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When Democracy Ails, Magic Thrives

A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post–WWII Germany
Monica Black
Metropolitan Books, $29.99 (cloth)

On August 31 President Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that people in “dark shadows” were controlling Joe Biden. When pressed by Ingraham, Trump elaborated, “We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that.”

The president’s ravings might have seemed psychotic had they not fit a Zeitgeist of paranoid, conspiratorial, and even magical thinking that has arced across our land over the last four years. Earlier this year, Trump praised Stella Immanuel, a Houston minister and pediatrician who believes, among other things, that ovarian cysts are caused by sexual intercourse with demons. A swell of right-wing voters have taken to the QAnon conspiracy, the belief that a cabal of left-wing politicians and Hollywood elites lead an international child sex ring. In response to the swelling number of deaths caused by COVID-19, Vice President Mike Pence told the Republican National Convention, “America is a nation of miracles,” and that there would be a COVID-19 vaccine “by the end of this year.” Trump has also recommended injecting sunlight and bleach as possible COVID cures.

While such thinking is undoubtedly on a tear among right-wing Americans, the left too has indulged in its share of conspiratorial and mystical thought. The anti-vaxxer movement started among well-to-do liberals. High concentrations of unvaccinated children are to be found in some of the country’s wealthiest cities and suburbs, and Democrats are more likely to believe in astrology than the average American.

This preponderance of the mystical, the miraculous, and the conspiratorial may seem at odds with our supposedly rational, modern democracy. Yet a new book by historian Monica Black suggests that the irrational was never absent from the postwar order—and, moreover, that florid eruptions of mystical thinking often accompany periods of extreme political upheaval. Black’s A Demon-Haunted Land makes this case by examining the spasm of magical thinking that convulsed West Germany in the decade after World War II. During this time, the Federal Republic of Germany, which today stands as a beacon of liberal democracy, was beset by witch scares and false messiahs. Painting a portrait of a land unable to come to terms with its violent past—and with the crimes of Nazism in particular—Black also suggests troubling parallels between the young republic and our own.

Read entire article at Boston Review