There are certain themes prevalent in every variety of Witch-Hunt: one is the maligning of the Witch or Witches who are either the literal or figurative objects of the hunt, impugning them so viciously and thoroughly that their social assault comes to seem almost a noble and necessary thing; another is the inflammation of accusation and opinion so that a firestorm of hysteria erupts, subsiding finally into a state of reflection in which people often end up asking themselves, what was that going on? what happened? what did we do? Families and friends of the accused Witch or Witches are often drawn into the conflagration, as the contagion of Witch-hysteria spreads; transgressive sexuality is often an issue, as sexuality is a “hot-button” topic (imagine all the lurid medieval tales of Witches fornicating with demons, and consider the taboo impact that the word “fornication” alone has); accusations of the abuse of children frequently occur, as child abuse strikes a deep and primal chord (medieval Witches were thought to cannibalize children- think of Hansel and Gretel- and boil off their fat to make Witches’ ointments). All these things and more tend to be characteristic of a Witch-Hunt, whether of the Great Witch Hunts of Europe, or Salem, or the McCarthy Communist hearings, or the McMartin Preschool case, or the trial of the West Memphis Three.
According to Robert Rapley in Witch Hunts From Salem to Guantanamo Bay, the worst of the European Witch Hunts took place within the German cities of Bamberg and Wurzburg, each ruled absolutely by a Prince-Bishop. As was the case with European Witch Crazes, torture drove the hysteria, as accused Witches were tortured into confessions and the naming of accomplices, each new name reinforcing the perception that a massive Witch conspiracy was being uncovered. The short span of the Hunts (1626-1630) and the number of people accused and condemned (317 women and 136 men, with at least 278 put to death) indicates the frightening ferocity. The earliest accusations started in 1626, ballooning into major conflagrations by 1628. In 1626, 15 men and women were accused; in 1627, the number of accusations increased to 85; to 137 in 1628; rising to 167 in 1629 (the height of the craze). In 1630 the number of accused dropped to 54, with almost none after. (Throughout the ratio of women accused to men was roughly 2/3).
As might be surmised, something of a Witch-Hunting industry arose in both cities, with an almost factory-like system of moving accused victims into prison and torture; forcing the names of more accused; then processing them into “trials” based upon the “confessions” elicited, before the final stage of execution. The mechanical nature of the proceedings in Bamberg is seen in the construction of the Hexenhaus (“Witches’ House”); smaller German towns seem to have had lesser scaled equivalents. According to Emile Grillot de Givry in Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy, the building was constructed in 1627 and depicted in the print seen above. A line from Virgil can be read above the entrance, “Learn justice, and having learned, beware you slight not the gods!” Two tablets on either side of the entrance quote a passage from I Kings ix, 7, 8, and 9: “This house…shall be…a byword…Every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the Lord done this unto this land, and to this house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the Lord their God…and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the Lord brought upon them all this evil.” The smaller building in the back contains the torture chamber. The first floor contains the warder’s room, with eight cells opening onto the hall, and a chapel in the rear. The second story contains a room called the Confession Chamber, eighteen cells, and a room for the warder. Six stoves provided heat; the building could hold up to thirty Witches.
The question comes: is this German House for Hunting Witches (with nothing similar existing anywhere else in Europe) possibly a precursor to the Nazi concentration camps?