A Demon-Haunted Land. Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany

Black, Monica
New York 2020: Metropolitan Books
Anzahl Seiten
333 S.
$ 29.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Michael E. O'Sullivan, School of Liberal Arts, Marist College, Poughkeepsie

Monica Black’s long awaited A Demon-Haunted Land achieves a rare feat for academic historians; she makes an important intellectual contribution while also telling a gripping story. Her tour de force uses the rich evidence about postwar faith healers to capture the underlying guilt and trauma in German society after dictatorship and genocide; it also illustrates why fascination with spiritualities outside the bounds of organized Christianity peaked in the early 1950s. The fluidly-written book fulfills the potential of its engaging source base and is sure to be read in college classrooms and book clubs for years to come.

A Demon-Haunted Land lucidly uncovers the impact of several overlooked individuals who either garnered attention for alleged supernatural prowess after the war or investigated faith healing and witchcraft. Black argues that the „haunting of postwar West Germany“ had both „vertical“ and „horizontal“ forms. The former included „individuals who felt afflicted, guilty, or damned“ and found a „savior“ primarily in the person of the so-called Wunderdoktor Bruno Gröning (1906–1959). The latter refers to a „witch scare“ which consumed multiple regions and pitted neighbors against one another (p. 256). Both of these hauntings produced a voluminous written record and scores of anecdotes built around compelling personalities. It may be astonishing that this has been unacknowledged by previous academics.

Gröning and his large following forms a focal point of the narrative. A former member of the Nazi party from Danzig, he emerged after miracle cures in the Westphalian city of Herford. Already, the complexity of his appeal was apparent. Black observes, „On the one hand, he spoke of God and divine energy; on the other, about ‚evil people‘ who infected tree roots with demonic spirits and made their neighbors ill.“ (p. 63) This duality between good and evil attracted Germans who „had been accustomed for at least a generation to see the world in extreme, black-or-white ways, in terms of allies and enemies, good and evil, ‚Aryans‘ and others.“ (p. 70) Gröning then moved from Heidelberg to Munich to a farm in Rosenheim, where the devoted crowds reached their peak. He collaborated for another few years with the former SS man Otto Meckelburg and his wife, Renée, to monetize tours of West Germany. By the end of the 1950s, he became a more secular health guru. The fact that Gröning „consistently surrounded himself not just with other rank-and-file former Nazis but with more prominent ones“ adds extra dimensions for an analysis of West Germany’s problematic memory of the recent past (p. 53). Black deftly uses Gröning’s disputed public image to tease out the social, emotional, and even psychological impact of World War II on the West German population.

Other charismatic individuals advance Black’s narrative as well. For example, Waldemar Eberling was a folk healer from Schleswig-Holstein who accused neighbors of witchcraft. Despite his credentials as a socialist and anti-Nazi, Black warns the reader not to see Eberling’s story as one of a National Socialist victim using witchcraft allegations to achieve postwar justice. She exposes elements of his story that were both dishonest and fraudulent too. Finally, Johann Kruse’s role as steadfast opponent of witchcraft drives interest in the final chapters. A figure who made critical linkages between belief in witchcraft and antisemitism, Kruse’s ultimate marginalization bolsters many of Black’s arguments about how unspoken feelings of guilt, pain, and humiliation of the Federal Republic’s early years functioned.

Black rejects narratives that exclusively focus on democratic stability and rapid economic growth. She uses the folk beliefs of West Germans to explore the darker emotions underneath the veneer of new parliamentary elections and economic prosperity that was widespread by the mid-1950s. Black is not the first to focus on the turmoil of the late 1940s and early 1950s in Germany. Her analysis of German memory in this era evokes the work of Robert G. Moeller about how Germans emphasized their own victimization after the war rather than their own war crimes.1 Black’s observations about anxiety in the face of rapid change remind one of Adam Seipp’s writing about refugees and expellees in Wildflecken and Maria Höhn’s analysis of how racial and gender-based chauvinism flared in the midst of postwar transformation.2 Even scholars who emphasize future West German democratic success depict these early stages as a slow „learning process.“3 Yet A Demon-Haunted Land sheds new light on this period by intimately looking at the psyche of a „society that collapsed morally and materially, and then had to begin the process of remaking itself.“ (p. 14) Black’s exploration of the themes of good and evil in the public speeches of Gröning, the intimate details his followers shared with him, and the writings of figures such as Kruse capture the repressed guilt and horror of the previous years with unique profundity. She diagnoses „a strong undercurrent of malaise, one that those involved in scenes of spiritual tumult often connected, directly or indirectly, to the Nazi past.“ (p. 149) Her dedication to a history of silences and „elisions“ communicates the wretched juxtaposition of a people moving rapidly toward a new beginning after unthinkable genocide, violent dictatorship, and disruptive defeat (p. 91).

This study also contributes to the history of religion in Germany. Black’s meticulous research about faith healing and belief in witchcraft demonstrates the widespread existence of spiritualities rarely considered by historians of modern Germany. The ubiquity of folk belief in the supernatural transcended confessional and regional boundaries. While Gröning’s popularity soared initially in Catholic Bavaria, he possessed followers in Protestant and secular enclaves of the country, where accusations of witchcraft also flourished. The book balances analysis of Gröning’s position as a religious figure with the many other roles he played for followers. Black describes the „spiritual thirst“ evident through his many adherents in Munich and Rosenheim. She compares such a following to the raucous pilgrims of Marian apparitions in the Bavarian town of Heroldsbach and contrasts it with the „modest and short-lived“ increase in church attendance after the war (p. 94). However, she also ascribes secular meaning to part of Gröning’s appeal. His public appearances were moments to process the recent past, work out conceptions of good and evil, and revolt against modern medicine. In fact, Gröning transitioned to a mainstream entrepreneur by the late 1950s once the cultural moment for charismatic spirituality had passed.

This book supports other recent work indicating intense spirituality outside the control of the institutional Christian churches in mid-twentieth-century Germany. The diverse spiritualities of the National Socialist movement, the vast network of unsanctioned miracles in the Catholic tradition, and the popular folk traditions examined in this study should provoke more research about subaltern beliefs in East Germany and further debate among scholars of religion about the worldview of West Germans.4 The narrative of twentieth-century religion is no longer one of secular decline or the vain preservation of Christian subculture against a tidal wave of modern change. Rather formal religion crumbled through the reinvention of past traditions, some religious and some secular. This multi-polar fragmentation contributed to the loss of institutional authority that Catholic and Protestant leaders never regained. Yet Bruno Gröning’s many evolutions symbolized the fluidity rather than the absence of religion in modern Germany.

Monica Black’s interview with Geschichte der Gegenwart indicates that this book’s influence will persist.5 She relates her study of faith healing and witchcraft belief to the pervasiveness of conspiracy theory in the 21st century. Here she highlights the distaste many academics have for episodes that seem as if they do not belong on the modern world. As recent political events have shown, ignoring such phenomena comes with a steep cost. Black’s eloquent exploration of belief in the supernatural should be required reading for historians hoping to understand not only collective trauma but also periods of widespread mistrust in the modern world. Her eloquent writing style and magnetic source material assure a wide distribution of her ideas. A German translation of the book is announced by Klett-Cotta for October 2021.6

1 Robert G. Moeller, War Stories. The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Berkeley 2001.
2 Adam Seipp, Strangers in a Wild Place. Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945–1952, Bloomington 2013; Maria Höhn, GIs and Fräuleins. The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany, Chapel Hill 2002.
3 Konrad H. Jarausch, After Hitler. Recivilizing the Germans, 1945–1995, Oxford 2007; Till van Rahden, Demokratie. Eine gefährdete Lebensform, Frankfurt am Main 2019.
4 Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters. A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, New Haven 2017.
5 Phenomena of the Irrational. On wonder doctors, witches and conspiracy theories, in: Geschichte der Gegenwart, 20 December 2020, URL: <> (8 June 2021); German translation: Phänomene des Irrationalen. Wunderheiler, Hexen und Verschwörungsmythen, in: Geschichte der Gegenwart, 20 December 2020, URL: <> (8 June 2021).
6 Monica Black, Deutsche Dämonen. Hexen, Wunderheiler und die Geister der Vergangenheit im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Aus dem Englischen von Werner Roller, Stuttgart 2021 (in preparation).