The ever-recurring question of justice

The well of justice (Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen) – First stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

Dear guests!

Let me welcome you to today’s guided tour through the town of Berne.

As my principal occupation, I work as a political scientist, and among other subjects I research direct democracy. My avocation is being a historian, and my favourite pastime is rambling through the old town of Berne and other towns and cities. For some time now, I have been inviting guests to come along with me, and today, it is your turn to take a ramble with me!

I have three aims for today: Firstly, I want to offer you a brief tour through the town of Berne. Secondly, I want to tell you something about the more recent history of the town, the canton, and the country. Lastly, I would like to familiarise you with an analysis of the Swiss political system from a political-science perspective.

The location for the start of today’s tour I chose for a reason: it’s the well of justice, which is situated in Berne’s “lane of justice”. It symbolises the main theme of politics: the ever-recurring question of justice. Without doubt, justice is linked to equality, balance, distribution. Today’s political scientists speak of procedural justice if political processes proceed in accordance with the law. There is also justice of exchange, if giving and taking are in balance. And finally, there is distributive justice. For some, this means equality of opportunity, for others, it means equality of station.

The answers given to the question of justice depend on one’s world view, the latter being influenced by the political culture of the society of which one is part.

The most extensive global analysis of cultural change asserts that political cultures of societies differ mainly on two dimensions:

• the degree to which traditional-religious values are replaced by secular-rational values
• the degree to which collective survival or individual self-development are of importance

Switzerland is one of the societies where value change has taken place most extensively. Its culture is mainly secular-rational and highly individualistic.

In other words: electing and voting today are no longer an act of affirmation of national sovereignty of Switzerland as a whole, it is an expression of individual ideology that is to be reflected in the decision-making processes of the administration. The predominant style is free of religious avowals and instead directed at economic welfare.

This has not always been the case!

Today’s political culture in Switzerland developed on the basis of deep cleavages between different regions, centre and periphery, urban and rural areas, Catholicism and Protestantism, Germanic and Romanic languages, as well as different political ideologies. Following times of fervid conflict and civil war, compromise was sought – and found. This is why political culture in Switzerland is dominated by the idea of concordance, the main objective of which is the conservation of domestic peace.

However, discordance did not vanish entirely: almost all wells in the old town of Berne are symbols for one of these discordances, the Reformation. In 1525, it was introduced in Zurich by Huldrich Zwingli, and in Berne, the government enforced the Reformation by decree in 1528. Within a short period of time, Berne, a catholic town with a deep affinity for the pope, thus became a centre for the Reformation. In 1536, the town of Berne mediated Calvin’s move from Basel to Geneva, from where Calvinism spread across the globe.

The Reformation in Berne had consequences for artistic expression. The arts were on the decline in the town, which had been founded by the Swabian Dukes of Zähringen in 1191. Hence, reformed Berne had to commission Hans Gieng, an artist from neighbouring Fribourg which had remained catholic, to design most of the town’s wells, which we can still see today.

Hans Gieng was occupied by the main issue of his time: next to Lady Justice (Iustitia), he portrayed four great figures of his age:

• the pope, at the time Pius III., who started the Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trient,

• the emperor, at the time Charles V., who was ruler of a catholic realm that expanded across the globe,

• the sultan, at the time Sulayman I the Magnificent, who was about to conquer Christian Vienna, and

• King Ferdinand I., the emperor’s brother, who ruled over Hungary and Bohemia, and who was the great opponent of the Ottomans.

In subtle criticism, Hans Gieng portrayed the theocrats, monarchs and despots of his time with their eyes closed – exactly like Lady Justice, but for a different reason: his accusation was that all of them closed their eyes to injustice in their realms. Contrary to this, Lady Justice’s had to close her eyes when justice was administered.

Despite the highly symbolic well in Berne’s “lane of justice”, this “blindness” where justice was concerned was not always administered in the town. At times, the mayor (Schultheiss) of Berne, who was politician, regent and judge at the same time, reigned despotically. For this reason, he was finally overthrown.

At the next stop, we’ll see where this took place.

Claude Longchamp, Historian/Town-Rambler of the Town of Berne
1.10.2007, Translation by Bianca Rousselot, PhD-Candidate


ich bin der berner stadtwanderer. ich lebe in hinterkappelen und arbeite in bern. ich bin der felsenfesten überzeugung, dass bern burgundische wurzeln hat, genauso wie ich. also bin ich immer wieder auf der suche nach verästelungen, in denen sich die vergangene kultur in meiner umgebung versteckt hält.

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