Nineteen-forty-nine saw its share of extraordinary events. In August, the Soviet Union would test its first A-bomb. UFOs were witnessed from Japan to New Mexico and beyond. Early in the year, in Los Angeles, a freak snowfall—the biggest in the city’s recorded history—blanketed the beaches for three days.
And in western Germany, insistent end-of-days prophecies continued to swirl. But then amidst them, a very different kind of news suddenly took wing. In March 1949—the same month, and indeed on practically the very day that popular rumor had slated for the end of time—in the small Westphalian city of Herford, a young boy who was unable to stand on his own received a visit from a curious stranger.
Though no one, not even the boy’s parents, quite understood just what had happened, after meeting this man their boy got up out of bed for the first time in months and, slowly and hesitantly, began to walk.
The impact of this single occurrence would be explosive, like a bolt out of the blue. Soon, tens of thousands would stand in the rain for days at a time just to catch a glimpse of the apparent author of the boy’s recovery: an obscure, long-haired healer dressed in inky shades of blue and black. Cure-seekers would prostrate themselves in supplication before him, or try to buy his bathwater. Some believed he could raise the dead.
He would become the first German celebrity of the postwar era, his image splashed across newspapers and tabloids from one end of the country to the other. Paparazzi, police, and eventually a documentary film crew would trail him everywhere he went. Some called him miracle doctor (Wunderdoktor), miracle healer (Wunder heiler), wonder worker (Wundertäter), cure bringer (Heilspender), even savior (Heiland).
Others called him a charlatan, a demon, a sexual deviant, a dangerous lunatic, an inciter of mass hysteria. To yet others, he was “the Good Son of God.” His friends called him Gustav. His name was Bruno Bernhard Gröning.
The headline of one of the first national news stories about him gives us some idea of the stakes as people perceived them in that moment: God Sent Me: The Truth About the “Messiah of Herford.” Over the following months, Gröning was interviewed on the radio and featured on newsreels. Mere rumors that he might show up somewhere jammed city traffic for hours. High-ranking government officials extolled his talents before enormous crowds. Aristocrats and sports and movie stars befriended him.
Who was this Wunderdoktor Gröning, and what did he have to say? What made hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people read about him, listen to him, pilgrimage long distances in the hopes of meeting him? In part, the answer is that he was seen as the instrument of something powerfully providential.It was not even clear to anyone exactly what he was healing, or how.
Herford lay within the geographic scope of Alfred Dieck’s study of apocalyptic rumors, which had chronicled dire predictions of the imminent end of the world and terrifying prophecies of planet-smothering snows. Now, the chaos had yielded to something unexpected: healing. For those inclined to look for signs, one had arrived.
Still, exactly what that sign meant wasn’t easy to say. Like millions of his countrymen, Bruno Gröning was a former soldier and POW. He had also been a Nazi Party member. He didn’t have much in the way of what you might call a philosophy, at least not initially. He didn’t preach. He didn’t write books or found a church. When he spoke, it was mostly in hazy, elliptical aphorisms, which sometimes touched on vaguely spiritual themes but more often than not circled back to the topic of good versus evil.
He also did not really have a defined technique for curing the sick, at least not one that could be plainly articulated in words. It was not even clear to anyone exactly what he was healing, or how. His method, such as it was, mostly consisted of being near people who were ill and sometimes training his gaze on them. And that didn’t always work: the young boy whose cure became the origin story of this whole affair was back in bed again only a few weeks later. But often enough, the healing seemed to hold.
Many sources convey Gröning’s powerful impact on people, and many people testified to his cures. But from history’s standpoint, the real story is not him at all. It’s them: the huge crowds that surged up around him everywhere he went; the hopes, fears, and fantasies they projected onto him; and the vast drama of emotions—usually kept in tight check—that played out in those crowds.
The interaction between postwar German society and Bruno Gröning matters because in some very real sense, that society invented him to cure what ailed it—not just disease and injury, but forms of disquiet and damage that were much harder to see. This is a story about sickness and healing, and about the search for redemption. But first, it’s a story about a family and a stranger in town.
Dieter Hülsmann, the only child of Helmut and Anneliese, had been born just three days after the start of World War II. He had been a little slow to start walking. When he did, a little past the age of two, his steps were hesitant, and his feet gradually turned inward as he grew. At four, doctors put painful casts on his legs and feet to straighten them out. They went up to his knees.
Helmut was away at the war then, serving as an engineer in the Panzerwaffe, the Wehrmacht’s armored division. Later, he spent some time in a POW camp, returning home to Herford in June 1945.On the way home—whether by train or on foot—he would have seen mile after mile of ruins, the broken remains of a former life: mangled bridges, burned-out buildings, gutted machinery, and roadside graves with homemade crosses.
He probably had few illusions that the destruction had been contained at the front, especially since the front had come home to Germany. Letters from home, too, might have mentioned the bombs and the fighting and the endless refugee caravans. But hearing about and seeing are not the same.
Back home in Herford, Helmut found his boy in a miserable state. He had the casts cut off immediately. Still, Dieter’s condition worsened. Helmut took his son to the university clinic in Münster, 70 miles away. The diagnosis was vague but grim: progressive muscular atrophy. This assessment was confirmed in a pediatric clinic and by ten other “doctors and professors,” but none had any treatment to offer.
There is nothing we can do, the doctors reportedly told the family. Over the winter of 1948–49, when he was nine, Dieter took to his bed and did not get up for ten weeks. Nothing warmed his ice-cold legs—not blankets, not hot water bottles, not massages. When he tried to stand, Helmut later said, he “snapped forward at the waist like a pocket knife.”7
Anneliese’s father said he knew someone who knew a healer. The man had just helped a woman paralyzed for more than five years walk again. Maybe he could help the boy?
One day, an acquaintance brought Bruno Gröning to Herford by car. The relationship between him and the Hülsmanns got a fair amount of legal scrutiny later on, and the historical record betrays some confusion about the date, but it seems to have been March 14 or 15. The calendar promised imminent springtime, but Herford was gloomy, wet, and windy, and the coming days would be colder.Gröning was not especially comfortable speaking textbook German and by some accounts preferred the dialect of his home region.
Here, in the Ravensburg basin, between the Teutoburg Forest to the west and the low-slung hill country of the Weser River to the northeast, the late-winter sky can turn pitiless and leaden against a landscape of alternating woods and meadows, with towns and farms and villages unfurling into the distance as far as the eye can see. In rainy weather, mist can veil the black-brown earth, merging landscape and sunless sky into a single, inscrutable shade the color of wet wool.
The Hülsmanns made their home in a handsome, whitewashed villa on Wilhelmsplatz. Once, the square had boasted a statue—though not, as one might expect from its name, an homage to Emperor Wilhelm. The subject was a much older hero: the 8th-century rebel Saxon leader Widukind. After fighting the armies of the Frankish king Charlemagne for more than a decade, Widukind was defeated in 785 CE and converted to Christianity.
Legend has it that the Saxon, whose name meant “child of the forest,” rode to his baptism on a black horse. Whether this was an act of defiance in the face of a forced conversion or Widukind’s announcement of the spiritual death of his former pagan self, no one really knows. In lore, certainly, it is a redemption story: a “child of the forest”—meaning not only a pagan, in the thinking of his times, but a child of the Devil—became a Christian, a child of God.
Many Nazis, though, saw Widukind not only as a folk hero but as an ideological exemplar, a native Germanic resister against the militant Christianity of Charlemagne, whose Frankish Empire had destroyed local, pre-Christian gods and usurped the Germanic peoples’ historic freedoms. In the Westphalian countryside of the 1940s and ’50s, horse heads still decorated houses. Traditionally, it was said that Widukind’s spirit lived on in them, protecting homes and promoting health.
From 1899 until 1942, Widukind’s statue stood just steps away from the Hülsmanns’ front door. But during the war it was toppled and, like thousands of church bells and other treasures, melted down to make guns.If on reaching the Hülsmanns’ doorstep on that late-winter day Gröning had turned slightly westward, he would have seen not Widukind forged in triumphal bronze, astride a stallion and wearing a winged helmet, but a naked granite stump.
No documents allow us to reconstruct Gröning’s arrival in Herford in any detail. But photographs from the time let us imagine him against a gray afternoon’s backdrop, standing before the Hülsmanns’ tasteful home, maybe turned to take in that violated monument. He was not tall. His frame, though athletic, could tend toward gauntness. In pictures, his pushed-up shirtsleeves reveal strong, ropy arms.
His hair—wiry, dark, and quite long for the time and place—would often be a subject of interest (and humor) in the press. People commented again and again on his intensely blue eyes, which bulged slightly. His face was weathered, even haggard. He had hands accustomed to work, the ngers stained with nicotine.
He dressed simply, seemingly always in dark clothing. He spoke simply, too, many would say. In his pockets, he sometimes carried little tinfoil balls with bits of his hair and fingernails in them. And he had an unmistakable goiter that, he would claim, allowed him to absorb his patients’ sick-making energies.
Anneliese Hülsmann was a slim woman who dressed in a plain fashion, her hair tied back modestly. Helmut, for his part, was regarded by some as a bit crass—the sort to chew a fat cigar while talking too loudly at the same time. Still, given Helmut’s occupation as an engineer, the Hülsmanns would have belonged to prosperous Herford’s professional middle class.
Gröning’s origins, on the other hand, were working class. He was not especially comfortable speaking textbook German and by some accounts preferred the dialect of his home region. He chain-smoked American cigarettes—Chesterfields—and drank cup after cup of strong, black coffee. We don’t know exactly what happened after he arrived at the Hülsmann home, whether the group first sat together to drink coffee and smoke, to exchange pleasantries or misgivings. At some point, though, Gröning went in to see Dieter.
Scores of people would later attest to the extraordinary abilities of this long-haired, raw-boned refugee. How he seemed to possess the power to know what was going wrong in a sick person’s body, and how to talk to those who were ill. How, as soon as he appeared, everything changed. You could hear a pin drop, it was said.
Gröning’s gaze would travel slowly from one person to the next. He would stand perfectly still and perfectly silent with his hands in his pockets and tell the afflicted not to think too much about being ill. Their fingers would begin to tremble, and they felt things happening in other parts of their bodies as well. He would take the foil out of a pack of cigarettes and work it into a little ball, and then give these foil balls to the sick and tell them to hold the ball in their hands and focus on it until they felt better.
He had a habit, too, of repeating strange rhyming formulas, like: “it could also go down the other way around” (Umgekehrt ist auch was wert). Patients said they felt a warm current flowing through their bodies or an unaccustomed prickling sensation under his gaze.His brother Georg said Bruno could stop toothaches, just by concentrating on the hurting tooth.
What happened when Gröning first met Dieter Hülsmann would be told and retold for a long time after: initially in rumors, gossip, jokes, letters, and casual conversation; then via newspapers, magazines, sermons, speeches, films, pamphlets, and books; then in accusations, denunciations, exposés, police and psychiatric reports, witness statements, court briefs, legislative inquiries, and academic journals and eventually—much, much later—on websites in dozens of languages.It was not long before the villa at number 7 Wilhelmsplatz would be inundated with pilgrims, as news of Dieter’s cure spread far beyond Herford.
Within an hour of encountering the healer, the boy suddenly had feeling back in his legs, which Anneliese said “almost never happened anymore.” There was a burning sensation in his legs and back. His cold limbs had suddenly warmed. The next morning, however unsteadily or hesitantly, Dieter, who had spent much of that bleak postwar winter in bed, got up and walked.
Over the coming days, his condition improved further. At first, Helmut said, he “did not quite believe” what was happening. Yet soon he was convinced that his son was cured.After two weeks, Anneliese recalled, “my boy could move freely and walk without any help around the house and outside.” He still could not climb stairs without help, and he stood on tiptoe rather than with his feet fully on the ground.
But his father told the press that he was sure that this too would pass.By then, the Hülsmann family had invited Gröning to come and live with them. And he had accepted.
It was not long before the villa at number 7 Wilhelmsplatz would be inundated with pilgrims, as news of Dieter’s cure spread far beyond Herford, and then even beyond western Germany. Thousands would flood this small city, coming just in the hopes of seeing the black-clad Gröning or speaking with him for a moment, seeking relief for maladies of every imaginable kind. He would meet them in the Hülsmanns’ parlor or on their front lawn. From time to time, especially late at night, he would appear on the villa’s upper balcony to dispense cures to the crowds gathering below.
No one quite knew how they worked, but what they heard was wondrous: that people who had been paralyzed, or sick in bed for years, would suddenly stand up and walk. That adults and children with trouble speaking could talk without hesitation or constraint. That stiff and damaged limbs and fingers became supple, and lifelong pain vanished. That the deaf could hear and the blind see.
What brought clarity to the surging chaos of 1949, in short, was not the end of time, as rumor had predicted for months. Instead, it was a tale of miracles, one that almost anyone could recognize. As cure-seekers began trickling into Herford that spring, Wilhelmsplatz became a spiritual destination.
The world had not drowned in iniquity; there had been no apocalyptic fire, no death rays to split the earth in two. Instead, there was healing. There was redemption. Soon, what was already coming to be known as “the miracle of Herford” would grip the nation.
Excerpted from Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post–WWII Germany by Monica Black. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Monica Black. All rights reserved.