28 - Trachselwald Castle - Where Anabaptists Were Imprisoned
Simply Because They Wanted to Practice New Testament Christianity
A Story and Some Scenes that You May/Should Never Forget
By Don and Joanne Hess Siegrist
Used by permission of authors, Don & Joanne Hess Siegrist
Before the Reformation, all of Switzerland was catholic. After the Reformation, northern and western
Switzerland became Protestant Reformed while central and southern Switzerland remained Catholic even to this day.
The Anabaptist movement began 1525 in Canton Zurich where it was eventually wiped out by 1650. It was in the Canton of Bern that the Anabaptists had the greatest numbers and the longest stretch of history. The state was never able to drive out all the Anabaptists. Presently, there are about 2,500 Swiss Mennonites with about 14 congregations. The congregation in Langnau is the oldest continuous Mennonite congregation in the world. Most of the Swiss Mennonites live near the French border in the Jura Mt region where in the past they were allowed to live with more religious freedom but in a higher, colder elevation less
desirable for crops.
The Anabaptists were a people who stood for their faith despite paying a terrible price at the hands of the government. Since the Emmental is in the Canton of Bern, many of the Emmental Anabaptists were sent to Bern for imprisonment. Bern has a wall with many towers for security and had the authority to declare the death sentence. The deep, fast-flowing Aare River provided a barrier on the other three sides.
The Kafigturm (men’s prison), Frauenturm (women’s prison), Obere Spital (upper hospital), and the Tittlingerturm, were some of the numerous places used as prisons for Anabaptists. Many of the prisons had a torture room infamous for interrogating people under torture to coerce people to recant or reveal their Anabaptist friends and meeting places. We do not know how many Anabaptists ended up in prison for their faith. The city of Bern was infamous for its persecution of the Anabaptists. The Kafigturm is the only prison building still standing. The Blutturm (blood tower) down around the Aare River is thought to have been used for
interrogation under torture.
When we visited the Museum of History in Bern there was this exhibit — The executioner’s mantle in the official colors of Bern, two swords used for execution, and the rack. Interrogation by the rack was the most widely used instrument of torture till the 18th century. The victim’s arms were placed behind their back and roped together at the wrists. Another rope was placed between the wrists to slowly lift the person off their feet with their arms behind their back. A stone weight was attached to the ankles to increase the pain. Shoulders were often dislocated. Fear of the rack was often enough to cause the prisoner to cooperate. The placard on the wall states these two swords were made in Bern 1620. “The sword of execution bears the inscription “Sol deo Gloria.” (To God alone the glory): the executioner acted in the certainty of representing divine justice on earth.” About 40 Anabaptists were known to be sentenced to death in Bern. The men usually executed with the sword and the women drowned in the Aare River.
Trachselwald castle was first built around the late 1200s with additions at later times. We saw this 1654 drawing of the Trachselwald Reformed Church and the castle in the background when we visited the friendly Reformed pastor and his wife in the parsonage.
According to one source, there was a torture chamber that was removed about 1750. I don’t know how many Anabaptists were imprisoned here. There must have quite a few because the persecution lasted over 300 years. Very few windows are on this side of the prison tower. The castle is quite picturesque and appears in good repair. In the past Switzerland had many castles with prison towers and torture rooms. Torture was thought to be the best way to get the truth from a prisoner.
The cold, dark prison tower is about 60 feet high. To walk through this windowless prison cell is somewhat spooky. If you could have visited 2, 3, 4 hundred years ago when the place was full of prisoners, imagine the sights, sounds, and smells. Imagine being locked in here for months. There are about 2-3 cells per floor, probably not more then 10 cells in the entire prison. A very narrow spiral stone stair takes you up to the worst cell.
The Hans Haslibacher homestead is about 4 miles north of the castle. Hans Haslibacher, a prominent early Anabaptist leader in the Emmental, was exiled from Switzerland. 30 years later he returned home to visit his son who remained Reformed. Unfortunately, he was captured again and put in the Trachselwald prison tower. Then sent to Bern where he was tortured and beheaded in 1571 — the last Anabaptist execution in Bern. There is a song about Haslibacher in the Ausbund (Mennonite book which tells stories of the persecution they suffered) which the Amish still sing.
If These Castle Walls Could Talk!
Click on an image to enlarge and activate the slideshow.
We Will Also Visit the New "Paths of Freedom" Exhibit in the Castle
Photos used by permission of Peter Dettwiler.
Some Good News from Recent Years