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.
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.