Svenja Goltermann: Conspiracy theories captivate millions of people; this is very clear in the context of the Corona pandemic. The spectrum of misleading and occasionally dangerous fake news is broad, ranging from the claim that secret powers set the pandemic in motion in order to establish a “new world order” to esoteric declarations claiming that there is no proof of the Corona virus at all, and that, accordingly, the “mania for vaccination” has to be resisted.
Monica, you are a historian and you have been doing research for many years on European history in the 20th century, especially on German post-war history. Your most recent book A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany, has just been published. Is the book about conspiracy theories?
Monica Black: Yes and no, I would say—though my book is definitely about ways of apprehending the world that can be very hard to wrap our heads around and sometimes appear quite objectionable. Principally, the book tries to get at an aspect of postwar history in the Federal Republic of Germany that has often been difficult for historians to access: the spiritual and social-psychological effects on German society of defeat in WWII and amidst the revelations of the Holocaust. Germany in defeat was shattered both physically and metaphysically, I argue. Defeat prompted a host of extremely difficult questions about blame and responsibility and judgement and guilt. Hannah Arendt famously described postwar Germans’ “flight from reality” and inability “to distinguish altogether between facts and opinion.” Yet there may also have been reasons why reality had stopped making sense. The world itself—life, reality, the physical environment, human relationships, whole ways of perceiving and understanding the world—had been dramatically and violently shaken apart. I look at the malaise and dislocation and alienation people felt in those years, a period we usually associate with the economic miracle and swift rebuilding. Because it was also in those years that the Wunderdoktor Bruno Gröning rose to fame, that there was a sharp uptick in neighbors accusing each other of witchcraft, of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and a host of other seemingly “untimely” phenomena.
SG: I have done a little research on Bruno Gröning, the wonder healer, who is a central figure in your book. He died in 1959, however, he is anything but forgotten today; this is ensured by the “Bruno-Gröning-Freundeskreis” (Bruno Gröning Circle of Friends), founded in 1979, which still invokes Gröning’s “healing flow” as being effective even today. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the “Circle of Friends” has between 12,000 and 60,000 followers today, making it “one of the largest sects in the country” in 2018. Well, what makes Bruno Gröning interesting from a historical point of view?
MB: I am less interested in Gröning the person than I am in what he tells us about postwar society. When he showed up in Herford, there had just been a spate of apocalyptic rumors swirling through the country, and his visit there literally coincided with the date that these rumors—widely circulated by word-of-mouth and in newspapers—had predicted for the end of the world. That gave his appearance a particular set of meanings: the end of time had yielded instead to a time of healing and redemption. This example is only one in which we can perceive something of the salvific quality that people associated with Gröning.
SG: Could Gröning have also filled a void with regard to medicine?
MB: Yes, indeed, Gröning held a very particular position in the postwar period. Forms of supernatural or magical healing were, for large numbers of people, very attractive, before, during, and after the Nazi era. In that sense, Gröning was a part of a broader and longer-standing pattern. But during the postwar period, he was an object of enormous attraction for large swaths of the population – even those who would not otherwise have sought out a healer like him. Medicine had been corrupted, perverted, used to eugenic ends in the Third Reich, as is well known. Many people in the postwar years felt leery of medical doctors, or felt that medicine had failed them. Yet at the same time that people came to Gröning with every ailment you can imagine, he had his best success, it was often said, in treating people experiencing forms of sudden paralysis—people unable to walk, for example—as well as blindness.
I found that especially interesting, because it seemed to me a chance for thinking about what exactly ailed postwar society and what Bruno Gröning was curing when he treated people. These were social forms of sickness, forms of illness that grew out of mistrust and alienation. People trusted Gröning in ways that they no longer felt they could trust others, including their doctors. They wanted to meet him, sit with him, be near him, talk with him.
SG: But Gröning certainly was a controversial figure?
MB: In the early 1950s, Gröning was put on trial for violating the Heilpraktikergesetz (law for nonmedical practitioners) and, on the basis of various documentation, he was psychoanalyzed by Alexander Mitscherlich, who saw him as a kind of Hitler 2.0. Mitscherlich pointed out that Gröning cultivated a certain mystique that fed such opinions—his proclivity for dressing all in black and standing on balconies to address the people at his gatherings. And Mitscherlich was not the only person to regard Gröning with a combination of skepticism and dread. It was not clear to a lot of people exactly what he represented, and what effects he was having and exactly what his intentions were. But in fact, in many ways Gröning seems to have been as surprised (and even alarmed) by the responses he received from the public as his detractors were. He was stunned, for example, by how many people showed up to see him on some occasions. At one point he told the press, “Every home is a hospital,” as though he himself was shocked by the sheer volume of human need.
So again, I wanted to understand the nature of those responses, and to comprehend the nature of that need and what it represented, the different kinds of suffering—not all of them biological or physical—that were being expressed in those gatherings around him.
SG: There is another remarkable phenomenon in the postwar period, which you mentioned at the beginning, namely the accusations of witchcraft. Between the late 1940s and the late 1950s, these cases increased considerably. Yet historians on contemporary history have not written anything about it …
MB: Yes, it’s amazing, as this uptick was widely reported in various forms of national media, and became a subject of concern within state governments and among clerics, journalists, academics, and opinion pollsters, among others. Though we associate witchcraft accusations with the early modern period, in truth such accusations never stopped being made. They just no longer resulted in large-scale clerical investigations and executions any more after the eighteenth century. So accusing one’s neighbor of being a witch was neither an unknown phenomenon, nor something specific to Germany. But why this sudden increase after WWII?
Witchcraft scholars would tell us that fears of witches—and witchcraft accusations—are more likely to emerge in moments of instability and insecurity, moments very much like the one that followed WWII in Germany. In the most basic sense, to accuse someone of being a witch is to accuse that person of being party to a conspiracy, of plotting with demonic forces to do covert evil—to inflict harm, misfortune, and sickness. Witchcraft can in this sense be understood as an idiom of interpersonal and communal conflict.
SG: Could you be a little more specific about what that means in terms of the postwar period?
MB: A case for which an enormous cache of evidence still exists took place in Dithmarschen, when a local healer touched off a spate of rumors about some neighbors being witches. What I discovered, reading that huge file in the archives in Schleswig, was just how close to the surface of daily life various social tensions linked to the Nazi past remained, and how easily a sense of unease and suspicion—10 years after the war ended—could be ignited.
We have to think about what a tense atmosphere must have prevailed in some local settings, and especially in face-to-face communities where everyone knew everyone. Many people in the 1950s remembered how the Nazi new order had settled in as the dictatorship took control—the way property, power, and position were seized by the new masters and handed out among friends and allies. Then, after 1945, those same friends and allies sometimes lost their ill-gotten gains. Those who had social and other forms of power in the Third Reich and then lost it lived side by side with those who had lost power and then regained it after the war. In communities where witchcraft was an idiom of social conflict, that was a situation ripe for accusations to surface.
The situation was not as incomprehensible as it may seem at first. After all, witchcraft accusations had certain structural similarities to Nazi antisemitism. One of the main figures in the book, a former schoolteacher named Johann Kruse, who was very active in trying to educate the public about the socially destructive aspects of witchcraft accusations, identified this problem already in the 1920s. He noticed how often, in times of trouble, people would look for someone to blame in the face of misfortune. Not infrequently, he found, this was related to what he called Judenhetze. In other words, both witchcraft accusations and antisemitism were forms of social othering that involved the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame when things went wrong.
SG: By the early 1960s, this wave of witchcraft accusations faded away. Can you give us an explanation for this?
MB: The anxieties and social mistrust that had prompted those accusations in the first place gradually diminished over those two decades following the war. But also, witchcraft accusations are often driven by multiple misfortunes, and a search for answers to explain why one is experiencing one piece of bad luck after another. By the late 1950s and early 60s, many people had begun to see their lives improve quite dramatically. Materially, many were better off than they had ever been before. And as the distance grew from the war’s end, fears that one’s neighbor might harbor some latent grudge or might expose them for some past wrongdoing gradually leached away.
SG: One last question, by which I would like to turn once again to the immediate present. Is there anything you could draw from your studies of the conspiracy myths and phantasms of the postwar period to better understand the current upswing in conspiracy myths?
MB: One thing I would say is this: There is a consistent tendency in a society like yours or mine—Germany and the USA—to see an efflorescence of supernatural thinking or conspiracy-mindedness not only as deeply strange, but even as unintelligible, and really just too fringy to spend much time thinking about. One of the things that is supposed to define the modern world, after all, is its supposed distance from fears of witches or ideas about demonic conspiracies, something people usually associate with an earlier time. As a historian (and also as a US American!), this idea has always struck me as self-evidently false. As you note, in our present moment, the wildest conspiracy theories—QAnon, with its claims about Satan-worshipping cannibal sex-traffickers in the Democratic party—proliferate with incredible ease via cutting-edge technologies. In fact, there is often, it seems to me, a curious intersection between the proliferation of new technology in our world and supposedly antique fears. That should give those convinced of modernity’s rationality pause.
But also: features of the QAnon conspiracy theory bear a striking resemblance to the so-called “satanic panic” of the 1980s in the US and UK. Few commentaries that I have read have sought to trace out those links in any detailed manner. But it seems that there is both an issue of cultural memory here—that is, in terms of the kinds of motifs and ideas that get recycled again and again—and an anthropological one. Why do human beings evince such a fascination, across time and transculturally, with ideas about supernatural evil, and why are these ideas so often linked to blood drinking and other forms of bodily violation? As a historian, that’s one of the things I would certainly like to understand more about.
Monica Black, A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts in Post-WWII Germany (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020)