Interview with Dr. Kai Lehmann, curator of the exhibition "Luther und die Hexen" ("Luther and the witches")

Luther and the witches
(Photo: Axel Bauer-Rassbach)

Was Martin Luther a supporter of the witch-hunts? Would he have permitted witch-hunts in Protestant areas? Kai Lehmann, curator of the special exhibition "Luther und die Hexen" in Schmalkalden, tells us during this interview how the delusion of the witch-hunts was actually able to emerge during the age of the Reformation, and what kind of things the exhibition presents to its visitors. Did Martin Luther believe in witches?

Kai Lehmann: Martin Luther was firmly convinced of the existence of witches. He believed that they harmed human beings, cattle and the harvest with their magic. He requested that witches should be killed by fire. However, he wanted nothing less or more than punishment for a crime that he perceived as a real one. Like murder or theft, the crime of witchcraft should also be punished. Even Paracelsus, the inventor of modern medicine, or Melanchthon, who was already called the "teacher of Germany" during his lifetime – all of Luther's contemporaries believed in witches and wanted them to be punished.

How did he justify his attitude towards the persecution of witches?

Lehmann: The actual witch mania, with mass hysteria and mass executions, only began one generation after Luther's death. During his time there were individual persecutions, for example the burning of four alleged witches in Wittenberg. At that time, however, the Reformer was not in Wittenberg, and he never uttered a word about the case. Luther himself held an aggressive sermon against witches in 1526. Within five minutes, his parishioners in Wittenberg heard him say five times that witches must be killed. He justified his opinion with the Second Book of Moses in the Bible: "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live." Other striking statements of Luther are: "They do harm in manifold ways. Therefore they shall be killed.", or "I want to be the first to put fire to them."

What does your exhibition "Luther and the witches. Witch-hunts south of the Thuringian forest" show?

Lehmann: At the risk of some who will now believe that I am mad: The exhibition comes to the conclusion that the mass persecution of witches would never have happened if the Protestant authorities had followed Martin Luther. This seems to be a total contradiction to what I just said, because Luther requested the killing of witches. But in his theology he raised obstacles that would not have allowed a witch trial to take place. He was convinced that the harmful spells performed by the witches, damaging people, cattle and harvests in the name of the devil, were legitimised by God. God grants a special sphere of influence to the devil, in which he performs his nefarious deeds with the help of demons and ghosts. Furthermore, Luther said: "Do not fight against these harmful spells. For you do not know what God wants with them. You do not know the greater divine plan behind it all." Luther quotes the example of Job from the Old Testament, who is hit by one stroke of fate after the other, something like a case of a harmful spell. Job, however, does not falter but remains true to his absolute trust in God. God rewards him with even more cattle and even more offspring.

The mass trials against witches were caused by a perfidious system of "telling", assuming that a participant in a witches' sabbath who confessed under torture would have seen, and recognised, other witches as well. Most often, names were told during the interrogation, just to have a respite from the incredible pain. This "telling" often had a domino effect, because the next accused women put the blame on yet another one. Presumably, Luther would not have let this happen. He believed in the existence of three elements of witchcraft: the "pact with the devil", the "whoredom with the devil" - intercourse with the devil in order to seal the pact -, and the "harmful spells". However, he categorically dismissed the fourth element, the "witches' sabbath" with the witches flying to their dance. For him, the dance of the witches was a deception of the devil, not a real event. Elsewhere, the Reformer firmly wrote that it were forbidden to believe that witches rode a broom or a stick and that all members of the secret association got together in one place. Now we can put two and two together and claim that, without a witches' sabbath, a "telling" would not have been possible. To those who think that this is too simple a conclusion I say: In Schmalkalden, we have a Luther reception that argues with Martin Luther in order to save a man's live.

How do you interpret Luther's attitude towards the issue of the witches in the exhibition?

Lehmann: With ca. 100 exhibits on 600 square metres we familiarise the visitors with Martin Luther's theology and especially with his period of time. On exhibit are archaeological finds from the 15th until the 17th century, for example amulets, shards, ceramic pots or stone marbles, as well as church books and instruments of torture. Wall panels, mazes and rusted metal convey the nightmarish and cold emotions of the topic. Another installation makes the visitors walk through seas of banners hanging from the ceiling. Listening stations convey Luther's opinion. The design of the exhibition covers Luther's attitude towards witchcraft and that of the spiritual and intellectual world between the 15th and the 17th century, but also documents a real case. As an example, the trial against Lena Güntzlin, who was accused of witchcraft, is set out in all its phases. Large panels and exemplary exhibits illustrate the different stages of the trial, its background and its notions. All classical stages of a secular inquisition trial are presented: from the "telling" to the "secret hearing of witnesses", the "role of the university", the "painful interrogation", the "confession", and ultimately the "final verdict".

How was it possible that the delusion of witch-burnings emerged during the late Middle Ages and the early modern age?

Lehmann: Because the time was ripe! In the late Middle Ages, two unfortunate courses of affairs coincided, causing the crime of witchcraft to literally be invented by scholars. On the one hand they determined the four already mentioned elements that needed to be fulfilled for a witch to be detected. On the other hand there were external influences: towards the end of the 16th century, a climate change occurred, the so-called "small ice age". It had severe consequences for a culture dominated by agriculture. There were the religious struggles and uncertainties due to Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The plague returned, took its course, and shook the empire. Conquests and religious wars brutalised the people. Many factors came together and caused the outbreak of this delusion.

Were less witches or warlocks burned in Protestant areas?

Lehmann: No! A witch trial, wherever it took place, was exclusively performed by secular courts. The verdicts were most often spoken by courts of lay assessors at universities. The stakes burned in Catholic and Protestant areas. A classical example is the south of Thuringia, where many Lutherans lived. The region touches the borders of the Catholic prince-bishoprics of Bamberg and Würzburg. There, too, around thousand cases of witch persecutions happened.

What is the role of magical thinking and superstition in early Protestantism?

Lehmann: It played a very large role. No matter to which social class one belonged, the world was permeated by deep superstition. Martin Luther wanted to take action against this. He even went a step further, criminalising all kinds of "white magic" like the blessing of the harvest or healing spells, too. He wanted to see both being punished, because they were not biblically legitimised.

If Luther did not perceive the accused as demonic beings, what else did he see in them?

Lehmann: Luther was Janus-faced. On the one hand he requested in his sermons that witches should be killed, on the other hand he handles individual cases in a relatively mild way. One example he frequently mentioned during his table talks in Wittenberg is that of the student Valerius Klockner. He had come to Luther in order to confess that he was a warlock and that he had made a pact with the devil. Luther told him the consequences, educated him, and brought him back to the bosom of the church. He personally spoke the oath formula for him. Here, Luther followed the motto "education instead of burning". In another instance, a veritable witch craze broke out in Wittenberg in 1529. On September 12th of that year, Martin Luther ascended the pulpit and tried to appease his parishioners: "I also admonish you not to believe that your misfortune and troubles are caused by witches."


Dr. Kai Lehmann
Dr. Kai Lehmann (Photo: PR)

Dr. Kai Lehmann is the director of the Museum Castle Wilhelmsburg in Schmalkalden and curator of the exhibition "Luther und die Hexen" ("Luther and the witches"). The exhibition will be on display until January 15th, 2013.