The Saint-Barthélemy Massacre seen by the French painter who took refuge in Geneva François Dubois. This painting, produced shortly after the events – it is even possible that the painter personally experienced the events – is now kept at the Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts in Lausanne. Nora Rupp, Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

On the night of August 23 to 24, 1572, the massacres of Saint-Barthélemy began, a bloody episode in the history of France. Exactly 450 years later, the Protestant Church of Geneva commemorates this event which marked the Swiss Protestant memory and which raises the still current question of the reception of refugees.

This content was published on August 23, 2022 – 14:30

Saint-Barthélemy marks a paroxysm of violence in the wars of religion in France. For three days, Catholics attacked Protestant houses in Paris, causing the death of some 4,000 people. The troubles then spread to other regions for several weeks. Historians estimate that these massacres caused between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths.

Religious tensions eased somewhat a few years later with the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes (1598), an edict of tolerance which aimed to end the wars of religion in France by granting Protestants religious, political and civilians. A short-lived truce: the troubles resumed and the edict was finally revoked by Louis XIV in 1685.

One of the scenes of the famous Wall of the Reformers in Geneva recalls the history of the Huguenots, with here their welcome by the elector of Brandenburg. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Influx of refugees

Religious tensions in France have had a direct impact in Switzerland through the influx of refugees. The clashes of the 16e century and the massacres of Saint-Barthélemy provoked a first exodus of Protestants from France (the Huguenots), within the framework of a “first Refuge”.

Due to the linguistic, religious and geographical proximity, this first wave of refugees often stopped in Geneva, then called the “city of refuge”. According to the historical dictionary of Switzerland, the city of Calvin granted housing to nearly 8000 refugees between 1549 and 1587; some 3,000 of them would have settled there permanently, making up 30% of the Geneva population at the time.

But this wave of refugees was only a foretaste of that of the following century. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes caused the exodus of some 200,000 Huguenots to the Protestant areas of Europe. Historians estimate that around 60,000 of them passed through Switzerland as part of what is called the “second refuge” or “great refuge” and that 20,000 settled there permanently.

The flow of refugees which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes can be described as massive. For example, Schaffhausen saw more than 26,000 refugees pass through in ten years and in 1687, the city had 9,000 Huguenot refugees for 5,000 inhabitants.

A very current issue

Many refugees were able to settle in Switzerland within the framework of the “first refuge”. They have even made a notable contribution to the emergence of certain industries, foremost among which is watchmaking. On the other hand, things were more complicated during the “second refuge”.

The authorities and the population of the Protestant cantons have certainly done their best to facilitate the reception of refugees. But often temporarily. Fearing tensions with the Catholic cantons, a financial burden for public authorities or even increased competition with local labor in a fragile economic context, the authorities wanted only temporary accommodation. The refugees were invited to continue their journey to other lands, mainly to the German Protestant states in search of arms following the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War.

Nihil novi sub sole (nothing new under the sun), one would be tempted to say. This ambivalence between the desire to welcome victims of conflicts on the one hand and the fear of the weight of this welcome on the other hand has marked refugee policy for years, both in Switzerland and in Europe.

“It is first of all the emotion that is expressed, comments Pastor Laurence Mottier, moderatorExternal link of the Company of Pastors and Deacons of the Protestant Church of Geneva. Touched by distress, we want to open our doors and help. It was very strong during the ‘first refuge’, but the doors were closed during the ‘second refuge’. We can see that society is very volatile when it comes to welcoming refugees; it all depends on the context, the means and also the emotional aspect.”

Learn to “live together”

The Protestant Church of Geneva commemoratesExternal link Wednesday the 450th anniversary of Saint-Barthélemy. “It is an opportunity to remember this dramatic historical event, but also to look to the future by wondering how to avoid this kind of massacre and by promoting peace, living together and ecumenism. The idea is not to victimize oneself, but to look to a future where difference is accepted,” explains Laurence Mottier.

Among the day’s activities is ‘Tools to Build Peace’, a workshop for children aged 6 to 10. “This workshop is not intended to just be a commemorative event locked in the past, but to learn from it,” says the pastor.

“These tools for building peace are learning to know each other, to appreciate each other and to live together, not to enter into negative spirals which can feed the exclusion of others. Let’s not forget that Saint-Barthélemy was about neighbors killing neighbors, just like in Rwanda.”

The biggest shipwreck in Swiss history

One Council of Europe cultural routeExternal link also allows you to become familiar with this history of the exile of the Huguenots. The route starts from the south of France and the north of Italy to reach Germany. In Switzerland, this route is called “In the footsteps of the Huguenots and Waldensians of PiedmontExternal link» and connects Geneva to Schaffhausen, over a distance of approximately 300 km.

Panel placed to explain the sinking of Lyss. VIA Foundation

“We have placed a blue symbol and an explanatory note at certain points of interest on the route, indicates Pierre-André Glauser, president of the foundation which manages the Swiss part of the route. For example, the section between Lyss and Aarberg, in the canton of Bern, recalls the shipwreck of September 5, 1687. Two boats, with 137 refugees on board, sailed on the Aare. A trunk smashed the first boat and the survivors tried to board the second, causing it to sink. A total of 111 Huguenots died. This is the deadliest shipwreck in Swiss history.”

Started in 2010, the signaling of this Swiss part of the route will be completed in September 2023. However, apart from the explanatory plaques, there is no complete marking. “To our great disappointment, we did not get a Swiss RandoExternal link and of SwitzerlandMobilityExternal link a fully marked route with distinctive logos, as is the case with the shell of the Way of Santiago de Compostela or the pilgrim of the Via Francigena”, regrets Pierre-André Glauser.

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Saint-Barthélemy, a historical drama that still questions us