Burned for Spoiling Beer: Germany Rehabilitates Its Persecuted ‘Witches’
Tortured and burned at the stake by the tens of thousands, Germany’s alleged witches have been largely forgotten. But thanks to efforts by a small group of activists, a number of German cities have begun absolving women, men and children who were wrongly accused of causing plagues, storms and bad harvests.
It began with the trial and execution of an eight-year-old girl for witchcraft in the spring of 1630. Compelled to name others involved in an alleged nighttime dance with the devil in the German town of Oberkirchen, young Christine Teipel’s confession sparked a wave of fingerpointing and subsequent trials. Within just three months, 58 people, including 22 men and two children, were burned at the stake there.
The Oberkirchen trials represent just a small fraction of those that led to the execution of some 25,000 alleged witches between 1500 and 1782 in Germany. The country was a hotbed of persecution, says witch-trial expert Hartmut Hegeler, explaining that some 40 percent of the 60,000 witches who were tortured and killed in Europe during the infamous era were executed in what is now modern Germany. Hegeler, 65, a retired Protestant minister and college religion instructor in the western German town of Unna, is now working to rehabilitate these supposed witches city by city.
“We owe it to the victims to finally acknowledge that they died innocent back then,” Hegeler told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “But this is not just about the past — it’s a signal against the violence and marginalization of people that goes on today.”
It was mainly women who were targeted, although there were also a surprisingly high number of men as well as a few children like Oberkirchen’s Christine Teipel. They were accused of not only cavorting with the devil, but also of causing insect plagues, bad weather, ruined harvests and even spoiling the production of beer.