German Witches

It is very interesting to me that Germany was at the absolute center of the “witch craze” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the creation of a commercial Halloween/witchcraft culture several centuries later.  No area experienced more witchcraft trials in the early modern era than the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and no country contributed more to the modern conception of Halloween than Germany.  It’s a very Salem-like connection between tragic history and contemporary consumerism.

The most credible estimates for the number of executions for witchcraft between 1450-1750 are in the range of 40,000 to 60,ooo people across Europe, with southern and central regions of Germany accounting for between 17,000 and 26,000 executions, as compared to between 5000-6000 executions for all of France, around 1000 executions for England and Wales, and a mere 50 estimated executions in Spain, where there was little religious diversity to fuel the fires.  The intense witch-hunting in Germany, especially between 1580-1630, has led its leading historian to assert that “witchcraft is as ‘German’ as the Hitler phenomenon, and will similarly occupy our attention for a while longer”. (Wolfgang Behringer, Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria:  Popular Magic, Religious Zealotry, and Reason of State in Early Modern Europe, 1989 & 1997)

Images of conspiratorial witchcraft in early modern Germany are lurid, much more lurid than the hexentanz (witches’ dance) and hexentanzplatz (witches’ dancing place/floor) postcards issued in huge numbers from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, although there are similar motifs and themes.  Below is an illustration of the hexentanzplatz at Trier from a 1594 Flugbatt (“flying pamphlet”) about the massive witch trials in that city (which may have resulted in as many as 1000 executions between 1581 and 1593) and a hexentanzplatz postcard from about 400 years later.  As you can see, the earlier image is of an orgy-like witches’ sabbat, while the later image is of an equally fantastic, but much less nefarious, dance.

The other difference between these two images is that the one below refers to an actual place:  the Hexentanzplatz is a mountain plateau in the Harz Mountains of north central Germany.  Located in modern-day Saxony-Anhalt, it is a site that has long been associated with pre-Christian rituals, along with the nearby Brocken, the highest peak in the mountain range and another supposed sabbat site.  As interest in German folklore intensified in the nineteenth century, so too did interest in this region, and it became the site of a mountain-top hotel, an open-air theater, and Walpurgis Night (April 30-May 1) festivities.  So this postcard is both an expression of the popular interest in witchcraft as well as a form of advertising.  More Hexentanzplatz postcards from the 1890-1930 period are below, some a bit more commercial, some a bit more creative, and all featuring witches.

And here are two images of Brockenhexen, witches flying to Brocken mountain for the Sabbat:  the first is a commercial postcard from the 1890s, the second an illustration from an 1878 article in Harper’s Magazine (via the New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

These German witches actually have nothing to do with Halloween; they flew to the mountains on Walpurgis night, the transition between spring and summer.  But their images were easily relevant to another pre-Christian seasonal holiday, Halloween, especially given the German dominance of the postcard publishing industry before World War I.  In fact, 75% of all postcards disseminated in the United States before 1914 were printed by one of Germany’s 30 postcard manufacturers, either under their own auspices or in collaboration with an American publisher.  Americans wanted their witches to be on Halloween postcards, along with other symbols of the holiday, and Germans responded to this demand, generally with images of much less menacing withes than the Brockenhexen. Here are three more witches “made in Germany”, including one flying over a very familiar place.


18 responses to “German Witches

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