• Germany's news in English

How the Germans went crazy for witch hunts

The Local · 23 May 2014, 15:29

Published: 23 May 2014 15:29 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

In the hills above the Bavarian village of Burgrain, a large group of students stands huddled around me. We’re in the ruins of what was once the castle of Werdenfels.

Torch stuck under my chin, I’m telling my young charges the gruesome tale of what transpired there some 400 years ago.

“Once the ‘witches’ had given in and confessed under torture, they were taken from the cells and put… well, I guess, right about where you’re standing… where more than 600 of them were burned alive!”

There’s a titter of nervous laughter and a few gasps. I’m hamming things up, but the tragic story of what happened to the women of this area – and indeed, women across Germany – across hundreds of years needs no embellishment to chill the blood.

When we think about hysterical witch hunts and the fury of a frenzied mob, our thoughts go to the events in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

However, if one really wants to see where hatred and fear of witchcraft begins, one need only look at German history. If there was a World Cup for witch-burnings, the Germans would be undisputed Weltmeister.

While those suspected of witchcraft had been persecuted across the Holy Roman Empire as early as the 12th and 13th centuries, things really didn’t kick off until the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, or ‘Hammer of Witches’ in 1487.

This deeply misogynistic text was written by a priest called Heinrich Kramer in response to his failed attempts to persecute some ‘witches’ in the Tirol region.

In the book, he laid out an argument in favour of the existence of witches, gave a legal and Biblical grounding for their persecution and instructed the reader on the best way to detect witchcraft.

It goes without saying that this was a deeply flawed work. Even the Inquisition felt the need to publish a statement shortly after the publication of the book, condemning it and stating that it didn’t reflect Church teaching.

Unfortunately, a new publishing industry hungry for content took the work and spread it across the German lands, finding its way into the homes of every mayor and sheriff across the country.

The Malleus Maleficarum effectively gave communities a rubber stamp for acts of mass hysteria. All it took was one person with a grudge to set a spark amongst kindling, accusing someone (usually an older woman) of cursing or hexing them.

Katharina is cursed

Near where I live is the town of Leonberg, just outside of Stuttgart. While it didn’t feature a witch trial on the scale of places like Augsburg or Nurtingen in Bavaria, what happened there did leave a great deal of records, due to the fact that the trial involved the mother of one of the greatest minds of all time, the astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler.

In 1615, local healer and grumpy old woman, Katharina Kepler was accused of cursing a neighbour’s daughter. Trouble had brewing for a while between her and a rival, who just so happened to be the grandmother of the neighbour’s daughter and it was only a matter of time before allegations of sorcery started flying.

Mama Kepler was soon thrown into prison. You can still visit the place today – a thick, squat tower called the Steinhaus. There she was held in filth and squalor for months until Johannes (who was serving as the Holy Roman Emperor’s mathematician over in Linz) heard and came and raised hell.

This kept the angry townsfolk off her back, but only for a while. In 1620 the city fathers grew brave enough to try again.

This time Johannes came back and pulled every string he knew of to slow the process.

Finally a compromise was reached – Katharina would be given the chance to confess by being shown the instruments of torture. Then she would be released.

Now, in these times, the only way someone could be punished was through a confession. In the absence of a fair, sane and reasonable legal system, most of early modern Europe figured the best way to do this was via prolonged bouts of torture with the rack, thumbscrews, fire and tongs.

Katharina was lucky – she only had to look at these implements of pain before refusing to confess and being released. Other women weren’t so lucky. Thousands of women across Germany between the 15th and 17th centuries were maimed and broken before finally being consigned to the flames.

Story continues below…

The experience must have been traumatic for Katharina, however. Coupled with the extended periods of incarceration, Katharina ended up dying the next year, a broken woman.

Compared to most, however, Katharina Kepler’s fate is fairly benign. When placed against the trials held in Würzburg and Bamberg, eight witches immolated in Leonberg’s pokey little town square is nothing. Over a thousand people including children would be executed in the years between 1626 and 1631 as hysteria swept the region.

The persecution of women as witches would only be quashed by the arrival of the Enlightenment, and even then, small pockets of hysteria would persist well into the 18th century. As late as the 1730s, children were being accused of witchcraft in Augsburg.

Compared to other historical genocides, such as the Holocaust, the medieval persecution of Jews and the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials of Europe seem relatively small scale.

But it is important to highlight and remember the fate of these women; victims of an insidious, almost unstoppable societal force in mass hysteria. It’s a force that, much to our chagrin, we’ve still yet to conquer.  

By Mike Stuchbery @Mike_Stuchberry

Mike is a teacher and writer originally from Australia and now living in Stuttgart.

Expat Dispatches is a weekly post from an English-language blogger or writer in Germany. It covers everything from lifestyle and food to history and culture. Email news@thelocal.com to have your blog considered for publication.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Parents who don't get nursery spot for kid entitled to pay
Photo: DPA

The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) ruled on Thursday that parents whose children don't receive placements in nursery care are entitled to compensation.

Eurowings braces as cabin crew union proclaims strike
Photo: DPA

A union representing cabin crew for Lufthansa's budget airline Eurowings announced that strikes could take place at any time over the next two weeks, starting on Monday.

Mysterious German U-boat wreckage found off Scotland
Photo: ScottishPower

First World War U-boat "attacked by sea monster” thought to be found off Scottish coast.

Supermarket Edeka warns of exploding apple juice bottles
Photo: DPA

"Risk of injury" from "Gut und Günstig" sparkling apple juice bottles has forced Germany's largest supermarket to recall the product.

By wheelchair from Syria to Germany: teen's story of hope
Nujeen Mustafa. Photo: HarperCollins-William Collins Publicity/Private

She tackled the gruelling 2,000-kilometre migrant trail in a wheelchair, translating along the way for other refugees using English she learned from a US soap opera. Now this teen is living in Germany and hoping to inspire others with a newly published memoir.

Berlin Zoo to have a pair of pandas by next summer
A recently born panda pair at Vienna Zoo. Photo: DPA

The giant bamboo-eating bears will move into a brand new 5,000 square-metre enclosure in the capital's Zoologischer Garten.

Two new spider species discovered in Munich
Zoropsis spinimana. Photo: rankingranqueen / Wikimedia Commons

It's news every arachnophobe in Munich is no doubt thrilled to hear: two types of spider new to the region have been discovered in the Bavarian capital - and one of them bites!

After woman's body found in barrel, husband may walk free
Franziska S., who went missing 24 years ago. Photo: Hanover police.

A woman disappeared in Hanover 24 years ago, but no one reported her missing. Although her husband has now confessed to her murder, he still may not step foot in jail.

Two injured after army tank falls 50 metres in Alps
A Bundeswehr Puma tank. File photo: DPA

A Bundeswehr (German army) soldier has been severely injured after the tank he was riding in crashed 50 metres down an embankment after going off course in bad weather.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd