Whether Ferdinand Hodler, one of Switzerland’s most famous painters of the 19th century, was really born in Käfigturm, is not completely sure. Fact is: before he was born, his mother worked there as a cook. She would go and fetch water from the nearby Seilerbrunnen (Anna Seiler Fountain), where she met her future husband and Ferdinand’s father.
But the Käfigturm was not known as a romantic place in the past: it was built in 1256 and was initially a defence tower and Bern’s city gate, but when the city expanded in the 14th century, its use changed. After the devastating fire in 1405, Käfigturm took over the functions of the destroyed Zytglogge (Clock Tower) and, from then on, served as a prison. In the rooms of the tower, suspects were interrogated and locked up. Today, scribbles on the dungeon doors remind us of the inmates’ fates.
By the way: the murders, thefts and other crimes as well as interrogations, confessions and verdicts were documented in the so-called “Tower Books”.
In 1641, a commission of the Bernese Council decided to tear down the 400-year-old, run down tower and rebuild it in the same spot. The extended tower now had more space for prisoners and served as a prison for another two centuries. After the new district prison was completed in 1897, the prisoners were transferred and the tower was used as an archive for the canton of Bern.
Käfigturm today: Politics and Culture
Today, the Käfigturm stands for democracy, participation and exchange. It has been the home of the country’s political forum since 1999 and hosts many exhibitions and events on various political topics. The association “Polit-Forum Bern” (Political Forum Bern) has been running the forum since 2017 and is made up of the city and the canton of Bern, the Civic Community Bern, the Roman-Catholic Central Conference and the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.
Careful: don’t confuse the forum with the “Theater am Käfigturm” (Theatre by the Käfigturm): it is not located, as one might assume, by the Käfigturm, but on the second basement floor at Spitalgasse 4 (a few metres away from Käfigturm in the direction of the main station).
Release of the Bear in Bern
When Bern seems to be going crazy, it means that carnival has begun. For three colourful and loud days, Guggen (carnival marching bands), Schnitzelbänkler (people reciting simple, fun verses), tambour and pipe players and costume fans celebrate carnival in the lower part of Bern’s Old City. A special experience and important part of the Bernese carnival is the release of the bear: during this spectacle, the carnival bear is awakened and liberated from his cage in Käfigturm. After this official opening ceremony, the colourful parade makes its way through the streets of the Old City.