a brief history of beautiful heidelberg


Heidelberg, Germany, a short train ride away from Mannheim and within an hour by rail from Frankfurt, is a city of beauty and old world charm. The old town, practically untouched by the bombing campaigns of WWII, is not to be missed, as are the city’s two iconic structures, the Old Bridge and the Schloss [castle]. I recently spent a few days wandering around, having a coffee [or ten] and taking in the texture of the city. If you are lucky you will be in Heidelberg on a day when crowds of tour groups from river cruises are not making their way in and around Market Square, each following a tour guide carrying an alphanumeric placard to indicate which subgroup leader should be followed. Well organized and quite a money maker for the cruise lines, these groups are annoying at best for relaxed latte lovers trying to take in the daytime serenity of this beautiful city.

Heidelberg has quite a long and dramatic history. Knowing the city’s complex historical reference points helps one understand it better, and also helps one appreciate the survival of the many architectural gems to be found here. In an age of attention deficit disposable everything, seeing such original gems intact is always a wonderful surprise.

The origins of Heidelberg can be traced to the fifth century C.E. The precursor village to Heidelberg is first mentioned in the mid-eighth century C.E. This village, called Bergheim, has now been absorbed into the middle of the modern city of Heidelberg. As with most other then Pagan lands, the people in and around what is now Heidelberg gradually converted to Christianity, by choice, coercion and force. In the late ninth century C.E. St. Michael’s monastery was founded on the Heiligenberg inside a fortress. In the early twelfth century C.E, a new monastery was founded in a nearby valley, and modern Heidelberg can trace its roots back to this monastery. The first reference to the city named Heidelberg can be found in a late twelfth century C.E., setting Heidelberg’s official founding date around that time. During that same general period Heidelberg castle and its neighboring settlement were taken over by the famous house of Hohenstaufen.

A celebrated center of learning boasting the oldest extant public library in Germany [founded in 1421 C.E.], Heidelberg University was a leader in the era of humanism and the Reformation which saw the theological struggle between Lutheranism and Calvinism, particularly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1518, a few months after proclaiming his 95 Theses, Martin Luther traveled to Heidelberg to defend his ideas and educate the population.

In the early seventeenth century the royal crown of Bohemia was offered to the Elector, Frederick V. Frederick was known as the “Winter King” as he reigned for only one winter before the Imperial House of Habsburg regained the crown by force. His overthrow in 1621 marked the beginning of the bloody Thirty Years’ War. In 1622, after a siege of two months, the armies of the Catholic League captured Heidelberg. In 1648, at the end of the war, Frederick V’s son was able to recover the lands that were lost during the war.

In the years that followed, the city and region were subject to a complex series of arranged marriages, inheritances and alliances of power in which dynasty married dynasty and the Catholic vs. Protestant issue ensued. By the late seventeenth century, the War of the Grand Alliance began. By 1689 French troops had taken Heidelberg and its castle and subsequently destroyed much of the area. As a result of the destruction due to repeated French invasions related to the War of the Palatinate Succession exacerbated by severe winters, by the early eighteenth century thousands of Protestant German Palatines emigrated from the lower Palatinate. In an act of good will toward the Protestants, transport was arranged for nearly six thousand Palatines to New York City.

In the eighteenth century, Heidelberg was rebuilt in the Baroque style following the original city plan. During reconstruction in 1764, a lightning bolt destroyed other palace buildings putting a permanent end to the work there. By the early nineteenth century the Emperor of Austria, the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia formed the “Holy Alliance” in Heidelberg. In 1848, the German National Assembly was held in the city.

During the Nazi period [1933–1945], Heidelberg was a stronghold of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the strongest party in the elections before 1933. Non-Aryan Heidelberg university staff were starting to be displaced. By 1939, one-third of the university’s teaching staff had been forced out for racial and political reasons. The non-Aryan professors were ejected in 1933, within one month of Hitler’s rise to power.

In 1934 and 1935, the Reichsarbeitsdienst [State Labor Service] and Heidelberg University students built the huge Thingstätte amphitheatre on the Heiligenberg north of the town, for Nazi Party and SS events. During the Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, Nazis burned down synagogues at two locations in Heidelberg. The next day, they started the systematic deportation of Jews, sending 150 to the Dachau concentration camp. WWII began soon thereafter.

On March 29, 1945, German troops left the city after destroying three arches of the old bridge. They also destroyed another bridge downstream. The U.S. Army entered the town on March 30, 1945 and the civilian population surrendered without resistance.

It is said that Heidelberg escaped allied bombing in WWII because the U.S. Army wanted to use the city as a regional,base of operations after the war. The U.S. Army may have chosen Heidelberg as a base because of its solid infrastructure, in particular the access to the Autobahn and the U.S. Army bases in Mannheim and Frankfurt. In 1945, Heidelberg University was reopened by a group of professors including the anti-Nazi economist Alfred Weber and the philosopher Karl Jaspers. On December 9, 1945, U.S. Army General George S. Patton had a car accident in Mannheim and died in the Heidelberg U.S. Army hospital on December 21, 1945. The funeral ceremony was held at the Heidelberg-Weststadt Christ Church. Today, almost all of the U.S. military presence in the area is gone.

Most of us are familiar with the history of Germany since WWII, including its rebuilding with the aid of the Marshall Plan and the reunification of east and west after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Now you are ready to visit Heidelberg. Just try to avoid a river cruise.