A look back at Freiburg through the ages

"Freiburg in Breisgau is a city - lying in a noble and fertile location - where there is an entrance to the Black Forest/ has grown exquisitely in a few years/ in buildings/ churches/ monasteries/ high schools/ wealth etc. ..."

Thus was the city described by Sebastian Münster in his 'Cosmographica Universalis' of 1550. Freiburg could already look back on 500 years of history at this time.

Founded at the end of the 11th century, the settlement was granted the right to hold markets in 1120. The founders of the city, the Dukes of Zähringen - a present-day suburb still bears the family name - were responsible for further historical development: from loose associations of people to a modern regional and administrative municipal area.

They used their title to create a commercially-based centrally-administered territory by founding towns such as Freiburg-in-Breisgau, Berne, Freiburg-in-Üchtland (now Fribourg, Switzerland), Offenburg, Villingen. etc. The capital was Freiburg-in-Breisgau. Thanks to its logistically favourable position on the trade route between Alsatia and Swabia, the right to hold markets and, above all, the rich silver deposits in the Black Forest, the city soon became the leading business centre in Breisgau. The silver recovered had to be delivered to the Freiburger Mint where the 'Brisger', a silver pfennig, was minted. Freiburg's coins were a popular object for exchange at the large markets, as they possessed a high content of silver. The burghers of the city became very rich as entrepreneurs of the mines. The miners also earned a lot, as they were shareholders of the mines.

Freiburg quickly grew out of the original ring of walls which had been built around 1200. New suburbs were created and also walled and surrounded by 12m deep, 5m wide moats. More than 20 monasteries moved into the city.

Work on the mighty cathedral began under the last Duke of Zähringen, who died childless in 1218. The Zähringens were succeeded by the Counts of Freiburg, who handled their finances badly and were impoverished. There was soon trouble with the burghers over taxes. Positions hardened until there was almost war, but finally the two parties came to an agreement. The burghers bought themselves, at a high price, freedom from the Counts in 1368, but had to fulfil certain conditions by finding themselves new rulers of the city. These were to be found in the Habsburg Dynasty.

From now on the fate of the city was to be in the hands of the Habsburgs. This marriage was to last over 400 years - a time that brought Freiburg many honours and a cultural blossoming, but also times of need and destruction. First, however, the Austrians founded the University. Archduke Albrecht VI ordered the 'independence and foundation of a general study'. Theology, Law, Medicine and the topics of the 'Artists' Faculty' were the first subjects to be studied. Freiburg, which had become the capital of the western part of the Austrian Empire some years earlier, won further importance through the University. This was necessary, as the silver reserves dwindled. The strict control of the Guild in the Council also played its part in hindering the development of free trade and competition.

Freiburgers had close ties with each other, and many lived well in Freiburg. During this time many elegant patrician houses were built. The Emperor Maximilian, who had always had good connections with Freiburg, even held a parliamentary session in the city in 1498. In 1507 the Freiburg cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller and the Alsatian humanist Mathias Ringmann dedicated to Emperor Maximilian a new book of maps in which for the first time the newly discovered continent is described by the name "America". In 1529 as a result of the Reformation the cathedral chapter of Basel fled from Basel and found asylum in Freiburg. They were assigned the Stürtzelsche Haus which is henceforth known as the 'Basler Hof'. The humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam came to Freiburg from Basel and lived in the 'Haus zum Walfisch' (House of the Whales).

Soon, however, storm clouds appeared over the European powers. Ripples from the Austrian-Spanish War of Succession also reached Freiburg. The city was repeatedly placed under siege, bombarded and conquered by foreign troops. Swedish, Weimar and Bavarian troops occupied Freiburg in 1633. One of the worst events in the history of the city was conquest by the French in 1677. 'What a garden!', the sun-king Louis XIV cried out as he saw the landscape of the Upper Rhine Valley lying before him. This did not prevent him, however, from giving his architect Vauban the order to raze to the ground all the suburbs and make the city into a fortress.

The city was again the focal point of military events in the years 1713 and 1744. The French, who had withdrawn after peace was declared, stood once more before their own fortress, which they retook at great cost. They made sure that this mistake would never be repeated by blowing up their own forts in 1745.

Freiburg suffered long within the noose of the fortifications, and was not to recover in the 18th century. Freiburg became poor and remained a small, unimportant administrative and garrison town of almost village character until the middle of the 19th century. Occasions such as when the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette travelled through Freiburg on her bridal path to Paris in 1770 were highly unusual and were therefore fittingly celebrated. The city building department, founded in the same year, removed the final vestiges of the fortifications.

The city was irrevocably separated from the House of the Habsburgs and became part of the Grand Duchy of Baden as a result of the Pressburger Peace Treaty in 1805. The many petitions could accomplish nothing: Freiburg together with Breisgau went to the Elector and later Grand-Duke of Baden. A long chapter in the history of the city was over, a new one began. The people undertook their first tentative attempts to break out of the confines of the Old City. Typically for the Freiburgers, they planted vines on the remaining fortified hill.  The Grand-Duke at once showed his generous side by renewing the University's charter in 1820 when it was in danger of being closed. Freiburg was to become a theatre of war once more in this century. The dreams of a unified and democratic Germany which prompted the German Revolution were to be shattered at the Schwabentor, in front of the city walls, in 1848.

It was the dreams of the middle classes, the 'Paulskirche', that were destroyed by the bayonets of the Prussian troops. With the death of the volunteer irregular forces, who fell before Freiburg and found their final resting place in the 'Old Cemetery', a great idea which today lives again in our awareness of Democracy, was also buried. Freiburg's miserable condition changed abruptly at the beginning of the 20th century, the advent of industrialisation. The city's factories attracted workers and the population increased. The building of council flats was accelerated according to plan and the 'garden suburb' of Haslach was created. Settlers co-operated in building streets of houses in Mooswald, which were then apportioned out after casting lots. They were supplied with cattle and pigs to ensure a successful start. Several villages far into the Rhine valley were incorporated, and the city's influence spread as it regained its former importance in the region. The politically chaotic 20s of the Weimar Republic were for Freiburg and its inhabitants years of great hope - the Freiburgers Konstantin Fehrenbach and Dr. Josef Wirth both became Chancellors. As the Nazis took power in 1933, Freiburg had over 100,000 inhabitants and was considered a large city. By the end of the Second World War 80% of the city lay in ruins. An air raid as late as November 27th, 1944 made 9,000 out of 30,000 flats uninhabitable, killed 2,000 people and all that was left of the city centre was the cathedral.

Freiburg became part of the French occupation zone and under the auspices of the French became the seat of government and administration for Baden.

Fortunately, the rebuilding of Freiburg was not typical of the post-war period. While elsewhere attempts were made to rebuild as quickly and economically as possible, purely functionally and thus completely changing the look of the cities in order to show 'progress', Freiburg chose to use the ground plan of the old city as the model for its rebuilding programme. The aim, however, was not to build an idealised 'museum' city, which had not even existed long before the war, but rather the renovation of the buildings which were worthy of it, and the filling in of gaps with modern architecture whose character matched the image of the city.

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