To understand something about how one type of society began the process of becoming a very different one, this book looks at two distinctive but related forms of postwar haunting. One plagued individuals, beleaguered souls who sought spiritual respite — who wanted to be healed, transformed, or redeemed. Another took hold of whole communities where seething social resentments were sublimated into fears of witches.
West Germany had an incredible story of postwar recovery: from the defeated Third Reich to a European economic superpower and stable democracy, without all the evil. Almost a fairy tale-transformation.
It was integrated into the Cold War’s Western alliance, had an economy unrivaled in Europe, and was seeing its bomb-flattened cities rapidly rebuilt for a good life of consumerist plenty. History, which is often thought to move glacially, has in its annals not many shifts of fortune as sudden as this. And in this dramatic transformation lie questions at once rich and unsettling.
But it wasn’t all so rosy. The German people were in a bad way, especially psychologically. They were blamed for the horrors of the war regardless of individual culpability. So even as they saw their country rebuilt around them and participated in the economic miracle that followed, they also witnessed things like the Allied powers hanging pictures of the murdered in public places with captions reading “THIS IS YOUR FAULT”.
University of Tennessee historian Monica Black identifies the Allies as viewing the German people as “morally unclean”. She argues that this contributed to the feelings of national shame and guilt which then led to a disturbing supernatural obsession throughout the country, including accusations of witchcraft.
For a period of time after the Third Reich’s horrors, after the Holocaust and the bloodiest and most nihilistic conflict in human history, witches — men and women believed to personify and to be in league with evil — appeared to have been loosed on the land.
I couldn’t have been more intrigued by this book. My experience living in Germany was that the Germans in general were far less susceptible to the woo-woo than what I’d witnessed growing up in the US. Not to mention they’re less fervently religious than the US as a whole, and religion, regardless of your thoughts on it, does tend to influence individual and group thinking about what’s possible in terms of the supernatural.
With a title hearkening to Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Black looks in A Demon-Haunted Land at what exactly happened and how it ties into the postwar atmosphere, ideas around guilt and responsibility, and, most intriguingly, an outlet for all of that evil built up during the Nazi regime.
This is something that concerns me, especially right now, because although I’m ecstatic that we won’t have another four years of a Trump presidency, the ideas and rhetoric that he espouses didn’t begin with him; rather he was a symptom of problems long percolating. Those ideas have been fermenting throughout his term and aren’t going to disperse so easily into nothingness. All of that matter has to go somewhere. This book is a case study of one possible outcome.
Silence about what was euphemistically called ‘the most recent past’ was pervasive, but far from perfect. No one forgot the demons Nazism had unleashed: they just didn’t talk about them, or they talked about them only in highly coded, ritualized ways. The past often slipped into view, like a ghost that wants to remind the living that its work on earth is not done.
The old values — those that made National Socialism possible in the first place — became outwardly taboo, but they did not vanish. Culture — understood here in terms of the ideas that groups of people impose upon the world and that form the deep structure of their understanding of how it works — transforms only gradually.
This opens with a gripping introductory chapter, although it does take on a more academic tone later in spots. For the most part it’s extremely accessible. The bottom line is that there were many factors at play here, from what I mentioned above, of a necessary outlet for the anger, hatred, and discrimination normalized with the Nazis to the lingering suspicion of others, the need to place blame, and the open condemnation from the Allies. And forcing the people into an entirely different mindset immediately after war’s end wasn’t going to be so simple. As Black paints one striking example: “Imagine living in a small town, where your family doctor after the war is the same one who had recommended to the Nazi state that you be sterilized. Such scores could never be settled; such losses would go unredeemed.”
She also cites other critics’ comparison of the early Federal Republic of Germany to film noir, with its roots in German expressionism, and it’s a creepy, apt metaphor:
Noir plays with depths and surfaces, shadow and light, emphasizing that what we see is not necessarily all there is to know, and that a shiny veneer can conceal something considerably less appealing. Just below the surface of West Germany, moving murkily in the near depths, was the ever-present memory of the war and crimes that had led to the state’s creation in the first place.
She also quotes another scholar who pointed out that the period’s literature hearkened to noirish qualities as well, with “magical eyeglasses, limping prophets, martial toys, games and sports, powerful engines, robots and hydrogen bombs, abortion, suicide, genocide and the death of God.” I mention all this because my biggest takeaway is that there was a lot going on in the culture, and it would’ve been stranger if all of this didn’t find some ominous outlet. It’s all fairly fascinating to read about and is material I haven’t seen covered elsewhere in postwar histories, making it very worthwhile.
The focus only felt somewhat limited at times. I thought for sure the case of Anneliese Michel would be covered. She died age 23 in 1976 after an exorcism and Catholic ideas of demonic possession instead of proper treatment of her epilepsy and mental illness led to starvation, but it was never mentioned. The biggest focus are a few charlatans, namely Bruno Gröning, a former Nazi and mystic/professed faith healer who attracted hordes of followers who believed wholeheartedly in his healing powers, which targeted illnesses caused by “evil”.
She also focuses on the actual witchcraft trials that took place — amazingly enough — and mostly involved people accusing their neighbors of evildoing because something weird and seemingly inexplicable happened to them.
Narratives proliferate in the spaces between what is known and what isn’t, especially in the spaces where life and knowledge are the most fragile. Illness is mysterious. It comes without warning, and its sources are often hidden. By explaining death or illness or bad luck, witchcraft acts as a form of theodicy, a way of understanding why bad things — like granaries collapsing — happen when they do, and to whom.
So was there something evil haunting the land of West Germany? Of course not. Black emphasizes the social conditions, rife with “moments of instability, insecurity, and malaise”. Witchcraft accusations and fears “prevail in situations where dramatic change has caused the familiar suddenly to appear strange, and even ordinary occurrences — illness, bad luck, accidents, injuries — to gain graver meaning.” Let alone when one bad thing happens close behind another — accident or coincidence surely can’t be responsible, but rather orchestration by those who wish harm on the afflicted.
A fascinating and well-argued social history of an underexamined area.
A Demon-Haunted Land:
Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post–WWII Germany
by Monica Black
published November 17, 2020 by Henry Holt & Co.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.