Prehistory and antiquity
Erfurt is an old Germanic settlement. The earliest evidence of human settlement dates from the prehistoric era; archaeological finds from the north of Erfurt revealed human traces from the paleolithic period, ca. 100,000 BCE . The
Melchendorf dig in the southern city part showed a settlement from the neolithic period.[note 1] The Thuringii inhabited the Erfurt area ca. 480 and gave their name to Thuringia ca. 500.
Collegium maius building of the old university (1392)
The town is first mentioned in 742 under the name of "Erphesfurt": in that year, Saint Boniface wrote to Pope Zachary to inform him that he had established three dioceses in central Germany, one of them "in a place called Erphesfurt, which for a long time has been inhabited by pagan natives." All three dioceses (the other two were Würzburg and Büraburg) were confirmed by Zachary the next year, though in 755 Erfurt was brought into the diocese of Mainz. That the place was populous already is borne out by archeological evidence, which includes 23 graves and six horse burials from the sixth and seventh centuries.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Erfurt was an important trading town because of its location, near a ford across the Gera river. Together with the other five Thuringian woad towns of Gotha, Tennstedt, Arnstadt and Langensalza it was the centre of the German woad trade, which made those cities very wealthy. Erfurt was the junction of important trade routes: the Via Regia was one of the most used east–west roads between France and Russia (via Frankfurt, Erfurt, Leipzig and Wrocław) and another route in the north–south direction was the connection between the Baltic Sea ports (e. g. Lübeck) and the potent upper Italian city-states like Venice and Milan.
During the 10th and 11th centuries both the Emperor and the Electorate of Mainz held some privileges in Erfurt. The German kings had an important monastery on Petersberg hill and the Archbishops of Mainz collected taxes from the people. Around 1100, some people became free citizens by paying the annual "Freizins" (liberation tax), which marks a first step in becoming an independent city. During the 12th century, as a sign of more and more independence, the citizens built a city wall around Erfurt (in the area of today's Juri-Gagarin-Ring). After 1200, independence was fulfilled and a city council was founded in 1217; the town hall was built in 1275. In the following decades, the council bought a city-owned territory around Erfurt which consisted at its height of nearly 100 villages and castles and even another small town (Sömmerda). Erfurt became an important regional power between the Landgraviate of Thuringia around, the Electorate of Mainz to the west and the Electorate of Saxony to the east. Between 1306 and 1481, Erfurt was allied with the two other major Thuringian cities (Mühlhausen and Nordhausen) in the Thuringian City Alliance and the three cities joined the Hanseatic League together in 1430. A peak in economic development was reached in the 15th century, when the city had a population of 20,000 making it one of the largest in Germany. Between 1432 and 1446, a second and higher city wall was established. In 1483, a first city fortress was built on
Cyriaksburg hill in the southwestern part of the town.
The Jewish community of Erfurt was founded in the 11th century and became, together with Mainz, Worms and Speyer, one of the most influential in Germany. Their Old Synagogue is still extant and a museum today, as is the mikveh at Gera river near Krämerbrücke. In 1349, during the wave of Black Death Jewish persecutions across Europe, the Jews of Erfurt were rounded up, with more than 100 killed and the rest driven from the city. Before the persecution, a wealthy Jewish merchant buried his property in the basement of his house. In 1998, this treasure was found during construction works. The Erfurt Treasure with various gold and silver objects is shown in the exhibition in the synagogue today. Only a few years after 1349, the Jews moved back to Erfurt and founded a second community, which was disbanded by the city council in 1458.
In 1379, the University of Erfurt was founded. Together with the University of Cologne it was one of the first city-owned universities in Germany, while they were usually owned by the Landesherren. Some buildings of this old university are extant or restored in the "Latin Quarter" in the northern city centre (like Collegium Maius, student dorms "Georgenburse" and others, the hospital and the church of the university). The university quickly became a hotspot of German cultural life in Renaissance humanism with scholars like Ulrich von Hutten, Helius Eobanus Hessus and Justus Jonas.
Early modern period
Christina, Queen of Sweden, depicted on a 1645 Erfurt 10 ducat coin. [note 2]
In 1501 Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) moved to Erfurt and began his studies at the university. After 1505, he lived at St. Augustine's Monastery as a friar. In 1507 he was ordained as a priest in Erfurt Cathedral. He moved permanently to Wittenberg in 1511. Erfurt was an early adopter of the Protestant Reformation, in 1521.
In 1530, the city became one of the first in Europe to be officially bi-confessional with the Hammelburg Treaty. It kept that status through all the following centuries. The later 16th and the 17th century brought a slow economic decline of Erfurt. Trade shrank, the population was falling and the university lost its influence. The city's independence was endangered. In 1664, the city and surrounding area were brought under the dominion of the Electorate of Mainz and the city lost its independence. The Electorate built a huge fortress on Petersberg hill between 1665 and 1726 to control the city and instituted a governor to rule Erfurt.
During the late 18th century, Erfurt saw another cultural peak. Governor Karl Theodor Anton Maria von Dalberg had close relations with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottfried Herder, Christoph Martin Wieland and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who often visited him at his court in Erfurt.
Erfurt during the Napoleonic Wars
Die Napoleonshöhe im Steiger bei Erfurt
, painted by
Nikolaus Dornheim in 1812. Inaugurated in March 1811 to celebrate Napoleon
's birthday, this Greek-style temple
with grotto, flowerbeds and fountain in the Stiegerwald
was burned in November 1813 and completely destroyed by Erfurters and their besiegers
Erfurt became part of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1802, to compensate for territories Prussia lost to France on the Left Bank of the Rhine. In the Capitulation of Erfurt the city, its 12,000 Prussian and Saxon defenders under William VI, Prince of Orange-Nassau, 65 artillery pieces, and the Petersberg Citadel and Cyriaksburg Citadel Cyriaksburg were handed over to the French on 16 October 1806; At the time of the capitulation, Joachim Murat, Marshal of France, had about 16,000 troops near Erfurt. With the attachment of the Saxe-Weimar territory of Blankenhain, the city became part of the First French Empire in 1806 as the Principality of Erfurt, directly subordinate to Napoleon as an "imperial state domain" (French: domaine réservé à l'empereur), separate from the Confederation of the Rhine, which the surrounding Thuringian states had joined. Erfurt was administered by a civilian and military Senate (Finanz- und Domänenkammer Erfurt) under a French governor, based in the Kurmainzische Statthalterei, previously the seat of city's governor under the Electorate. Napoleon first visited the principality on 23 July 1807, inspecting the citadels and fortifications. In 1808, the Congress of Erfurt was held with Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia visiting the city.
During their administration, the French introduced street lighting and a tax on foreign horses to pay for maintaining the road surface. The Peterskirche suffered under the French occupation, with its inventory being auctioned off to other local churches — including the organ, bells and even the tower of the Corpus Christi chapel (Fronleichnamskapelle) — and the former monastery's library being donated to the University of Erfurt (and then to the Boineburg Library when the university closed in 1816). Similarly the Cyriaksburg Citadel was damaged by the French, with the city-side walls being partially dismantled in the hunt for imagined treasures from the convent, workers being paid from the sale of the building materials.
In 1811, to commemorate the birth of the Prince Imperial, a 70-foot (21-metre) ceremonial column (Die Napoleonsäule) of wood and plaster was erected on the common. Similarly, the Napoleonshöhe — a Greek-style temple topped by a winged victory with shield, sword and lance and containing a bust of Napoleon sculpted by Friedrich Döll — was erected in the Stiegerwald woods, including a grotto with fountain and flower beds, using a large pond (lavoratorium) from the Peterskirche, inaugurated with ceremony on 14 August 1811 after extravagant celebrations for Napoleon's birthday, which were repeated in 1812 with a concert in the Predigerkirche conducted by Louis Spohr.
With the Sixth Coalition forming after French defeat in Russia, on 24 February 1813 Napoleon ordered the Petersburg Citadel to prepare for siege, visiting the city on 25 April to inspect the fortifications, in particular both Citadels. On 10 July 1813, Napoleon put
Alexandre d'Alton , baron of the Empire, in charge of the defences of Erfurt. However, when the French decreed that 1000 men would be conscripted into the Grande Armée, the recruits were joined by other citizens in rioting on 19 July that led to 20 arrests, of whom 2 were sentenced to death by French court-martial; as a result, the French ordered the closure of all inns and alehouses.
Within a week of the Sixth Coalition's decisive victory at Leipzig (16–19 October 1813), however, Erfurt was besieged by Prussian, Austrian and Russian troops under the command of Prussian Lt Gen von Kleist. After a first capitulation signed by d'Alton on 20 December 1813 the French troops withdrew to the two fortresses of Petersberg and Cyriaksburg, allowing for the Coalition forces to march into Erfurt on 6 January 1814 to jubilant greetings; the Napoleonsäule ceremonial column was burned and destroyed as a symbol of the citizens' oppression under the French; similarly the Napoleonshöhe was burned on 1 November 1813 and completely destroyed by Erfurters and their besiegers in 1814. After a call for volunteers 3 days later, 300 Erfurters joined the Coalition armies in France. Finally, in May 1814, the French capitulated fully, with 1,700 French troops vacating the Petersberg and Cyriaksburg fortresses. During the two and a half months of siege, the mortality rate rose in the city greatly; 1,564 Erfurt citizens died in 1813, around a thousand more than the previous year.
After the Congress of Vienna, Erfurt was restored to Prussia on 21 June 1815, becoming the capital of one of the three districts (Regierungsbezirke) of the new Province of Saxony, but some southern and eastern parts of Erfurter lands joined Blankenhain in being transferred to the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach the following September. Although enclosed by Thuringian territory in the west, south and east, the city remained part of the Prussian Province of Saxony until 1944.
Streetscape in the southern city extension (Gründerzeit
Housing projects in Bauhaus
style from 1930
Hotel "Erfurter Hof
", place of the first meeting of East
German heads of government in 1970
After the 1848 Revolution, many Germans desired to have a united national state. An attempt in this direction was the failed Erfurt Union of German states in 1850.
The Industrial Revolution reached Erfurt in the 1840s, when the Thuringian Railway connecting Berlin and Frankfurt was built. During the following years, many factories in different sectors were founded. One of the biggest was the "Royal Gun Factory of Prussia" in 1862. After the Unification of Germany in 1871, Erfurt moved from the southern border of Prussia to the centre of Germany, so the fortifications of the city were no longer needed. The demolition of the city fortifications in 1873 led to a construction boom in Erfurt, because it was now possible to build in the area formerly occupied by the city walls and beyond. Many public and private buildings emerged and the infrastructure (such as a tramway, hospitals, and schools) improved rapidly. The number of inhabitants grew from 40,000 around 1870 to 130,000 in 1914 and the city expanded in all directions.
The "Erfurt Program" was adopted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany during its congress at Erfurt in 1891.
Between the wars, the city kept growing. Housing shortages were fought with building programmes and social infrastructure was broadened according to the welfare policy in the Weimar Republic. The Great Depression between 1929 and 1932 led to a disaster for Erfurt, nearly one out of three became unemployed. Conflicts between far-left and far-right-oriented milieus increased and many inhabitants supported the new Nazi government and Adolf Hitler. Others, especially some communist workers, put up resistance against the new administration. In 1938, the new synagogue was destroyed during the Kristallnacht. Jews lost their property and emigrated or were deported to Nazi concentration camps (together with many communists). In 1914, the company Topf and Sons began the manufacture of crematoria later becoming the market leader in this industry. Under the Nazis, JA Topf & Sons supplied specially developed crematoria, ovens and associated plants to the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. On 27 January 2011 a memorial and museum dedicated to the Holocaust victims was opened at the former company premises in Erfurt.
Bombed as a target of the Oil Campaign of World War II, Erfurt suffered only limited damage and was captured on 12 April 1945, by the US 80th Infantry Division. On 3 July, American troops left the city, which then became part of the Soviet Zone of Occupation and eventually of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In 1948, Erfurt became the capital of Thuringia, replacing Weimar. In 1952, the Länder in the GDR were dissolved in favour of centralization under the new socialist government. Erfurt then became the capital of a new "Bezirk" (district). In 1953, the Hochschule of education was founded, followed by the Hochschule of medicine in 1954, the first academic institutions in Erfurt since the closing of the university in 1816.
On 19 March 1970, the East and West German heads of government Willi Stoph and Willy Brandt met in Erfurt, the first such meeting since the division of Germany. During the 1970s and 1980s, as the economic situation in GDR worsened, many old buildings in city centre decayed, while the government fought against the housing shortage by building large Plattenbau settlements in the periphery. The Peaceful Revolution of 1989/1990 led to German reunification.
Socialist-era street signs removed from around the city of Erfurt after 1990
With the re-formation of the state of Thuringia in 1990, the city became the state capital. After reunification, a deep economic crisis occurred in Eastern Germany. Many factories closed and many people lost their jobs and moved to the former West Germany. At the same time, many buildings were redeveloped and the infrastructure improved massively. In 1994, the new university was opened, as was the Fachhochschule in 1991. Between 2005 and 2008, the economic situation improved as the unemployment rate decreased and new enterprises developed. In addition, the population began to increase once again.