Part I: Reading Signs
How can we explain Bruno Gröning’s explosive impact in post-World War II Germany, like a bolt out of the blue? People waited in the rain for days to catch a glimpse of him, prostrated themselves in supplication before him, tried to buy his bathwater, and believed he could raise the dead. What freighted his appearance with such intense outpourings of emotion? Had he emerged at any other moment, he might have remained a simple lay healer. He would have developed a local following, treated the sick in his community, and had no wider influence. Instead, he was hailed as a messiah. The secular imagination fails before scenes like those that greeted Gröning.
Bruno Gröning, cover of Der Spiegel newsmagazine, summer 1949.
One thing seems certain. His arrival would never have been so dramatic had it not been preceded by years of spiritual insecurity and wave after wave of apocalyptic rumors—an especially fervent round of which was just culminating as he shambled onto history’s stage in the spring of 1949. Suddenly, end-time rumors were replaced by extraordinary reports of a different variety: a pious man of the people was healing the sick and helping the ailing. According to the rumors, Gröning had been sent by God, the forerunner of some final unveiling. To appreciate the magnitude of the reverberations he unleashed, we have to return to the war, and the kinds of questions it raised in some Germans’ minds—questions that, once posed, would never stop being asked.
One day in July 1942, townspeople in Lemgo, in Westphalia, gathered to watch their elderly Jewish neighbors report for deportation. Some among the spectators warned that the nation was inviting divine wrath, treating old people that way. It was not a popular point of view, but there it was. At least for some, the way the war was being carried out—a merciless campaign that swept even the elderly into its vortex—presented spiritual dangers: the possibility that God would punish Germany, or that the war itself was a punishment. Though Germans as a group remained largely indifferent to their Jewish fellow citizens’ fate, some worried about retribution, and during the catastrophic latter stages of WWII, many wondered what was coming next. “Germans mixed anxieties about their culpability with a sense of their own victimhood,” writes Nicholas Stargardt. People found themselves listening to available hypotheses, sorting through possible outcomes. Nearly everyone got into the business of predicting the future, and became adept in reading signs.
This pattern of mixing anxiety and self-pity, and of engaging in interpretive speculation, emerged after what Stargardt has argued was the turning point of the German war: the firebombing of Hamburg. For more than a week in late summer 1943, British and American bombers assaulted the city from the air. Thirty-four thousand people were killed and many sections of Germany’s second-largest city burned to the ground. The Allies called the campaign Operation Gomorrah, after the impenitent city razed by God in Genesis. Surely the Allies did not intend for the name to telegraph a message about methods or destructive capacity alone: “Gomorrah” was a claim about whose side God was on. It was prophecy. On some level, the Allies understood how to weaponize spiritual anxiety, understood that the war they were fighting was staggering not just in its scope, lethality, and tactics, but existentially and morally staggering, capable of provoking ancient fears of vengeful gods. “Our hometown is dying,” a pastor told his congregation after Hamburg’s bombing. “Should we accuse the Royal Air Force?” No, he concluded; it was not the enemy’s hand in play now, it was “His hand!”