History of Dresden

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First traces of settlements in the area of the Elbe valley go back to the neolithic period. In the 6th century BC Germanic settlers reached the Elbe lowlands and settled temporarily. However, the majority of them left this area one millennium later and so Slavonic tribes took possession of this land peacefully. The Slavonic settlement Drezdany, situated at the place of the present Frauenkirche, has given Dresden its name. Also, the marking of some quarters of Dresden like Zschertnitz or Gompitz go back to Slavonic roots.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

After 900 AD the first German settlers came to the area of Dresden, founding the castle of Meissen in order to underline their claim of ownership. The rule of the noble family of Wettin, who dominated Saxony's history for the next few centuries, began with Duke Conrad of Wettin in 1123. The first mention of Dresden in a document appears in 1206, whereas it was in 1216, that Dresden was first described as city. This is considered to be the founding date. The plague of 1349 is also reported in the chronicle. After the Leipzig separation, Dresden became the residential city of the principality of Saxony, under Prince Albert. The upswing, which was connected with this, allowed for Dresden's expansion. In 1539, the reformation was officially introduced to Saxony. Over the centuries Saxony gradually came to be considered a Protestant principality. In the 16th century, the city walls were reinforced in the face of growing danger from Turk invasion.

Baroque and Rococo

For many citizens of Dresden, the period in which the city flourished began with the baroque age, when Dresden became one of the most glamorous royal capitals in Europe. The public face of the City was heavily influenced by the erection of an array of buildings by acclaimed architects and the establishment of the Großer Garten. This époque was responsible for some of Dresden's undeniably beautiful buildings such as the Zwinger, Hofkirche or the Taschenbergpalais. Saxony started to gain importance politically and a refined reputation throughout Europe. Prince Georg III, declared war on the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, and beat the Turks at Vienna, which marked the end of the Muslim invasion in Europe. Moreover, his grandson Friedrich August I, better known as August the Strong became a well-loved historical personality and his memory grew into a legend that is today common knowledge to every child in Dresden. Reasons for his fame are his dissolute lifestyle, reputation with women and his alleged strength. August the Strong soon came to power and in order to secure the crown of Poland, he changed his creed from Protestant to Roman-Catholic, and his family soon followed suit. August succeeded and became August II., King of Poland, in 1697. The union of Saxony and Poland lasted until 1763, but for a short interruption, and this period is nowadays called the Augustian Age. In this époque, a great a dynamic development took place, especially in the fields of economy and culture. For example, the alchemist Johann Freidrich Böttcher invented European-style porcelain in 1709; the first European porcelain enterprise was founded only one year later, in 1710. Meißen porcelain is today a brand of international fame. In the art world, the Green Cave, the world famous jewellery collection was founded. It is the oldest specialist museum in the world. During the Seven Years War, Dresden was attacked by Prussian cannons and suffered heavy damage. The prince and his ministers fled to Poland.

Finally, in 1763 August the Strong died. His estate: baroque Dresden, with its French and Italian influences, proved one of Europe's leading and most beautiful residential cities. Dresden was also dubbed the Florence of the Elbe at this time.

Modern Age

Under the rule of August III., Saxony became a Kingdom through an act of mercy by Napoleon. After Napoleon was defeated in 1813, the Saxon King became prisoner and a Russian governor ruled Dresden until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In the age of industrialisation, Saxony took a leading position within Germany. In 1835, the Dresden-born professor Johann Andreas Schubert constructed the first German locomotive. The infrastructure of Saxony was chracterised by excellence, thanks to the new railroad and steamships. The waves of the 1848 revolution reached the city with many terrible consequences. In the uprisings of May 1849, bloody battles were fought and the skirmish ended with a monarchist victory. The famous composer Richard Wagner took part in these fights. He escaped from the city after the defeat of the rebels.

With the foundation of the German Empire, Saxony lost its political independence. Yet Dresden remained a city of central importance in Germany. At the turn of the last century, Dresden blossomed into a metropolis with 517,000 inhabitants in 1905. During the World War I., Dresden escaped damage. The November Revolution of 1918 led to the end of the monarchy, the last Saxon King, Friedrich, was forced to abdicate. Dresden became the capital of the federal state of Saxony in the interim between the wars. By 1930, 632,710 people lived in the city.

The Destruction

In contrast to other German cities, Dresden did not see Allied bombs until 1945. This created the impression amongst citizens that Dresden would escape air raids due to its international reputation. On the eve of the destruction, many additional refugees from the eastern parts of Germany had flooded into the city. Neither war-important industry nor air defence was based in Dresden. On 13th February, at 10:13 p.m., the first bombs were dropped on the Saxon capital. In different waves of attack, British and American Bombers dropped more than 3,000 tons of explosives on Dresden in a space of fourteen hours. The result was disastrous. It is estimated that approximately 35,000 souls were killed in the firestorm. Buildings of great historical and cultural value were lost. Florence of the Elbe, one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, was destroyed in just one night.

Reconstruction and Socialism

Under Soviet military command, the survivors began to rebuild the city. According to the new GDR government, the rise of a Socialist metropolis was planned, not the reconstruction of the baroque ensemble. Some of the historical sights like Semperoper, Zwinger or Hofkirche were reconstructed. But on the other hand, a handful of ugly, concrete buildings were established, especially in Johannstadt Later, the authorities started to build this kind of housing along the outskirts of the city. Gorbitz and Prohlis are examples of this period. The communist rulers neglected the reconstruction of the only lightly-damaged part of the inner city. The Neustadt and the Hechtviertel remained run-down quarters of the city until reunification.

The political change and present time

With the political change in 1989 and the ensuing German reunification, Dresden was on the brink of a new era. In but one decade, many new buildings were commissioned, others reconstructed, particularly in the inner city. Conservation of old buildings was given priority and as a result, Dresden appears in new glamour ten years after the reunification. Of course, some mistakes were made in the dynamic process of reconstruction. Yet Dresden continues its glorious past as the capital of the re-established federal state of Saxony!

Uwe Scheunemann