History of Kiel

Mother Earth Travel > Germany > Kiel > History

If you come to Kiel as a visitor, you may not see right away that the city is indeed very old despite its modern face. Count Adolf IV of Schauenburg wanted to stabilise his estate in Holstein and therefore founded the towns of Oldenburg (1233), Plön (1236), Itzehohe (1238), Oldeslohe (1238), Kiel (1242) and Neustadt (1244).

He chose a barely populated sandy island on the south-western shore of the firth to build the city of Kiel, as the natural inlet of the firth was an ideal place for a deep harbour. The Nicolai Church was erected on the market square, from which the streets branched off at right angles. A city wall with three gates and a castle at the northern end of the island ensured the citys protection. Another building which is as old as the town itself is the Franciscan Monastery by the Old Market, where Count Adolf lived as a monk from 1246 onwards. In 1242 Kiel was granted city status and proof of this was given to the town by Adolfs eldest son, Count Johann I . In this document the city was at first called "Holstencity" but the name was not really accepted and was called "Kil" in everyday language, due to its wedge-shaped (German: keilförmig) firth.

In 1284 Kiel joined the Hanseatic League, which was not only a trade but also a defence alliance at the time. Apart from Lübeck and Hamburg, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Greifswald, Demmin, Anklam and Stettin were also members of this pact. During its time as a member of the Hanseatic League Kiel developed its own jurisdiction system (1318), coinage laws (1318), and its first schools (starting from 1320). The portion of silver in the coins and the compensation of war losses, as well as losses of goods through storms and wreckage of ships were common issues discussed by the Hanseatic cities. Kiel left the Hanseatic League during the 16th century, but the date is uncertain and the reason unclear.

Since banks had not yet been established in the Middle Ages, money transactions were handled by the so-called Kieler Umschlag (trade forum) which was first mentioned in 1482. The Kieler Umschlag was a regular meeting place for the aristocracy to hold weddings and handle business. While the meeting was being held, a flag was hoisted up the tower of the Nicolai Church and this guaranteed freedom of trade, peaceful trading and safe conduct for everyone. The handling lost its importance when the first banks were founded (Ahlmann started in 1852) and stopped taking place in 1900. However, since 1975, the Kieler Umschlag has been celebrated once again, but it is now a festival with music and food stalls, historical costumes, special bread and a wedding, the Umschlagshochzeit, for which every young bride and groom can apply.

To meet the rising demands for academics, Duke Christian Albrecht signed the corporate charter for the university on September 29th1665. Back then 16 professors taught 140 students in four separate faculties: theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. The old Franciscan Monastery was the first university building and further buildings were gradually added.
Johann Daniel Major, a professor for medicine at the time, founded the worlds first museum, which was open to the public, by starting a collection about theoretical medicine. The Christian-Albrechts-University was almost completely destroyed during World War II. In 1945 the lectures were picked up on a ship and continued in a dismantled factory on the edge of town after 1946. The new university buildings, including faculties, lecture halls, a canteen, a new botanical garden, a university church and a nursery were all gradually built around this factory. Today Kiels university numbers over 20,000 students.

From its foundation until the 18th century, Kiel was part of the duchy of Holstein which was allied with numerous small German states. The area down to Hamburgs boundaries was incorporated by Denmark in 1773 through an exchange of territory. During the Danish era, a lot was done for the infrastructure; country roads to Rendsburg and Flensburg were built as well as railroads to Altona (Hamburg, in 1844) and Neustadt (1846) and a connection by steamship was established to Copenhagen (1819). As the first connection between North Sea and Baltic Sea, the Schleswig-Holstein-Canal was built from 1777 to 1784, making use of the waterways provided by the Levensau and Eider rivers. After the war between Denmark and Germany, Kiel was put under the administration of Prussia and Austria and became part of the Prussian Kingdom.

The fact that the shipyard Schweffel & Howald (still operating as HDW) was already producing steamships was one of the reasons why Kiel was chosen to be the main war harbour during the time of the German Empire. The Emperor-Wilhelm-Canal (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal) was also built during this time and opened in 1895. Apart from that Kiel got an electric tram and a railroad to Berlin.

In 1918 the revolution of Germany started off as a sailors rebellion in Kiel and spread throughout the German Reich leading to the resignation of the Emperor. In Berlin on 9th of November 1918, Philipp Scheidemann finally proclaimed a republic.

After World War II, Kiel became state capital of Schleswig-Holstein. The population grew rapidly, which was partially due to the settlement of the imperial navy. From 1850 to 1914 the former population of 16,000 rose steeply to 225,000. The navy stimulated the shipbuilding industry and its ancillaries, both of which constantly needed more and more workers. Kiel was pointing the way to the future for the shipbuilding industry: the submarine (1850), the gyrocompass (1904) and the sonar (1913) were invented here. Building activity around this time almost descended into complete chaos. Not only were more flats needed, but also functional buildings such as the city hall, train station and opera had to suit the requirements of a big city. The majority of the remaining medieval houses were pulled down and Kiel became a city in the style of the industrial expansion.

The bombs of World War II destroyed 80% of the city. For this reason the townscape is now determined by buildings from the fifties, sixties and seventies, and contemporary architecture as well as the harbours large ships and cranes.

Ever since 1882 annual sailing regattas have been held on the firth and in the bay of Kiel, and have had an international feel right from the start. They still take place today as an annual festival, the Kieler Woche. The event was founded and organised by the Marine-Regatta-Verein (naval regatta association) in Kiel and later by the emperors yacht club (KYC). The emperor himself regularly participated with his yacht "Meteor".

The sailing district became internationally well known because of the Kieler Woche, and the sailing Olympics took place twice in Kiel - in 1936 and 1972. That makes Kiel the only German city in which the Olympic fire has burned more than once. Today the Kieler Woche is more than just a sailing event - it is an international festival that takes over the whole town, presenting sporting and musical highlights as well as an international food market, concerts and games.

At the moment the Ostufer, the east side of the firth, is under reconstruction. The main emphasis is not on shipping anymore though; a multimedia area is being built and some firms from the computer industry are settling into the prime areas around the firth.

Some of Kiels famous residents include the Russian Tsar Peter III, who was born in Kiel Castle February 1728 and died in the Russian Peterscastle, as well as Max Planck, who was born in Kiels Kütherstraße on 23rd April 1858 and died in Göttingen on 4th October 1947. Max Planck was a physicist, who discovered quantum energy and won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1918.

Anne Rosenfield