History in Dresden

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Prehistoric times

Hunters and gatherers had always been attracted to the mild, fertile Elbe valley. The Germanic tribes which had been settling in the region began to move westwards in the 6th century. They were followed by Slavs from Bohemia, who chose the valley to found the village Drezdany. At the beginning of the 10th century, the German armies under King Heinrich I conquered the Slavonic lands between the rivers Saale and Elbe. The centre of their power was the castle of Meissen which was founded in 929. The German conquerors were followed two centuries later by German settlers, who soon came to dominate the Slavonic population.

The Founding of Dresden

Craftsmen and merchants settled along many of the new trading routes. Their settlements were fostered by the local rulers and granted town charters. In the 12th century, the Margraves of Meissen ordered a castle to be built on a hill overlooking the Elbe to protect the busy river crossing near the Sorb village Drezdany. A document dating from 1216 already described the settlement growing up around the castle as a town. The first documented mention of the settlement dates from 1206.

Dresden in the Middle Ages

The original town corresponded approximately to the area of today's City centre on the left bank of the Elbe. In the early years the expansion of the town and the development of trade and crafts progressed only very slowly. Around 1500 there were a mere 6000 people living in the town, its suburbs and the little town Altendresden, which had been established on the opposite bank of the Elbe, whereas other towns in the region had already achieved a certain economic significance and urban development. In the 15th century Hussite preachers were active in the Dresden, and in 1429 a Hussite army laid siege to the town.

Dresden becomes a royal residence

In 1485 the estates of the Dukes of Meissen from the House of Wettin were divided between the sons of Duke Friedrich II. The Albertine line chose Dresden as the Wettin residence. Even though a devastating fire destroyed the town in 1491, Dresden was nonetheless able to enjoy its first heyday under Duke Georg the Bearded. The Albertine court was one of the most influential opponents of the Reformation and the town was thus a centre of the resistance to Luther's teachings. Following the death of Duke Georg, however, his successor also initiated the Reformation in Dresden. Significant cultural and economic activity developed in the town, determined above all by the needs and desires of the ducal court.

Dresden as an electoral capital

In 1547, as a result of the Schmalkalden War, the Saxon dukes were granted electoral privileges and Dresden became not only the capital of the most important Protestant land, but at the same time the centre of the most powerful German state after the Habsburg territories. The City underwent rapid urban development. The transformation of the castle into a magnificent palace complex was continued, the armoury and mews were built, the mediaeval town wall was replaced with modern fortifications and the outer settlement along the Elbe around the Frauenkirche church was incorporated into the City. The royal court promoted the development of the arts: in 1548, the "Hofcantorey", the precursor of the Staatskapelle orchestra, was founded and the ground was prepared for the royal art collections. The population of Dresden tripled between 1500 and 1600.

Dresden after the Thirty Years War

Electoral Saxony participated in the hostilities from 1620 onwards, fighting at various stages alongside both the Imperial and Swedish armies. Famine, plague and economic demise represented a serious setback for urban development, despite the fact that Dresden itself was never captured. In the decades which followed, the City nevertheless rapidly revived its former glory, in no small way due to the continued promotion of cultural and economic development by the royal court. The first manufactories were set up in the Friedrichstadt district, which was founded in 1670. The Grosser Garten park was laid out as a festive garden for the courtly society, the first Baroque architecture sprang up and the musical life of the City reached a first zenith with the works of Heinrich Schütz.

Dresden's Augustan Age

When Elector Friedrich August I (Augustus the Strong) acquired the Polish crown in 1697, Dresden advanced further to become a capital of European rank. The face of the City also changed dramatically. Dresden became a City of Baroque. The royal court and the nobility commissioned extensive building work and encouraged exceptional artistic and craft-art achievements. Among the cultural highlights of the reign of Augustus were the regular lavish festivities, which demonstrated not only an awareness for the arts, but also political claims to power. The needs of the royal court thus led to rapid economic development in the City, whose population tripled to 63,000 between 1700 and 1755. In the wake of the courtly society, however, the Dresden bourgeoisie was also able to present notable achievements, as witnessed, for example, in the imposing town church architecture of the Frauenkirche.

Dresden after the Seven-Years War

In August 1756 Prussian troops occupied the capital of Saxony, whose rulers had fled to Warsaw. Dresden suffered several sieges in the years which followed, whole suburbs were burned down and in summer 1760 Prussian artillery also destroyed extensive areas of the City centre. Dresden recovered only very slowly from the after-effects of this period. It took 60 years before the population regained its size from before the war. The former royal residence of European importance was now characterised by intellectual provincialism, even though this period, too, brought forth individual cultural achievements of extraordinary quality.

Dresden in the Napoleonic Age

The events of the French Revolution were also followed attentively in Dresden and led to certain social unrest. In 1805 the French armies defeated and marched into Saxony, which thus became an ally of Napoleon. The latter stayed in Dresden on several occasions and it was here, in a bloody battle before the gates of the City in August 1813, that he celebrated one of his last victories.

Dresden in the first half of the 19th century

Following the years of Napoleonic rule, it was no longer the royal court alone which determined urban development in Dresden. Industrial enterprises were founded, the first long-distance railway in Germany was opened between Dresden and Leipzig in 1839, and complete new City districts were established outside the now dismantled City fortifications. Around the middle of the 19th century the population in Dresden had already exceeded 100,000. Outstanding cultural and scientific achievements characterised the intellectual life of the City. The struggles for political reforms and for a modern, bourgeois state, which had for years found a focus in the City, recorded their first successes, but then culminated in a failed popular uprising in 1848.

Dresden becomes a major City

Dresden grew rapidly in the decades following 1850. Extensive traffic structures changed the appearance of the City: additional bridges over the Elbe, new railway lines and stations and an Elbe port were built. Dresden received a new City hall, a new opera house and numerous other public buildings. After the founding of the German Empire in 1871 the City was one of the most important garrisons and extensive barracks were erected. At the turn of the century Dresden was the fourth largest City of the German Empire with a population of more than half a million inhabitants. Prudent building regulations enabled the City to maintain its charm despite its stormy growth. Together with the lively cultural climate, this founded Dresden's reputation as an attractive destination for thousands of tourists.

Dresden after the First World War

In Dresden, too, the deprivation of the war years was followed by a post-war period of political upheaval, characterised by crises and often violent developments. The November Revolution in 1918 forced King Friedrich August III to abdicate. The Free State of Saxony was formed. The relative political stability in the second half of the 1920s once more brought forth notable architectural and cultural achievements, though the assumption of power by the National Socialists in 1933 put an end to the progressive cultural traditions in the City. The brutal suppression of all political opposition by the National Socialists culminated in the mishandling and finally the deportation of the Jewish inhabitants of Dresden. The urban Economy and social life was at the same time integrated fully into the preparations for a new war.

The destruction of Dresden

Three months before the end of the Second World War a series of five air raids between 13 and 15 February 1945 practically erased the centre of Dresden and extensive areas of the suburbs. Around 35,000 people died in the most gruesome way. The culturally and historically so valuable City centre was buried under 18 million cubic metres of rubble. Under indescribably arduous conditions, the remaining inhabitants of Dresden spared no effort in their attempts to restore the vital functions of the mortally afflicted City. In May 1945 the Soviet army occupied Dresden


Reconstruction In the first years after the war the City centre was cleared of the enormous masses of rubble, with the assistance of tens of thousands of volunteer helpers. At the start of the 1950s reconstruction began with residential and representative buildings in the City centre. The reconstruction of selected architectural monuments was also forced ahead from the very beginning. The reconstruction of the Zwinger was completed in 1964. Numerous important buildings, such as the Court Church, Johanneum, Albertinum, the Royal Mews and, in 1985, the Semper Opera House, were also restored, though at the same time the valuable remains of other monuments were demolished. Despite certain important successes, the later exclusive devotion to industrial construction technologies and increasing economic difficulties left the reconstruction of the City overall incomplete and unsatisfactory.

Dresden - a regional capital in the GDR

In 1952, three years after the founding of the GDR, the East German Länder were dissolved and replaced by smaller administrative regions. Dresden thus became a regional capital. Social life in the City was determined by the doctrines of socialist ideology. Despite considerable efforts, for example through the establishing of completely new branches of industry, only limited success could be recorded in attempts to regain the former standing of Dresden as an industrial centre. Nine colleges, on the other hand, among them the Technical College accorded the status of a university in 1961, were able to secure the City's scientific profile. Important cultural traditions were maintained and furthered in outstanding achievements in various arts.

Dresden since 1989

The peaceful revolution which heralded the end of the socialist GDR also had roots in Dresden: mass demonstrations at the beginning of October 1989, the resultant dialogue with the local authorities and the peaceful occupation of the State Security headquarters in December were the first stages in a process which finally led to the unification of Germany. Dresden regained its former status as capital of the refounded Free State of Saxony. Extensive building work has in the meantime transformed the face of the City. Dresden is well on the way to becoming one of the most attractive cities in Germany.

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