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Interview: Anabaptist Year

Fritz von Gunten (hep-verlag.ch)

Fritz von Gunten is head of the organising committee for the Anabaptist year.

This content was published on March 26, 2007 - 17:15

Von Gunten says the idea to put the spotlight on Anabaptist history was hatched in 2003 during a series of events in the Emmental region to mark the 350th anniversary of the failed uprising known as the "Peasant's War".

He told swissinfo that he realised that Anabaptism was a theme that had not been dealt with, and represented a much darker chapter of history than the Peasant's War.

Von Gunten is a public relations consultant who also runs the cultural centre in the Emmental village of Lützelflüh.

swissinfo: Are the people of the Emmental unaware of what happened to the Anabaptists?

Fritz von Gunten: We realised that even though there are Anabaptists living in the Emmental today who are well integrated into their communities, the population knows very little about their history, such as what happened during the Reformation and what people had to suffer because of their beliefs.

swissinfo: Is it because there is too little written down in history books or because the Protestant church suppressed information?

F.v.G.: It was taboo to talk about it. We'd prefer to talk about success and positive aspects of the past rather than dark chapters. And at the beginning of this project, people were very apprehensive and sceptical.

I was told that I had a lot of courage to tackle this part of history and that it could damage my reputation, but after working on this project for 18 months, the response has only been positive.

If we are successful in launching a dialogue and are open to the mistakes of the past, then we are ahead of the game. We want to show that it is possible to sit around the same table with people who have different beliefs, and discuss the past and how things are done today to ensure that the mistakes aren't repeated.

swissinfo: Was it difficult to win support for the project from the Protestant church and cantonal government?

F.v.G.: The Protestant church was very quick to give a sign that it was willing to support the project. The cantonal government took much longer but we are pleased that it is now a supporter and financial backer.

It has helped create a dialogue at the national level. Today's generation cannot be held responsible for what happened in the past so it's a question of learning to respect others and learning how to live with them. It's a burning issue at the moment.

swissinfo: Have you been surprised by the number of events organised to mark the year by communities and churches throughout the region?

F.v.G.: We're surprised and happy by the large number of events. There are more than 200. It shows that the subject touches a nerve in today's society. And we're pleased that many of the projects are taking place in the bigger towns and cities of canton Bern, which means there is a real dialogue between the urban and rural parts of the canton.

swissinfo: The aim is to raise awareness here in Switzerland. Why have you also decided to organise an international event for this summer?

F.v.G.: Because so many people were deported or forced to emigrate to the Netherlands and then later to North America where around 600,000 Mennonites and Amish live today. We know that they are interested in finding out more about their ancestral homeland so it's a challenge for us to show that we are ready to welcome them, which is why there will be an international festival at the end of July.

And we hope that what has begun this year continues for many years. I've said from the start that when only one per cent of the 600,000 attend the international event, then the Emmental will have a logistical problem. So, we'll be happy if they don't all come at once!

swissinfo-interview: Dale Bechtel

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