Magdeburg, on the mighty river Elbe, has an illustrious history of more than 1200 years. Magdeburg resembles the legendary bird phoenix, in that it has been fought over and destroyed several times, but has each time risen from the ashes more magnificent than before. Currently, Magdeburg is the state capital of Saxony-Anhalt and once again on its way up!
Under Emperor Augustus, the northern frontier of the Roman Empire is marked by the rivers Danube and Rhine. Between 12BC to 6AD, Roman generals Germanicus and Tiberius try to conquer additional territories, up to and including the river Elbe, such as to establish a new Roman province Germania Magna. In 9AD, this effort fails with the decisive defeat of general Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. The northern border of the Roman Empire remains at Danube and Rhine.
Exactly when Magdeburg was first settled remains unknown. Presumably it was founded by Vikings (nordic seafarers and warriors), because the name means ‘mighty fortress’ in nordic languages.
Emperor Karl der Große (‘Carolus Magnus’ in Latin, ’Charlemagne’ in French) decrees Magdeburg as the easternmost place of trade with Slavic and Mongolian tribes (Wenden, Avaren).
Magdeburg is destroyed by the Hungarians and their Slavic allies. Queen Editha, wife of Emperor Otto I the Great, and former princess of Wessex in England, rebuilds and fortifies the town.
Emperor Lothar II convenes a "Reichstag" in Magdeburg. At this time, the “Reich” (Empire) includes much of present-day Germany and Italy and is still called “Heilige Römische Reich” (Holy Roman Empire), even though no Romans are involved. Calling together the ”Kurfürsten” (most powerful nobles) in this places testifies to the growing importance of Magdeburg.
On a more practical level, Archbishop Wichmann codifies the Magdeburg municipal charter, which subsequently becomes the most widely adopted municipal law in all of Europe. What about Eike von Repgow and the Sachsenspiegel?
A great fire destroys the town, which quickly recovers thanks to river trade. Magdeburg joins the "Hansebund", an alliance of some 70 coastal and river towns around the Baltic Sea and its principal affluents (some other members were Lübeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Rostock, Stralsund, Wismar). However, Magdeburg never becomes a "Freie Reichsstadt" like the other Hanse-towns (i.e., a self-governing town answerable only to the Emperor) and continues to be governed by an archbishop of the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Albrecht of Magdeburg and his abusive sale of ‘dispensations’ (God’s forgiveness for sins committed) outrages Martin Luther in nearby Wittenberg. Partly with Albrecht in mind, Martin Luther publishes his famous 95 ‘propositions against dispensations’. Thanks to newly invented printing presses, these spread rapidly and inflame public opinion throughout Europe. This resulting “Reformation” divides Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic camp, and triggers religious wars on a continental scale, lasting almost 150 years.
Magdeburg is among the first large imperial towns to adopt the Reformation, through the efforts of Amsdorf. Protestant refugees stream to Magdeburg.
Magdeburg does not submit to catholic emperor Karl V and continues to welcome displaced protestants.
Kurfürst (Count) Moritz of Saxony besieges Magdeburg, but the citizenry fights valiantly and finally submits on favourable terms (full pardon and freedom of religion).
Besieged again by some 20,000 catholic troops under Pappenheim and Tilly, the 2,000 defenders under Falkenberg put up desperate resistance, hoping to be rescued by their ally, King Gustav Adolf of Sweden. When catholic troops break through the defenses, the population burns the town rather than surrender it to the enemy.
Catholic troops exact horrific retribution, massacring some 90% of the 36,000 inhabitants. For centuries, the collective memory of Europe retained the siege of Magdeburg as the proverbial horror of war. This reputation faded only after the even greater infamies of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Arriving just after siege and massacre are over, the Swedes start to rebuild the town. Otto von Guericke becomes building supervisor and mayor and helps to construct new bridges and fortifications. Von Guericke was also a leading European scientist of the time, with wide interests in physics and cosmology (see also below).
Magdeburg fails in its efforts to remain independent and becomes part of the Kingdom of Prussia, a new and rising power. Many Huguenot (protestant) refugees from France settle in Magdeburg.
Magdeburg survives the Napoleonic wars without damage, for once, because it surrendered to French forces without a fight.
Removal of the old fortifications allows rapid expansion of the town. Magdeburg becomes a prosperous center for trade and industry, with many beautiful buildings in the style of Biedermeier, Historismus, Gründerzeit, and Jugendstil. Its architecture is considered to be among the most beautiful in Germany.
Magdeburg benefits from the construction of canals and new housing areas.
Shortly before the end of World War II, about 90% of the city centre is destroyed by British air bombardment. After the war ends, Magdeburg is in the Soviet occupation zone. Soon afterwards the “Iron Curtain” divides Germany and Europe and the “Cold War” begins.
A civilian (German) magistrate receives authority from the Soviet city commander. The east German government nationalizes industry and makes Magdeburg into a center of heavy machinery.
The Cold War ends with the collapse of the Soviet Union and both Europe and Germany are reunified. The sudden adoption of hard currency renders Magdeburg's industrial infrastructure uncompetitive, which in turn leads to high unemployment and population loss. On the positive side, Magdeburg becomes the state capital of Saxony-Anhalt and begins to invest heavily in higher education.
The Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology (LIN) is founded by the Leibniz Society as a successor to the “Institut für Neurobiologie und Hirnforschung” (INH), laying the foundation for all subsequent investments into neuroscience research in Magdeburg.
The Otto-von-Guericke University is founded by merging three previously existing institutions: Technical University, Pedagogical University, and Medical Academy.
The new university is named after Otto von Guericke (1602-1686), the famous scientist and Magdeburg mayor (see also above). Von Guericke established experimental physics in Germany and is best known for his work on vacuum and on electricity. His interest in vacuum (space without matter) was cosmological: he created this condition in order to show that the universe may well be mostly empty.
With kind contributions from Prof. Matthias Tullner, Dept. History
Of course, you are in Magdeburg to study, but you also need a life! Here is some information about leisure activities in Magdeburg. And in the unlikely case that you will have even more free time, Berlin is only about an 90 minutes away.
Germans in general and Magdeburgers in particular enjoy having fun together. Don’t be fooled by the serious faces they show in public! Hence they band together in “Vereine” (clubs). There are “Vereine” for all things under the sun: playing cards, playing chess, singing, playing music, keeping bees, keeping pets, and on and on. For example, Magdeburg has over 100 clubs offering various kinds of sporting activiteis. Many clubs are just for fun, but others are very serious indeed and count Olympic medallists among their members. The sports centre of the university offers over 60 types of sport to students and staff.