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.

24 responses to “German Witches

  • Bernadette

    Really enjoyed learning more about witches! Have an interest in Trier too, as my daughter spent a year there, you did tell me about the witch connection to Trier in a comment you made on one of my posts,but I never got round to checking it out. Thanks for the information about the postcard industry, and the cards are just great. I was at an exhibition of ephemera yesterday, and bought some lovely old postcards for my own collection, I would have bought everything in the place, trade cards historical pamphlets, old posters, if I hadn’t already bought a lot in the Genealogy Fair at was at prior to that!

  • daseger

    Oh, I’m envious, Bernadette–never been to Trier and definitely want to go. I also look forward to seeing some of your new/old postcards on your blog.

  • markd60

    The bottom witch looks like that optical illusion witch where you see a witch one way bu if you look right it is a young girl.

  • wolke205

    Great post! I m from Germany, actually I live in Bavaria. But I have been visiting the Brocken & Harz many times, especially in my early childhood. It s wonderful there & I wish to celebrate the “Walpurgisnacht” there one time, maybe next year or so.

    I should add that me & parts of my family are pretty spiritual & for us it s not just the “commercial gag” that industry made out of it the last years. You can feel the energy there, it s just “magic” 🙂 Same with Halloween, my grandpa passed away 7 years ago at Halloween. I dont like this “Trick or Treat”, it s Samhain for me & I celebrate this special day with a lot of candles & meditation. Sorry for my bad english.

    Those postcards are lovely, thanks for sharing them.


  • Nelson Dionne

    Re; Salem Witch postcards. I have a dozen or so antique witch cards from Salem in my collection. My & large, they did not seem to try to connect the Salem Witch with Halloween. I’ll scan them all & send them along soon.
    One question; how many other countries celebrate Halloween the same was as we do ?

    • daseger

      A BIG question, Nelson! Love to hear from people around the world–my impression is that it’s bigger and more commercial in the USA (like everything else!)

  • ceciliag

    Good God, I mean.. goodness me.. I need to go back and read this again as i was so flabbergasted by the sheer numbers that i lost the thread. also the hitler/german witches connection? and the postcards.. and in NZ halloween was nonexistent until only a very few years ago, still nothing much really.. they have it in england but it is an american event and once again quite recent.. why?

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  • Cindy Luu White

    Really enjoyed this about the German witches , very interesting . want to learn more.

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  • Sue Knight

    I did read that the high numbers of witch trials were due to large numbers of people eating rye bread tainted with Ergot which caused hallucinations resulting in wild behaviour .

  • salemcat2016

    As a huge fan of Halloween, I am also one of Walpurgisnacht.

    My dream (and other’s nightmare), would be an organized celebration of Walpurgis Night each year in Salem !

  • salemcat2016

    Love the article and the illustrations !

    Have you considered doing one on England’s PENDLE WITCHES ?

  • James R Weiss

    My ancestors might be among those witches

  • Clae

    Wow thank you so much for your time and detail <3
    I am looking to find out more about this as my paternal family is German and I feel a strong connection. Do you have book recommendations on the subject?

  • Ralph Trigger

    So many innocents were prosecuted for being Witches in Europe, that it is far more likely than not that every person of European Descent has an ancestor that was affected.

    As I am one, I am qualified to give full permission to modern businesses to “profit” from the sufferings of my forebears.

    Every Coffee Mug and Tee Shirt sold makes it less likely that the tragedy will be forgotten.

    • daseger

      Interesting perspective, Ralph.

      • Ralph Trigger

        I’m holding hands with my Jewish Brothers and Sisters who NEVER want the Holocaust to be forgotten, as well as, ironically, those who wish Civil War statues to remain unmolested.

        History is often ugly, and it is those parts we must especially keep foremost less they be repeated.

      • Ralph Trigger

        Please forgive me if it seems political, because politics do not belong here.

        Still, I have no issue with jobs and profit.

        It is the businesses and people of the Salem Tourism Industry that have the lessons of 1692 alive for over a century.

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