From 1945 until the late 1950s, a wave of accusations of witchcraft swept through Germany, and tens of thousands of people flocked to wonder healers. But why? And what links these phenomena to today's conspiracy theories? A conversation with the US-American historian Monica Black.

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?

Bruno Gröning in Herford, 1949, with fan mail; source:

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.

Grönings follo­wers at the Traberhof in Rosen­heim, 1949; source:

SG: But Gröning certainly was a contro­ver­sial figure?

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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?

Source: Der Spiegel, April 4, 1951

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)