Anabaptists in Switzerland spent centuries avoiding a fortress that served as a prison. Now, after more than a decade of effort, a group of Swiss Mennonites is on the cusp of finally getting back in.
The Swiss Mennonite Conference announced May 12 in a newsletter that the conference has entered into a temporary agreement with regional government authorities to install an exhibit in Trachselwald Castle about Anabaptist history and contemporary faith.
Under the two-year agreement that begins June 1, the rooms of the castle’s cell wing will be available to the conference for free. The exhibit will be accessible only during temperate weather because of a lack of heating infrastructure.
After two years, either party can terminate the agreement by giving six months notice. The stipulation is based on the canton’s desire to sell the castle, so any exhibition must be designed to be moved to another location if necessary.
Hanspeter Jecker, president of the Swiss Society for Anabaptist History, has represented the Swiss Mennonite Conference with Ernest Geiser, Michel Ummel and Daniel Engel. He said it has been well-established that the canton of Bern wants to sell the castle as soon as possible.
“For us, this means we have to prepare ourselves to renegotiate the question of an Anabaptist-Mennonite presence at the castle,” he said. “It is clear that the Swiss Mennonite Conference does not want to buy the castle, no matter what the purchase price is. The maintenance costs will be high, and this cannot be financed merely with a little Anabaptist history.”
Jecker and others hope to develop an exhibit by next May. A release from the conference noted it is an opportunity to share not just about the struggles of Anabaptists who lived in the Emmental region and were jailed in the castle between the 16th and early 18th centuries but also the relevance of Anabaptist beliefs for present-day challenges in politics, society and churches.
Delays and transitions
Conversations between Mennonites and local government authorities about the castle’s future began in 2008.
The castle was the seat of the Trachselwald District regional administration for many years. However, offices in the castle have been vacant since some districts merged in 2009.
A variety of delays and personnel transitions in canton administration caused conversations to sputter and restart. A North American fundraising tour raised roughly $30,000 in 2014. Most of these funds remain, but a small amount was used to translate some Anabaptist history signage outside the castle. Since last year, what had been only in German is now available in English and French.
Jecker said that while there is some uncertainty regarding the castle’s future ownership, the Mennonite conference continues to be willing to cooperate.
“Thus far we have always been assured the purchase of the castle would be subject to certain conditions, such as free access to the tower,” he said. “And we hope a future buyer will embrace the wish expressed repeatedly by tourism, culture and business interests that Trachselwald Castle remain a place where Anabaptist history can be remembered, in one way or another.
“Of course, it is also conceivable that a group of buyers will appear who are willing to offer even more space for Anabaptist history than the canton has offered us. That is why we are interested in meeting all potential buyers early.”