Basel, Fasnacht and Switzerland
8 March 2022
Basel’s Fasnacht, this year from 7 to 9 March, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2017. What makes such an event a heritage, and how does it differ from similar ancient traditions?
The French translation for Fasnacht is ‘le carneval’. In other countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, this event is linked to the Catholic calendar of the beginning of Lent of forty days until Easter.
Basel already distinguishes itself in this respect: Fasnacht takes place a week later. Protestant Basel decided on this date in 1529. In Lucerne and other towns, Fasnacht occurs according to the Catholic calendar.
The tradition of the Basler Fasnacht goes back to the 14th century and is then closely linked to Lent in combination with the presentation of arms by the militia. They marched through the city in the early morning, accompanied by the marching music of drums and piccolos.
The current form and activities of the Fasnacht developed into what it is today after the First World War. The website of the Fasnacht committee offers a well-documented overview (www.fasnachts-comite.ch).
Historically and culturally, Basel has a special position in the Swiss Confederation, which the city joined as a canton in 1501.
The canton of Basel-Stadt (created by the separation of Basel-Landschaft in 1833) is a three-country region. Until 1501, it occupied a neutral position in the conflicts between the Eidgenossenschaft or Swiss Confederation of cantons and Habsburg and its allies.
Habsburg’s defeat in the Swabenkrieg and the peace of Basel in 1499 paved the way for other cantons to become members of the Swiss Confederation. However, Basel’s orientation has also been towards the French and German regions. The current Association Regio Basiliensis (www.regbas.ch) exemplifies this close cooperation.
UNESCO World Heritage
But what makes this Fasnacht, this carnival, so unique to get World Heritage status? It is the combination of the musical performances, the often fantastic costumes, the creativity and humour of the Laternen, the Fasnacht cabaret (the Schnitzelbänggi), the theatre performances, and the involvement of hundreds of formally registered cliques (associations of Fasnacht) with tens of thousands of musically trained members and numerous informal musical companies.
What impresses me most, however, is the experience of this event. It is estimated that around 200,000 people and locals visit the Fasnacht, and tens of thousands of participants march with their piccolos, tambourines and wind instruments through the city for three days, from 04.00 on Monday (the Morgestraich) until 04.00 on Thursday morning.
The Fasnacht has the character of a procession and a (mostly) high-quality musical feast of wind instruments (the Guggen), piccolos and tambourines.
The atmosphere, the respect for each other and for the other cliques that regularly cross each other in the crowded alleys, made possible by the internal organisation, the practice and discipline of the cliques (associations), the absence of buffoonery and drink binges in the public streets, the irony and mild satire and, above all, the engagement of the citizens.
Basel, Fasnacht and Switzerland
Basel and its Fasnacht represent some of the characteristics of Switzerland. A good organisation, a serious and professional performance by amateurs from all social classes (the great milice system in practice), mild humour and satire, a high cultural level, the engagement in with the local community and traditions, but open to changes and adjustments, often with interest in other societies and modesty and respect for each other.
This respect is also the basis of centuries-old banking secrecy. The secrecy was never meant to hide the black and bad money of the post-1940 period, but pecunia non olet also applies to Swiss banks, which are not the exception but the rule in this industry.
The Fasnacht in, for example, Lucerne, the Fondation Origen in Riom or the Fête des Vignerons in Vevey are other examples of citizens’ involvement in their municipality or canton.
The Basler Fasnacht is a three-day festive event, just like the carnival. However, it is distinguished by its typical Swiss character combined with local Basler traditions and involvement. And that is without even mentioning the distinction between Kleinbasel and Grossbasel.
Nothing typifies the modesty of Fasnacht more than two cycling Fasnächtler or Fasnächtlerinnen in the centre of Basel.
The photo gallery gives an impression of Monday morning, 04.00 and the subsequent days.