In Germany alone, 25.000 women and man have been put to death

broom (Photo: Sitade/iStockphoto)

The proposal has been made. For months, a work group that deals with the witch trials and consists of many engaged Protestants has been promoting the rehabilitation of the witches, addressing the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the regional Evangelical churches. Their favoured date is the Reformation anniversary in 2017. Martin Luther, the Reformer, whose posting of his theses 500 years ago will then be commemorated, has given massive support to the witch trials in Europe, and many pastors followed his example.

Luther himself claims to have seen demons in Wittenberg

Luther did indeed not treat the alleged followers of Satan very gently. When, in July 1537, an alleged warlock was burnt on the stake, although he had repented the deeds he was accused of, Luther commented at table: "Johannes did penance in a righteous manner, brought many people towards the fear of God with his example, and died with a joyful heart." The existence of Satan, of demons and their helpers, the witches, was an uncontested fact for Luther. He himself claims to have seen demons behind the provost's residence in Wittenberg.

The issue of the witch trials is, and remains, a dark chapter in the history of ecclesiastical and secular courts, and a topic for further research. What has happened there was a large-scale injustice, even if conformed to the legal regulations of that time. Many verdicts were the result of "confessions" under torture. In Germany alone, 25.000 men and women lost their lives. It was the judges and their helpers who have made the accused into witches. This was the only reason for their existence.

A legal rehabilitation will achieve nothing

The work group distinguishes between theological, moral, and socio-ethical rehabilitation. It is its main concern that the witches get back their honour and that "the guilt is taken away from the souls of the victims", and that the role of Martin Luther and the church during the persecution of the witches is assessed. And the work group connects this to a current issue: The persecution of witches ought to become apparent as one of the reasons for social exclusion and violence until today. Thus, a rehabilitation would be "a historical opportunity to make a symbolic mark against physical and spiritual violence".

How can the church and the state do justice to this issue? Most likely not through a legal rehabilitation, an annulment of the verdicts and a compensation for the damages. Many of the trials were correct according to the legal standards of their time. There is no doubt that they severely violated the human rights as they are acknowledged today, especially with regards to torture. Only in very few cases, the legal successor of the old ecclesiastical and secular courts can be named today, and the same holds true for the victims. Another question is the statutory period of limitation for judicial murder. The legal requirements for a rehabilitation in the proper sense are missing, but the moral responsibility of the state and the church remains.

Luther's speeches contributed to the spreading of the witch hysteria

And especially that of the science of history. The scientific assessment of the witch trials has achieved a lot. This is what the church ought to concentrate on. It is important to know, and it has been described often, that Martin Luther's speeches and the sermons held by pastors have contributed to the spreading of the witch hysteria. It is informative and depressing that witches were persecuted in Protestant and Catholic territories. The role of the common people has also become apparent – they sometimes accused others in order to gain personal profit.

Both within and without the church there is nobody who would still justify these trials. A public legal act could only underline this matter of fact. But the continuation of scientific research will perhaps reveal even further insights.