The Nazi Ghosthunters

With few direct witnesses to Nazi atrocities left alive, some Germans are chasing ghosts. Literally.
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With few direct witnesses to Nazi atrocities left alive, some Germans are chasing ghosts. Literally.
(Illustration: Corey Brickley)

(Illustration: Corey Brickley)

On a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in Belgium, Tom Pedall is trying to convince a dead Nazi soldier to touch him. “If anyone is here,” he says in German, standing in the Hürtgenwald, a former battlefield on the German border, “can you make yourself felt with a noise or a nudge?” He steels himself for a response, but his electromagnetic wave detector, a small device he claims will indicate the presence of ghosts, remains silent. The only sound is the wind rustling the tall pine trees. “Can you touch our equipment?” he repeats. Claudia, his girlfriend, shakes her head a few feet away. No response. Nothing.

Claudia and Tom are self-proclaimed ghost hunters. They are also members of Ghosthunter NRWup, a group of paranormal enthusiasts based out of Wuppertal, near Cologne. Inspired by the success of Ghost Hunters, an American reality television show, Germany has experienced a bump in enthusiasm for the paranormal. Over the past decade, the number of German ghost-hunting organizations has grown from zero to about 30, according to Alexa Waschkau, an ethnologist who specializes in German paranormality.

"These are locations where the souls maybe haven't realized that they've died."

Pedall thinks that’s still not enough: “Ghost hunting is a niche subject in Germany, unlike in the United Kingdom or the United States—perhaps because Germans tend to think so rationally.” But they have other reasons to be resistant: If ghosts are souls that cannot find rest, some Germans would argue their nation is haunted enough without paranormal solicitation. Unlike numerous other German ghost-hunting groups, Pedall’s has been especially assertive about targeting spirits from the Nazi era. They’ve visited Nazi bunkers and a villa near Cologne that was the site of a notorious killing by the Gestapo. “We wanted to get away from the usual locations, like castles,” he says. “Plus, I’ve always been a big Second World War buff.”

On today’s trip, the goal is to contact soldiers killed during the Battle of the Bulge, one of Germany’s last major offensives of the war. Pedall believes the area may be haunted by regular soldiers as well as by members of the Kampfgruppe Peiper, an SS unit infamous for executing nearly 100 American prisoners in 1944. Ghosthunter NRWup’s goal, its members are careful to stress, isn’t political. “I don’t identify with one side or the other,” says Hagen, another member of the group, whose day job is in IT. “I suppose it’s this egotistical thing about just wanting to know what’s going on.”

The wind picks up, and the Ghosthunter group—which also includes Wula, a husky-voiced hairdresser, and Thomas, a swordsmith catering to medieval re-enactors—hunkers down in the remnants of an abandoned U.S. aid station. The Hürtgenwald is still dotted with small shelters built by World War II soldiers, and its ground is pockmarked by countless artillery craters.

“Let’s try playing some sounds,” Pedall says, and he presses a button on his phone. Battle noises from Band of Brothers, the HBO miniseries about a U.S. parachute infantry regiment, drift across the former battlefield. “These are locations where the souls maybe haven’t realized that they’ve died,” Pedall explains. The audio, he argues, allows spirits to latch onto something familiar—in this case, the sound of explosions and an American-sounding actor yelling, “I can’t feel my legs.” To everybody’s disappointment, it doesn’t drum up any activity. “Maybe it’s the rain,” Pedall says, shivering. After trying to establish contact for another half hour, the group tires of the weather and retreats to a nearby McDonald’s restaurant.

Even 70 years after the end of the war, the Nazi era remains a delicate subject in Germany, and many Germans surely find ghost hunting distasteful. But Pedall is undeterred. The period is now distant enough, he argues, that it has become fair game, even for non-traditional study.

Psychologists studying memory have established that forgetting has some benefits—helping sufferers of trauma, for instance, to cope. But a guilty party or people, many would say, has a duty to remember.

“It’s about whether a generation has passed,” he explains, as he digs into a McMenü meal of hamburgers and fries, “and there are barely any more living witnesses to the Second World War.” He says he would also like to hunt for ghosts and spirits in a nearby bunker complex and the Waldniel Hostert, a former school that housed part of the Nazis’ child-euthanasia program.

In American popular culture, ghost stories often reflect contemporary anxieties about mortality, technology, or home ownership. But in Germany, ghost stories about the Nazi era bring up queasier questions about guilt and remembrance. Psychologists studying memory have established that forgetting has some benefits—helping sufferers of trauma, for instance, to cope. But a guilty party or people, many would say, has a duty to remember—to stay haunted by reality, if not by ghosts.

After finishing their fries, the group begins discussing why certain traumatic events are more off-limits to ghost hunters than others. Americans, Hagen points out, seek out the spirits of American Indians, many of whom were victims of ethnic cleansing. Pedall draws the line at hunting in concentration camps, but Wula, the hairdresser, is more open. “I would do it,” she says. “Anybody who has ever achieved anything has overstepped a limit.” Her enthusiasm seems to make the other members uncomfortable, and a silence follows, interrupted by the sounds of children playing in the McDonald’s PlayPlace. “If I made contact with the ghost of Adolf Hitler,” Pedall says, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”


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