COLOGNE - She was smart, influential, held in high esteem. And she didn’t see why she had to put up with the rumors that were circulating about her. People said that Katharina Henot, a Cologne patrician, had made a pact with the devil. She was a loose woman and a trouble maker. Not only had she infested a nunnery with caterpillars, she had made a number of local citizens sick -- and her evil magic could even kill.
The widow Henot, who was the daughter and heiress of imperial postmaster Jakob Henot, wasn’t going to take it anymore. In August 1626 she wrote a letter in her own defense to the Cologne Vicar General and Electorate commissioners and warned the nuns at the cloister who were spreading vile things about her, as well as others who had denounced her, that she would take legal steps.
It did no good. A few months later, the city council received a formal complaint: Katharina Henot was now officially accused of being a witch. What followed was appalling. And she stood no chance, because fear and superstition were the enemies she faced, and possibly envy because of her privileged social position.
A woman somewhere between her late forties and late fifties, mother of a grown daughter, Henot was tortured at least three times. The pain inflicted on her must have been unimaginable to finally make her admit to what another woman accused of being a sorceress had -- under torture -- said about her: that she was a witch. On May 19 1627, Henot was publically executed. After being garroted – a form of execution regarded as particularly gruesome – her body was burned.
Three hundred and eighty-five years later, on June 28, 2012, Katharina Henot and 37 other men and women who were victims of witch hunts in the Rhine city, were rehabilitated by the Cologne City Council. The Council was unanimous in its denunciation of “any form of abuse of human dignity and human rights.” Its resolution states that "the Council of the City of Cologne condemns the executions that were carried out at the time."
This is not a legal act – no official lifting of the verdicts – because legally the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation disappeared without a legal successor. So this was a symbolic gesture, a saving of honor and recognition of innocence albeit somewhat late in the day for those concerned.
No small number
It was also a way of showing how easy it is to marginalize people, to defame them so that they are no longer even seen as people but as demons to be exterminated. Historians estimate that 25,000 men and women in Germany were executed because they were supposedly in league with the devil.
However, it would not be right to accuse the city of Cologne of not having dealt previously with this unsavory aspect of its history. A school and a street bear Katharina Henot’s name, and there is a sculpture of her along with 123 other important historical figures on the Town Hall tower. The local "Bläck Fööss" music group also dedicated a song to her.
The City Council’s declaration is important not least because it acknowledges the many other – less prominent – victims. Among the 37 others executed were three men and a boy. An 8-year-old girl was luckier: the alleged child-witch was allowed to keep her life but ordered to leave the city.
The man who made the rehabilitation proposal to Cologne’s City Council is a retired Protestant clergyman, Hartmut Hegeler, from the town of Unna, also in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He has been working for ten years to create awareness of the issue, and views the unanimous decision of the complaints committee on February 13, 2012 to recommend that the Council opt for rehabilitation as a milestone.
Cologne is now the 14th commune in Germany to have taken action to distance itself from this aspect of its past. After the City Council vote, Hegeler said he was "very relieved." But his fight is not over. By way of reparation, he wants not only for a Mass honoring the victims to be celebrated in Cologne Cathedral but for the Cologne church to officially rehabilitate the victims of the Inquisition.
However, it was a secular court that condemned Katharina Henot; she had been declared not guilty by a church court. And witch hunting was no explicitly Catholic phenomenon: it took place in Protestant areas as well. Martin Luther believed in the existence of witches and approved of taking steps against them.
But it was a Dominican monk, Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, who in 1487 wrote the handbook for witch hunters entitled the "Hexenhammer" which listed what in his view were the tell-tale signs that identified those who had made pacts with the devil. If suspects did not admit to such things as having taken part in a “Witches’ Sabbath” then they were to be tortured until such time as they did admit it.
It presently looks as if both Protestant and Catholic churches will soon acknowledge their responsibility for the witch hunts. Committed Protestants have launched an initiative urging the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and established Protestant state churches to rehabilitate the victims of witch hunts no later than the 2017 Reformation anniversary celebrations.
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