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Leben mit den Toten: Geisterglauben und die Entstehung des Spiritismus in Deutschland 1770-1900 [Living with the Dead. The Belief in Ghosts and the Development of Spiritism in Germany 1770-1900], by Diethard Sawicki

Cover of Leben mit den Toten
Publication Details: 
Ferdinand Schöningh, ISBN: 978-3506782793
Publish date: 
December, 2016

Reviewed by Michael Nahm

Already now, Sawicki’s voluminous historical treatise is a classic. The author published its first edition in 2002 as a book version of his Ph.D. Dissertation. In 2016, it was reissued, and supplied with an Afterword by Sawicki in which he reflected on some of the recent developments in the literature dealing with historical and sociological aspects of “the occult” and related topics.

The main body of the text, however, has remained unchanged. As the title describes, it is concerned with the development of spiritism in Germany. In this context, Sawicki refers to spiritism as a generic term that subsumes the varying concepts of the lore that spirits of the deceased can manifest on the earthly realm and can communicate with the living. The author divided the period under examination into four epochs: 1770-1810 (the late Age of Enlightenment); 1810-1850 (the age of Nature Philosophy); 1850-1860 (the beginnings of spiritism proper in Germany, and 1860-1900 (the time period, in which the occupation with spiritism was characterized by organizations and private scholars dedicated to it, as well as by commercial entertainment).

The four main parts of his book are linked by three Intermezzi. Each of the main parts contains three to five chapters that constitute either general overviews on various topics, or “micro studies” that elucidate specific episodes or person-bound developments in meticulous detail. In tracing and analysing spiritistic developments in the described manner, Sawicki’s book closes a gap in historical assessments of civic societies of that age, as previous studies largely neglected seemingly marginal customs that deviated from mainstream traditions, and thus tended to present oversimplified reconstructions of 19th-century social life and its true heterogeneity. Through referring to a large extent to lesser known and also unpublished material in especially some of the case studies, Sawicki demonstrates how the occupation with spiritism reflects private fears, hopes and phantasies of people of this time.

Singling out important chapters is usually a matter of personal predilections. In my case, Intermezzo 1 is remarkable in its dealing with an extraordinary report of an apparition of the deceased wife of private scholar Johann Karl Wötzel. The latter published a book about it in 1804, and, as Sawicki shows, this book stirred numerous controversial discussions and reactions in the subsequent years. In particular, I liked the part dealing with Nature Philosophy, but other parts also contain interesting sections – for example about Ludwig von Güldenstubbe’s version of spiritism that was publicized in deliberate opposition to that of Allan Kardec and his followers in Paris, and how it affected noted German writers such as Immanuel Herrmann von Fichte (son of philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte) and Maximilian Perty; or about the wave of renewed interest in spiritism that followed Friedrich Zöllner’s experiments with medium Henry Slade, or the brief case study about Karl May, the creator of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, who was deeply immersed in spiritistic thinking and practices.

Nevertheless, after so much praising, I also have a few minor critical remarks. First, Sawicki seems to follow a common tradition in that historical writers about parapsychological topics seem largely uninterested in psi phenomena per se, and also tend to assume a superior position when judging about them. For example, Sawicki regards some of Emanuel Swedenborg’s apparently well-confirmed psychical experiences such as his real-time description of the fire in Stockholm as mere “myths” and “hawked stories” (p. 44; for more information on Swedenborg’s seeming psychic abilities, see e.g., de Geymüller, 1936; Tafel, 1877; Haraldsson & Gerding, 2010; Haraldsson, 2011); and he regards Carl du Prel’s writings as “unoriginal philosophical Pasticcio” (p. 307; for more information on du Prel and his work, see Sommer, 2009).

Second, Sawicki argues that from a sociocultural perspective, purposefully fraudulent shamans or mediums can hardly be separated from those who honestly believe that they possess psychic powers (he doesn’t consider the possibility that at least some might possess genuine psychic abilities), and he also argues that spiritistic mediums occupy the same functions as shamans do and did in their native societies, and are similarly pushed into their roles by their contemporaries and adherents. Whilst I agree that this is true to some extent, expressing this appraisal in a generalized manner constitutes an oversimplification of the matters. Shamans, including those who use tricks, usually occupy an important social function and contribute to keeping their society stable within the frame of tradition, and are indeed often designated to take this role against their will (cf. Reichbart, 1978). In contrast, mediums, especially fraudulent ones, almost always self-select their profession and pursue it with remarkably autocratic persistency; and they don’t fulfil an indispensable and important function in society any more (for early examples, see e.g., von Gulat-Wellenburg, von Klinckowstroem, & Rosenbusch, 1925, for recent examples see Nahm, 2014, 2016, 2018). Third, Sawicki’s book contains a few small mistakes. For example, again relating to Swedenborg and Kant’s reception of his work, Sawicki repeated du Prel’s (1889) error in dating Kant’s latest comments on Swedenborg in his “Lectures on Psychology” to 1788, whereas these lectures were in fact held in the 1770s, and thus, still belong to Kant’s “pre-critical” period (e.g., see Kvist, 2008).

With this, I stop such marginal criticisms, and wholeheartedly recommend this seminal book to anybody interested in the history of spiritism of its various kinds. It is a treasure trove that builds on countless hardly known and/or rare sources, vividly portraying the development of spiritism in Germany on different levels. Its only major drawback for most English readers will be the German language. It is a pity that Sawicki’s book is not available in English. Let us hope that one day, at least parts of Sawicki’s volume will become translated.


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Dr. Michael Nahm at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health (IGPP) in Freiburg, Germany, can be reached via email: