as being the result of “evil spirits” inhabiting them, rather than anything inherent in their own actions – an attitude which many Germans had taken to explain their own relationships with the Nazi era.



Groening’s mass rallies – a phrase which in itself caused concerns in 1940s Germany – drew huge crowds in all parts of Germany


After several years of being a mass phenomenon, the Groening magic began decline. It began in 1950 when a young girls, ‘Ruth K’, died from TB after she and her father had met Groening and placed all their faith in him, refusing any conventional medical treatment. He was eventually tried for ‘homicide by neglect’ in 1957 and was acquitted, largely because the court found it difficult to judge just what his role in the affair had been. The acquittal was challenged, but Groening died suddenly in early 1959, bringing the proceedings to a halt. However this did not mean the end of his influence. There is a massive Groening presence on the Internet, including a 'Bruno Groening Circle of Friends' website, and sites promotion his ‘healing’ philosophy.

Much of the details of stories such as Groening’s lie in obscure and previously unexplored State and local archives and previously untranslated newspaper files. The author has undertaken a remarkable detailed study of these, and has dicovered much of an “almost unremembered history” of witchcraft accusations and trials.

Black has studied a series of accusations reported from Schlezwig-Holstein, in northernmost Germany by the Danish border. Walderman Eberling, a cabinetmaker in the village of Dithmarschen, had a reputation for curing illness through besprechen, using the ritual vocalisation of prayers and verbal charms to heal. He was called in by a local family to use these talents on their young daughter who had been ill for some time with vague symptoms. A spell in the local hospital had little effect on her condition.

Eberling suggested to the family that some neighbours may have been putting an 'evil influence' on the child. At first a neighbour, Frau Maassen, was accused, and later the former mayor of the town, a man named ‘Claus’. Claus later, along with Maassens son, laid a formal complaint with the local police. At this point the national press began to take an interest in the event, producing headlines like “Witch-Superstition in the Era of the Hydrogen Bomb’,

Another family, the Heeschs also accused the former mayor of causing them harm, calling him an “evil force”. In this case the historical, personal and political motivations become clearer. During the Nazi era the Heesch family were the dominant force in town affairs and the largest local farmers. One of the family had been the mayor before Claus in the Nazi era, and after the war Claus had overseen the redistribution of property, including the Heesch’s, during the denazification programme.

Although this was reported by the national media at the time as a bizarre hold-over from historical witch-hunting panics, it was very much part of a contemporary movement in German society. A survey published in 1959 in the magazine Der Okkulttäter showed that although there were eight ‘witchcraft’ trials in Germany between the First and Second World Wars, between 1947 and 1956 there were seventy-seven. Other sources give much higher figures. The vagueness of the term ‘witchcraft trial’ will undoubtedly be responsible for these varied figures. However the book demonstrate that this was a specifically post-war phenomenon, developing from the social, political and economic circumstances of the era, but also echoing similar societal disruption throughout history.

Although a work of deep scholarship, this book is immensely readable, and presents a vivid picture of a society emerging from a nightmare but unable, and sometimes unwilling, to face its own past. It gives an empathic insight into the lives of individuals, many struggling to escape that past, others still deeply enmeshed in it. This is a very important book for anyone wishing to understand the demons – metaphorical and perhaps sometimes almost literal – of the Twentieth Century. – John Rimmer


See also: Black, Monica and Eric Kurlander (editors). Revisiting the ‘Nazi Occult’: Histories, Realities, Legacies. Camden House, NY. 2015.

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