This is an extraordinary work of history. Michael Kunze is not the usual sort of historian, he is best known as a translator, but he studied history and wrote his thesis on the trial of the Papenheimer family. In due course he produced this work of one of Europe’s best-documented witch trials.
In the early 1600s Germany was spiraling toward all-out war between Protestants, Catholics, Imperial authority and independent principalities. Munich in the duchy of Bavaria was a center of the Counter Reformation, a place where Catholic intellectuals gathered at the ducal court to lay the groundwork for a new century. Into this came the Papenheimers, a family of itinerant septic-tank cleaners. An accusation by a thief they had some acquaintance with led authorities to arrest them on the charge of witchcraft. What followed was an atrocity of small-scale, yet savage, bestial cruelty. The Papenheimers became the focus of an effort to purge the troubled land of Satan’s influence. They were tortured with inhuman cruelty until they confessed a myriad of crimes. Even more unspeakable was their execution, carried out with demented brutality. Every act was meticulously documented and carefully authorized under the rule of law.
Kunze examines the world of the Papenhimers and their persecutors. His account considers the lives of beggars, thieves, travelling fold, lawyers, and nobles. Kunze does not shy away from the cruelties inflicted on the Papenheimers and others caught up in the withchunt. This is not an easy book to read, it took me well over a decade before I could bring myself to read it to the conclusion.
Kunze sticks closely to the facts, presenting them in a straightforward fashion. One almost senses a subtle message at work here. The 17th century permitted abominations like the Papenheimer trial despite the warnings of men troubled by the flawed logic and evident cruelty of witch hunting. For the most part witch-hunters were honored and rewarded. Indeed, given the seeming collective insanity that perpetrated the Thirty Years War, the witch hunters crimes are at least limited. Indeed, when Kunze wrote this in the early 1980s, the crimes of the Third Reich were living memory. There were yet men willing to shoot and kill people for the crime of crossing the Berlin Wall. Germany was still divided from the last global war and the common wisdom that the next, by no means an unthinkable occurrence, would annihilate mankind. In his own, understated way, Kunze throws a piercing light on the recurring moral questions of mankind.