Is witchcraft real What do witches do

Witch hunt then and now

The International Day Against Witch Mania will be celebrated for the first time on August 10th. Reason enough to take a look at the past. Between the late 15th and 18th centuries, around 60,000 people were executed as witches across Europe. Offenses such as allegedly flying on a broom or conjuring up crop failures were punished. Confessions were mostly obtained through torture.

Wolfgang Behringer is professor for early modern times at Saarland University in Saarbrücken and is familiar with the belief in witches. And he sees sad parallels between the past and today.

DW: What did it mean to call someone a witch?

The historian Wolfgang Behringer has dealt with the subject of the witch craze

Wolfgang Behringer: The term witch naturally means stigmatization. This could be done because you wanted to harm someone or because you were afraid of someone to whom you ascribed magical powers. In Europe they were often women, but not only. There are certainly similarities between being labeled as a witch in Europe and other parts of the world, in Africa, Latin America or Southeast Asia. In many cases, suspicions are directed against older women with no relatives who offered protection, and against women who may also have been a bit strange.

What did these supposed "witches" do?

In anthropology it is said that it is about dealing with unhappiness. And that's pretty much it. Either it is about personal unhappiness, for example a child's illness, paralysis that occurs, or the sudden death of a child. These are individual causes. And then there is collective misfortune, for example when cattle die or a hailstorm destroys the harvest. Individual plaintiffs do not appear, but entire communities can come together. They then demand that the state authorities persecute the witches in order to avert the misfortune.

When did the witch hunt start? When was their wedding?

In the Malleus Maleficarum (German: "Hexenhammer") the Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer explained in 1486 how to recognize a witch and how to force her to confess

The real European witch hunt did not begin until the 15th century, when the Roman Church accepted that this crime could even exist. Before that, that is, since Christianization in the early Middle Ages, the church took the position that witchcraft was actually a spiritual error. But in the course of the persecution of deviants, the Roman Church came to the conclusion in the 15th century that witchcraft was real. That was the time when it became dangerous in Europe, because not only the population believed in witchcraft, but also the church and the state courts. This "legal" witch hunt lasted from the 15th century to the 18th century. In Europe as a whole, it peaked between 1560 and 1630.

How did the witch hunt in Europe end?

In Europe there was always opposition to the supposed existence of witches, to witch trials and to the behavior of authorities who allowed witch hunts. The lawyers at the universities have basically learned the same rights that one learns today: in other words, in case of doubt, for the accused. That means that brakes have been built into European jurisprudence, which can also be activated and which can prevent legal proceedings from being carried out if the evidence is dubious. And in litigation, the evidence is always dubious. There was then a very long argument about the circumstances under which witchcraft could even be tried in court. This opposition grew stronger in the course of the 17th century. In the 18th century it took hold - and that was the end of the witch trials, so to speak.

And how does it look today? Does the witch craze still exist?

I have come to believe that more people were killed for witchcraft in the 20th century than in the entire period of European witch hunt in 300 years. For example, if you look at the figures in Tanzania, which are now also published by human rights organizations, then the victims of these killings number in the tens of thousands.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this refugee is accused of witchcraft

In the case of Tanzania, approximately 40,000 people were murdered between 1960 and 2000 on charges of alleged witchcraft. Witchcraft is not a crime in Tanzanian criminal law, but it is often village courts that decide that certain people should be killed. They are not just arbitrary acts, there are also structures behind them. That is why I have come to the conclusion that the witch persecution is not a historical problem, but a burning problem of our own present.

Interview conducted by Charlotte Müller.