A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black

After World War II, Germany had to rebuilt itself literally, politically and—as we learn in Monica Black’s intriguing book, A Demon-Haunted Land—psychologically. Black dove into state and newspaper archives to reveal a history I’d never heard about. In the 1950s, spiritual healers and witch hunts broke out in the new West Germany. Faith healers are nothing new to American me, but in Germany? And witch hunts? Black uses the evidence to explain how healers and hunters were a deeply, troubling psychological response to the crimes and horrors of the Third Reich.

Black’s argument rests on two main stories and on the work of mid-Twentieth century German psychologists. After an introduction that sets the stage, Black begins the story of Bruno Gröning. After service in the Wehrmacht, Gröning supposedly cured a boy of life-long paralysis. This cure—and Gröning’s talk of God and evil people—turned Gröning into an instant celebrity. The boy’s family home became a pilgrimage point for hundreds of ailing Germans, hoping for a miracle. The crowds drawn by Gröning cause local governments to urge the healer to move on, back and forth across Germany. From 1949 to his fall from grace in court in 1957, Gröning was seen by some Germans as the answer to all their problems…and by others as a fraud. Black then moves on to tell the story of another healer, Waldemar Eberling, who started to (indirectly) accuse his neighbors of evil-doing. He is a murkier figure than Gröning. Where Gröning is portrayed as mostly harmless, Eberling’s accusations lead to at least one nervous breakdown and is generally viewed as a nastier person.

While Black discusses the careers (for lack of a better word) of Gröning and Eberling, she reveals a long-standing controversy in German medicine. At the same time that Germany was making incredible advances in pharmacy and medical practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the country also apparently had a roaring trade in folk and lay medicine. Healers would use Besprechen—spoken charms or formulas—to break curses and cure people. Patients could buy devil’s dung (asafoetida) at any pharmacy. Before and after World War II, officials and doctors wondered about how to stifle folk healing. At the same time, some psychologists argued that folk healers could help patients who had afflictions that we would now diagnose as psychosomatic or conversion disorders.

Black also dissects the issue of trust and mistrust in post-war Germany as part of her larger effort to explain why faith/folk healers and witch hunts were so popular. She argues that many people felt betrayed by their institutions: the government, doctors, etc. Turning to folk healers must have made sense to people who found that their doctors couldn’t do anything for them other than to say, “it was all in their heads.” Black goes so far as to argue that some Germans lost their faith in reality. She writes that, for years, ordinary Germans had been told that they were invincible and that it was their destiny to rule the world. The last years of the war, their defeat by the Allies, and the Allied occupation must have been seen by some Germans as punishment. No doctor can help someone who feels like fate has just slapped them, but maybe a folk healer could.

I was very interested in Gröning and Eberling’s stories, and was impressed by Black’s industrious work in all those archives. That said, A Demon-Haunted Land felt a bit thin to me. I just couldn’t quite buy all of Black’s argument that post-war Germany was completely swept up in supernatural fears. All of Black’s sources are articles from news magazines and newspapers, court documents, and published books. I missed seeing ordinary Germans speaking for themselves. There’s a lot of theorizing in this book, but not a whole lot of direct proof from Germans who sought healing or were accused of being witches to support it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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