Artwork of John Calvin and Bob Dylan by Malcolm Reid, a Scottish-born multi-media artist living in Ascona, Switzerland, who focuses on political and social issues.

Last October, I was asked by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) to join their panel at the Geneva Press Club (Club Suisse de la Presse/CSP) for a discussion entitled: “Freedom of Expression Under Attack.”  The main speaker was a Chinese political cartoonist known as Badiucao.  At the event, a trailer for a documentary on the cartoonist was shown, as well as a clip from my new documentary, Beijing Spring (See clip).  Both films focused on the struggle for freedom of speech and the press in China.

I walked down the hallway of the Press Club, taking in the ambience, admiring the photos on the walls of various writers.  Until I came to the print of John (Jean in French) Calvin, the 16th century French theologian who imposed his own hardline and intolerant religious doctrines during the Protestant Reformation on Geneva, England, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe.  Calvin’s striking portrait shows him in a scholarly pose, with a sizable tome in his hands.  A myriad of books covers the shelves and tables of his study.  I wondered, how can it be that the Geneva Press Club – a supposed bastion of press freedom — glorify and pay homage to one of history’s great oppressors of the written word?  And with such a propagandistic image? 

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Calvin: Switzerland’s Mao

I mentioned my concern to people at the social gathering before the event.  I only got blank looks.  No one seemed to know the history of Calvin’s censorship apparatus.  Or, if they did, they didn’t appear to care.  Calvin has become an icon so ingrained into the subconsciousness of Geneva, that his exalted status is neither understood nor questioned.  It’s a bit like Mao’s cult status in China. 

When it was my turn to answer a question on freedom of expression, I said Switzerland, like China, also had an authoritarian past that it is still reckoning with.  On the invitation to the event was written: “Authoritarian regimes rely on a range of censorship tools to target dissent and maintain stability. They employ a range of tactics, both direct and indirect, to limit free expression. What is the cost to public discourse when these voices are silenced? What is the human cost?”

Calvin not only employed an arsenal of tactics to forbid freedom of the press; he went even further.  He was responsible for the burning alive of authors and using their books to fuel the flames. He even made the daily lives of ordinary citizens miserable by threatening to punish music, dancing, the arts and free-spirited public tavern life.

One of several pedagogic cartoons about John Calvin from the Musée Protestant in France with no mention of his abuses and intolerance. (Cartoon: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/)

German journalists, filmmakers and NGO’s would raise hell if they saw a picture of Joseph Goebbels hanging on the wall of the Berlin Press Club.  In China, one expects to see Mao portraits everywhere for propaganda reasons.  But this is Switzerland, the land of the United Nations and human rights.  How can the press club display — without criticism or context — the image of one of Europe’s first authoritarian leaders who only allowed books to be published if he agreed with  their content. Should the city honour someone who engineered the murder of authors, the burning of books, and the suppression of the arts?

My thoughts were lost on deaf ears.  The participants were willing to talk about the fact that Badiucao couldn’t publish his cartoons in China — a horrible injustice for which he had to assume a pseudonym), yet they were reluctant to discuss the historical amnesia afflicting their own country.  If a nation, like an individual, cannot confront its own past, it’s certainly not capable of helping to change another. I doubt I’ll be invited back for a second showing at the Press Club, but if I am, I’m going to hang a portrait of Mao next to Calvin.

Honouring a murderous authoritarian who burned or banned books

As Calvin’s presence in the CSP suggests, the Swiss, like the Chinese, are afflicted with a kind of dictator deification syndrome.  Many Swiss monuments honour the man, even a street (Rue Jean-Calvin), a restaurant (Chez Calvin) and a secondary school (College Calvin) — the school named after him as recently as 1969, the year of Woodstock.  While most of the western world was fighting against social injustice that year, Geneva was busy glorifying a murderous authoritarian.

A few months after the Press Club event, I found myself heading to the Clinique La Colline for physiotherapy for a broken bone. I parked my car on a small, nearby street by the bus stop.  Set back in a thicket of weeds below a tree was a large headstone with a plaque.I found it a very odd placement; out of the way and on the last remaining sliver of land in an industrial area of Champel.  Curious, I walked up to read the text:

“Respectful and grateful sons of Calvin, our great reformer, but condemning the error of his century and firmly subscribing to the liberty of conscience according to the authentic principles of the Reformation and the Gospel, have erected this expiatory monument 27 of October, 1903.”

How absurd, I thought, to find in a weedy no-man’s land a memorial from his die-hard followers proclaiming Calvin a misunderstood victim of his times.  (Calvin is believed to be buried in Geneva’s Cemetery of the Kings, where Jorge Luis Borges, Sergio de Mello and other renowned figures lie — See Peter Hulm article)

Michel Servet: burned for daring to disagree

I continued down the steps and up the Avenue de Beau-Sejour toward the clinic.  Not far from the stone, facing the street, I came across a bronze sculpture set back, almost behind a tree, with weeds growing around it.  It was a casting of an emaciated, anguished man wearing torn rags over a withered and skeletal body—almost like a character in Dante’s Inferno.  At its base only the man’s name: Michel Servet.

I froze in my tracks.  Servet, originally Miguel Serveto from Aragon and also known in English as Michael Servetus (LINK), was precisely the author who had been burned alive that I had alluded to at the Press Club – the prisoner of conscience whom Calvin had torched together with his books.  Over the years, I had learned of Servet’s heroic tragedy through various writers, including Stefan Zweig, Balzac and Voltaire.  Servet’s crime was that he disagreed with Calvin’s opinion on the trinity and infant baptism and dared to say so.    

Michel Servet , a Spanish doctor, was imprisoned for his critical writings and held in abject conditions before being burned to death at the instigation of John Calvin. Sébastien Castellion (1515-1563), an apostle of tolerance and freedom of thought from the Savoy, castigated both Calvin and the Genevans for their killing of heretics, notably Servet. “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine,” he wrote. “It is to kill a man….One does not prove one’s faith by burning a man, but burning what one stands for.” (Photo: Andy Cohen)

“The arrest of Servetus in Geneva, where he did neither publish nor dogmatize, hence he was not subject to its laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations,” wrote Voltaire in an open letter.

“Historically speaking, Servetus died so that freedom of conscience could become a civil right in modern society,” writes the U.S. scholar Marian Hillar in her book, Michael Servetus: Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr.  Adding insult to injury is this ridiculous plaque that tries to mitigate the blame due Calvin for his brutal crime.  As a final irony, Calvin was a notorious coward who cringed at the sight of blood and never attended the beheadings or burnings he orchestrated.

Geneva: the need to review history

The state of Geneva, following in Calvin’s censorship-prone footsteps, refused to allow the sculpture of Servet to be shown until recently.   The 100-year struggle to erect this statue shows just how controversial the issue of Calvin’s murderous deed still is in modern day Geneva.  A pro-Servet group commissioned the statue from a local sculptor in 1903 that would take four years to complete. 

Meanwhile, a pro-Calvin group, in an underhanded manner, quickly erected the stone with the expiatory plaque in 1903, hoping to pre-empt the need for a sculpture.  When the statue of the suffering Servet was finally completed in 1907, the pro-Calvin group officially opposed its public display, claiming that they had already erected a monument to Servet.  The city council agreed. It rejected the statue on the grounds that a monument to Servet — i.e., the plaque — indeed already existed. 

Censored by the Swiss, the statue was then presented to the city of Annemasse, just across the border in France. There the Servet sculpture was treated with the honour it deserved,  prominently placed in front of the Annemasse city hall.

However, during World War II, the Servet statue was considered a threat to Nazism because it honoured freedom of conscience.  As a result, the collaborationist Vichy Government ordered it torn down and melted.  Unfortunately, this was just one of many instances in which the Swiss and Nazi visions were aligned.  On one side of the border, the Swiss prohibited erection of Servet’s statue; on the other side, the Nazis and their French cohorts ripped it down; both united in their assault on freedom of expression.

Human rights abuser John Calvin (second from left) is honoured at the Reformation Wall at the base of the Old City of Geneva and opposite the University of Geneva which he founded in 1559. Should this be the legacy of International Geneva, world capital of human rights but also “the City of Calvin”? (Photo: Wikipedia)

Symbols of an ignored past

Finally, in 2011, Geneva was persuaded to erect a cast of the very statue its city council had rejected a century earlier.  It was to be placed in the same out-of-the-way location, beside the headstone monument.  Guess who didn’t show up to the ceremony?  Representatives from the church of John Calvin.  The Tribune de Geneve even commented on the conspicuous absence of officials from the Protestant Church of Geneva at the Servet dedication.  Steadfast in their unwillingness to admit to the human casualties caused by Calvin’s intolerant nature, they chose to boycott the ceremony of a statue erected to one of his victims in the middle of nowhere.

The trials and tribulations of Servet’s bronze casting has become a fitting metaphor for his life’s struggles and for civil rights.  The incident also illustrates how the Swiss deal with their nation’s past: by hiding it, such as its refoulement of Jewish and political refugees during World War II. Or its treatment of the Jenisch minority, a group not unlike the Roma (or gypsies) and Travellers.

Servet was one of the greatest freedom fighters of the Middle Ages. And he suffered one of its worst injustices imaginable.  Yet he is relegated to an inglorious, weedy nook on the outskirts of town, tucked away in a bend in the road next to a mechanic’s shop surrounded by industrial buildings and hospitals.  To anyone walking up the street that has very sparse pedestrian traffic, Servet is entirely hidden from view until you are standing right in front of the statue.

Meanwhile, the person responsible for Servet’s killing stands glorified in the centre of town. Together with other leaders of the Reformation, such as John Knox and Oliver Cromwell, Calvin is honoured with a statue as part of Reformation Wall, which was inaugurated in 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth and the 350th anniversary of the University of Geneva which Calvin founded. Beside his statue is inscribed the motto of the Reformation: Post tenebras lux – after darkness, light

A street, restaurant and high school in Geneva are all named in honour of John Calvin. (Photo: Andy Cohen)

Perhaps it would be more accurate to write: after darkness, more darkness.  For it was in a dark dungeon cell beside the St. Pierre Cathedral of Reformation, where Servet was imprisoned in inhumane conditions, suffering in filth and squalor, his health deteriorating until he was burned at the stake with his books as part of the pyre (it is believed Calvin himself wanted Servet executed but argued for a beheading instead of burning to show his “humanity”).

“I beg you,” wrote Servet in 1553, “shorten please these deliberations.  It is clear that Calvin for his pleasure wishes to make me rot in this prison.  The lice eat me alive.  My clothes are torn and I have nothing for a change, nor shirt, only a worn-out vest.” Even in memory Servet is banished beyond the walls of Geneva, relegated to the dark shadows of history.  

Black Lives Matter should concern Switzerland

A few weeks after my discovery of the Servet bronze, the Black Lives Matter movement arrived in Switzerland, sparking protest marches.  Taking its cue from international activists who have toppled, beheaded and dumped into harbours various monuments to slavery and colonialism that have stood in various cities for centuries, Swiss demonstrators are now demanding a reckoning with their own past: They are calling for the removal of monuments to slavery and of those who violated civil liberties.  On this past Juneteenth (the U.S. holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved), the European Parliament voted to back a resolution recognizing slavery as a “crime against humanity”.

Over the last two decades, historians have exposed the role the Swiss played in the slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries.  “Economically and intellectually, Switzerland participated in the colonial enterprise,” Anne Lavanchy, associate professor at the Geneva School of Social Work told Le Temps. as did the coastal, colonial countries of Western Europe.  However, unlike those other countries, and like the many unsavoury facts of its past — hidden to preserve the myth of neutrality — Swiss involvement in slave trade has still not entered the history lessons at primary and secondary school level

And yet, Neuchatel boasts a statue, honouring one of the biggest Swiss financiers of slavery: David de Pury.  It stands in the middle of the Place Pury.  Another monument to slavery stands in the centre of Zurich at the Bahnhofplatz: a statue of the banker Alfred Escher.  Escher founded the bank SKA (today’s Credit Suisse) and owned coffee plantations in Cuba profiting from the whipped backs of his slave laborers. 

Place Pury in the early 20th century in Neuchâtel honouring one of the biggest Swiss financiers of slavery: David de Pury. Over twenty Swisss companies reportedly sponsored 100 slave expeditions enabling Switzerland, its banks, businesses and ruling families to profit from the trade. (Photo: notrehistoire.ch)

What is the future of Swiss Monuments?

Though the Swiss have a history of toppling public statuary — during the Reformation, the sculptures of Saint Pierre Cathedral were ripped from their pedestals and destroyed — the fate of these monuments will most likely be decided, not by the mob, but in the arena of public opinion and referendum.  Perhaps 500 years of looking at the empty plinths and niches of lost cultural artifacts will incline Switzerland to check its desire for destruction and opt for preservation, relocation and re-evaluation, which would help teach future generations about their history. 

As the country debates what to do with its pro-slavery statues, the discussion should be broadened to include other monuments to perpetrators of crimes against humanity and violators of civil rights, particularly those to Calvin. Germany’s Nazi and Communist statues are already in museums.  If Eastern Europe can remove statues of Lenin, surely Western Europe can remove those of Calvin and place them in the more appropriate setting of the International Museum of the Reformation. 

Condoning Calvin’s crimes as an “error of his century” is as absurd as claiming slave owners were acting in accordance with the “error” of their times for keeping slaves, or Nazis for murdering Jews and other minorities.  In other countries, the Black Lives Matter movement would never tolerate such deflection language. Neither should the Swiss. 

Such approaches distort history, belittle the victims’ suffering and shifts blame and responsibility from the perpetrators inner evil natures to some nondescript outside forces beyond their control.  Instead, monuments should be erected in honour of those who did not succumb to but rather confronted the common “error” of their time.  Those like Servet, who had the courage to stand up to oppressive rulers, who put humanity above dogma and profits.  They were the real heroes of their times; not the abusers, such as Calvin and slave owners.

Clearly, removing statues will not erase history.    But at the very least, the Servet statue, with its stone and plaque, should be moved to the city center to stand near Calvin.  This would offer a more balanced monumentalizing of the past. It would also educate people on the recent history of Swiss censorship enabling a truthful re-evaluation of that history.

If the U.S. can confront its slavery and racist past by removing monuments — including those to its presidents — that glorify this crime against humanity, if Eastern Europe can unmount sculptures to leaders of its communist past, surely the democratic Federation of Switzerland, the home to the United Nations, can confront its slaving and authoritarian history and reform its monuments.  It’s high time for Switzerland to reckon with the crimes of its past and stop hiding behind its neutral curtain. 


ANDY COHEN is an American documentary film-maker, journalist and author based in Geneva. His documentary (Ximei, 2019) investigated China’s ‘poisoned’ blood scandal infecting more than 300,000 victims with HIV/AIDS – and then the Beijing government’s efforts to do everything possible to cover up the scandal. For more information, please go to LINK:  Andy also participated in Global Geneva’s first ‘Youth Writes’ (Young Journalists and Writers Initiative) workshop in Versoix, Switzerland, in March 2019, helping high school students better understand the role of documentary film reporting. To contact Andy Cohen at AC Films, please go to his website.

Andy Cohen

For reasons of transparency, please note that Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet is on the Boards of both the Club Suisse de la Presse (Swiss Press Club) and the Martin Ennals Awards Foundation for honouring human rights defenders based in Geneva, Switzerland. Girardet admits that – as with many others – he was not aware of Calvin’s murderous past and only learned of this with Andy Cohen’s article.

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