When Democracy Ails, Magic Thrives

West German witchcraft trials after World War II reveal how political rupture can fuel magical thinking

Samuel Clowes Huneke in Boston Review: On August 31 (2020) President Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people in “dark shadows” were controlling Joe Biden. When pressed by Ingraham, Trump elaborated, “We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that.”

The president’s ravings might have seemed psychotic had they not fit a Zeitgeist of paranoid, conspiratorial, and even magical thinking that has arced across our land over the last four years. Earlier this year, Trump praised Stella Immanuel, a Houston minister and pediatrician who believes, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sexual intercourse with demons. A swell of right-wing voters have taken to the QAnon conspiracy, the belief that a cabal of left-wing politicians and Hollywood elites lead an international child sex ring. In response to the swelling number of deaths caused by COVID-19, Vice President Mike Pence told the Republican National Convention, “America is a nation of miracles,” and that there would be a COVID-19 vaccine “by the end of this year.” Trump has also recommended injecting sunlight and bleach as possible COVID cures.

While such thinking is undoubtedly on a tear among right-wing Americans, the left too has indulged in its share of conspiratorial and mystical thought.

The anti-vaxxer movement started among well-to-do liberals. High concentrations of unvaccinated children are to be found in some of the country’s wealthiest cities and suburbs, and Democrats are more likely to believe in astrology than the average American.

This preponderance of the mystical, the miraculous, and the conspiratorial may seem at odds with our supposedly rational, modern democracy. Yet a new book by historian Monica Black suggests that the irrational was never absent from the postwar order—and, moreover, that florid eruptions of mystical thinking often accompany periods of extreme political upheaval. Black’s A Demon-Haunted Land makes this case by examining the spasm of magical thinking that convulsed West Germany in the decade after World War II. During this time, the Federal Republic of Germany, which today stands as a beacon of liberal democracy, was beset by witch scares and false messiahs. Painting a portrait of a land unable to come to terms with its violent past—and with the crimes of Nazism in particular—Black also suggests troubling parallels between the young republic and our own.

Black is an evocative writer, and, as befits her subject, she describes Germany at the cataclysmic end of World War II in epic terms. As it became clear that the Allies would win, Nazi leaders, many of whom had long held an interest in the occult, began to hold out hope for “wonder weapons” that might save the collapsing country. Meanwhile, ordinary Germans turned to magical thinking:

People did what human beings have long done when faced with a void of understanding: they scanned nature for portents. . . . In fall 1944, in the Sudetenland, people reported an enormous cloud of smoke in the eastern sky, and a bloody fist, shaking threateningly. In Lower Silesia, people saw the sun ‘dance’ and look as though, at any moment, it would collide with the earth. Those who witnessed it believed that the world would soon ‘sink in flames and death.’ A fiery sword materialized over the Bohemian Forest. Someone witnessed an immense cross in the heavens, with the full moon at its center. In Friesoythe, in Lower Saxony, a local man with the gift of second sight had a vision: his whole town consumed in flames.

Apocalyptic portents abated with the war’s end in 1945, but belief in the supernatural remained alive and well. Between 1947 and 1956, there were seventy-seven recorded trials that involved accusations of witchcraft in West Germany, a number that does not account for the scores more accusations of witchcraft that never ended up in court. At the time of West Germany’s founding in 1949, the new country’s newspapers and tabloids were full of reports of witches and medicine men roaming the countryside. Black asks readers to consider how it changes our perspective of the young German democracy—and its relationship to the Nazi past—if we treat these incidents not as fringe occurrences, but as moments when something true about its culture was revealed.

Scholars long painted West Germany as a success story: in the ruins of National Socialism, the country forged a stable parliamentary democracy. While the land was devastated in 1945—Allied firebombing had reduced some 80 percent of all urban buildings to rubble—the West German economy rebounded aggressively in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, a period of growth that contemporaries termed “the economic miracle.” In 1955, restored to most of its sovereign rights, West Germany remilitarized and joined NATO as a partner in the Western globalist project.

But over the last twenty years or so, historians have increasingly cast doubt on these simplified success narratives, especially as they relate to West Germany’s first decade. Scholars now point to the country’s extreme misogyny and patriarchal structures as well as its persecution of gay men (over 50,000 men were convicted under Nazi-era homosexuality statutes before they were abolished in 1969). The idea that a “zero hour” starkly separated the Nazi era from the postwar seems now to have been primarily a product of midcentury optimism. More here.