Altenburg is a city in Thuringia, Germany, located south of Leipzig, west of Dresden and east of Erfurt. It is the capital of the Altenburger Land district and part of a polycentric old-industrial textile and metal production region between Gera, Zwickau and Chemnitz with more than 1 million inhabitants, while the city itself has a population of 33,000.
Altenburg was first mentioned in 976 and later became one of the first German cities within the former Slavic area east of Saale river (as part of the medieval Ostsiedlung movement). The emperor Frederick Barbarossa visited Altenburg several times between 1165 and 1188, hence the town is named a Barbarossa town today. Since the 17th century, Altenburg was the residence of different Ernestine duchies, of whom the Saxe-Altenburg persisted until the end of monarchy in Germany in 1918. Industrialization reached Altenburg and the region quite early in the first half of 19th century and flourished until the Great Depression around 1930. Economic malaise set in while Altenburg was in East Germany and continued after German reunification in 1990, evidenced by a decline in population, high unemployment and house vacancy rates.
The main sights of Altenburg are the castle, the Lindenau-Museum, the historic city centre (most buildings are from early-modern origin) and the Gründerzeit architecture around the centre. The popular German card game Skat was developed in Altenburg during the 1810s and the founder of the famous Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus, lived and worked in Altenburg between 1810 and 1817.
The town (civitas Altenburg) was first mentioned in a deed to the Bishop of Zeitz in 976. Remains of a Slavic castle on the Schloßberg ("Castle Hill") demonstrate that the town was probably a Slavic foundation, the capital of the shire of Plisni, taken over during the conquest of Meissen by Henry I. As shown by placenames, the surrounding area (Osterland) was mainly settled by Slavs.
The first castle, located under the present day church St. Bartholomäi, was destroyed after the Battle of Hohenmölsen between Henry IV and Rudolph of Swabia. It was rebuilt on the Schloßberg outside of the town. The 11th century Mantelturm tower is still preserved. The castle later became an imperial palatinate and played an important part in the German takeover and settlement of the area between the Harz-mountains and the Elbe.
In the middle of the 12th century, the Hohenstaufen emperors patronized Altenburg as one of their Kaiserpfalzes, allowing the town to become a market and a mint. Together with the Royal forests Leina, Pahna, Kammerforst and Luckauer Forst, lands of the Groitzsch family bought by Frederick Barbarossa, Altenburg, Colditz, Zwickau and Chemnitz were turned into the Terra Plisnensis. Altenburg and Chemnitz as Imperial towns were intended to reduce the importance of Leipzig held by the Margrave of Meissen. Under Frederick Barbarossa much building took place, especially in the market area, and the town grew rapidly. A priory of canons regular was founded and the parish church was finished in 1172. The twin towers of the 12th century Augustine monastery (Rote Spitzen) are still preserved. A town wall with 5 gates was constructed at the end of the 12th century. Altenburg got its charter around 1200, in 1256 the Wettins confirmed it again. The law structure was transposed from Goslar municipal law.
During the Interregnum, the Terra Plisnensis was impounded, but bought back by Rudolph I of Germany, who desired the crown of Thuringia. Together with Zwickau and Chemnitz, Altenburg was part of the anti-Meissen Pleiße-city Union of 1290. After the Battle of Lucka in 1307 against Frederick the Brave of Meissen and his brother Diezmann, King Albert I lost Altenburg and the Pleiße-lands to the Wettin margraves of Meissen, who held the city until 1918.
In 1455, Altenburg saw the division (Altenburger Teilung) of the Meissen lands between Elector Frederick II (the Gentle) and Duke William that led, after a failed attempt at reconciliation (Hallescher Machtspruch) to a war (1446–1451) between the two brothers (Bruderkrieg). In the second division of the Wettin lands between Ernest and Albert at Leipzig in 1485, Altenburg fell to Ernest, together with the Electorate (Kurland), Grimma, the Mutschener Pflege, Leisnig, Thuringia and the Vogtland. From this time on, Altenburg was historically connected with Thuringia and its dynasty, the Ernestine Wettins.
Early modern period
The Reformation was introduced in Altenburg quite early, in 1522, by George Spalatin, Wenzeslaus Linck and Gabriel Zwilling. During the German Peasants' War of 1525, the Altenburg Augustinian monastery was attacked. In the summer, four peasant rebels were executed at the marketplace. After the Schmalkaldic War brought defeat for the Ernestines, Altenburg belonged to the Albertines for short time (1547–1554) before coming back to the Ernestines after the Naumburg Treaty.
From 1603 to 1672, Altenburg was the residence of an Ernestine line, after that, it fell to Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. The Thirty Years' War brought heavy damage to the city and more than half of the population died.
When the Ernestine lands were re-divided in 1826, Altenburg became the capital of Saxe-Altenburg, successor state to the dissolved Saxe-Hildburghausen. Around 1830, the city walls and gates were knocked down and the old suburbia in front of the former wall were incorporated. Industrialization began around this time and the economy and population both saw rapid growth, strengthened by the connection to the railway in 1842 (as Thuringia's first connected city). The Revolution of 1848 led to the abdication of the conservative duke Joseph, who was replaced by his more liberal brother George. The last duke abdicated during the Revolution of 1918 on 13 November 1918 after being promised 12 million Marks and the ownership of numerous castles. The free-state of Saxe-Altenburg was merged with Thuringia in 1920.
Altenburg was a working-class city during the Weimar Republic, ruled by SPD and KPD, which led to heavy conflicts between left- and right-wing forces after 1933. The Jewish community was destroyed during the Kristallnacht in 1938, many Jews emigrated or were killed in the concentration camps. Furthermore, communists and invalids from Altenburg were murdered. During World War II, several subcamps of the Buchenwald concentration camp were located here. They provided 13,000 forced labourers for HASAG, the third largest German company to use concentration camp labour. The US Army reached Altenburg on 15th April 1945 and was replaced by the Soviet Army on 1st July 1945.
In 1952, Thuringia was dissolved and replaced by administrative divisions of East Germany (Bezirks}. Altenburg became part of the Leipzig administrative district, in which it was the second largest city. After reunification, previously extant states were re-established in the former east Germany as federal states in the reunified Germany. Although a majority of 54% in the district voted for Saxony in a plebiscite, the district council decided to join Thuringia together with the Schmölln district, partly because a vast majority of 80% in the neighboring Schmölln district had voted for Thuringia. These districts had formed the eastern part of Saxe-Altenburg until 1920 and were reunified as the modern-day Altenburger Land district in 1994.