Gotha is the fifth-largest city in Thuringia, Germany, located west of Erfurt and east of Eisenach with a population of 44,000. The city is the capital of the district of Gotha and was also a residence of the Ernestine Wettins from 1640 until the end of monarchy in Germany in 1918. The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha originating here spawned many European rulers, including the royal houses of England, Belgium, Portugal (until 1910) and Bulgaria (until 1946).
In the Middle Ages, Gotha was a rich trading town on the trade route Via Regia and between 1650 and 1850, Gotha saw a cultural heyday as a centre of sciences and arts, fostered by the dukes of Saxe-Gotha. The first duke, Ernest the Pious was famous for his wise rule. In the 18th century, the Almanach de Gotha was first published in the city. The cartographer Justus Perthes and the encyclopedist Joseph Meyer made Gotha a leading centre of German publishing around 1800. In the early 19th century, Gotha was a birthplace of the German insurance business. The SPD was founded in Gotha in 1875 by merging two predecessors. In that period, Gotha became an industrial core with companies like the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a producer of trams and airplanes.
The main sights of Gotha are the early-modern Friedenstein Castle, one of the largest Renaissance/Baroque castles in Germany, the medieval city centre and the Gründerzeit buildings of 19th century commercial boom.
Gotha lies in the southern part of the Thuringian Basin in a flat and agricultural landscape.
Gotha has existed at least since the 8th century, when it was mentioned in a document signed by Charlemagne as Villa Gotaha (Old High German gotaha meaning "good waters") in 775. The first settlement was probably located around today's Hersdorfplatz outside the north-eastern edge of the later city centre. During the 11th century, the nearby Ludowingians received the village and established the city in the late 12th century, as Gotha became their second most important city after Eisenach. The city generated wealth because it was conveniently located at the junction of two important long-distance trade routes: the Via Regia from Mainz and Frankfurt to Leipzig and Breslau and a north-south route from Mühlhausen over the Thuringian Forest to Franconia. One of the oldest pieces of evidence of busy trade in the city is the "Gotha cache of coins" with nearly 800 Bracteates, buried in 1185 in the central city. In 1180, Gotha was first mentioned as a city, when the area between Brühl and Jüdenstraße became the core of urban development, highlighting the early presence of Jews in this old trading town.
The parish church of this first urban settlement was St. Mary's Church (demolished in 1530) at Schlossberg. The castle (at the site occupied today by Friedenstein Castle) was first mentioned in 1217. As the Ludowingians died out in 1247, Gotha became part of the Wettins' territories, where it remained until 1918. The new town east of Querstraße was established in the early 15th century (with the Neumarkt, first mentioned in 1428).
The monastery (first Cistercians, since 1258 Augustinians) was founded before 1251 and abandoned in 1525. Until 1665, the bourse of Gotha was located in the centre of Hauptmarkt square inside the Renaissance building, which hosts the town hall today. The medieval town hall was located on the north-eastern edge of Hauptmarkt, at the site of today's Innungshalle.
Water supply was a big problem, because Gotha is not located on a river. In 1369, Landgrave Balthasar had the Leinakanal built. This channel, over 25 kilometres long, brought fresh water from the Thuringian Forest (Hörsel and Apfelstädt rivers) to the city. The main businesses of medieval Gotha were cloth-making and the woad trade.
Early modern period
The Reformation was introduced in Gotha in 1524 and the castle was rebuilt as a larger fortress between 1530 and 1541. Gotha was already part of the Ernestine Wettins territory after the 1485 Treaty of Leipzig. However, the Ernestines' loss of power after the Schmalkaldic War in 1547, the Treaty of Erfurt in 1572, when the city became part of Saxe-Coburg, and the Thirty Years' War resulted in Gotha's decline. The local castle, Grimmenstein, was razed by Imperial troops in 1572.
The turnaround was brought about by the selection of Gotha as a ducal residence in the 1640 territorial partition, when Ernest the Pious founded the duchy of Saxe-Gotha. The strongly Protestant and absolutist sovereign quickly began to reorganize his small state (even before the war had ended) and in particular fostered the school system, for example by introducing compulsory education up to the age of 12 in 1642. This was the origin of the often noted liberal education of the Gotha citizenry and the following cultural heyday.
Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff was one of numerous experienced and loyal civil servants employed by the duke. Seckendorff was considered one of the most able and influential thinkers on administration and public law of his time. His book Der teutsche Fürstenstaat (1656), written by order of Ernest, served for decades as a standard work in teaching political science at Protestant universities in Germany.
Friedenstein Castle was built between 1643 and 1654 and is one of the first large Baroque residence castles in Germany. Between 1657 and 1676, the city received a stronger fortification, which was demolished between 1772 and 1811. In their place, a park around Friedenstein and a boulevard around the city were established. Some important scientific institutions were the ducal library (today's Forschungsbibliothek Gotha as part of the University of Erfurt), founded in 1650, the "coin cabinet" (1712), the "art and natural collection", basis of today's museums, and the Gotha Observatory at Seeberg mountain, established 1788. The Gotha porcelain manufactory (established in 1767) was famous around 1800 for their faiences.
In 1774, the actor group led by Conrad (or Konrad) Ekhof, called "the father of German acting", came from Weimar to Gotha. He began working at the Schlosstheater and became Direktor of the first ever German court theatre (founded in 1683), while acting in many plays himself. Having turned it into one of the leading theatres in Germany, after his death in 1778 the fame of the theatre declined rapidly.
The Almanach de Gotha, a directory of European royalty and nobility, was first published in 1763 and Justus Perthes founded his science publishing company in 1785. Joseph Meyer followed in 1826 by founding the Bibliographisches Institut, one of the two leading encyclopedia publishers in the German language besides the Brockhaus and Adolf Stieler first published his Handatlas in Gotha in 1816. Johann Adam Weishaupt, the founder of the order of the Illuminati, died in Gotha in 1830.
From 1826 to 1918, Gotha along with Coburg was one of the two capitals of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Under the rule of Duke Ernest II, Gotha was a centre of Germany's liberal movement, where the Gothaer Nachparlament, an aftermath of 1848 German Revolution took place. After 1851, Gustav Freytag, novelist, advocate of German unity and often a harsh critic of Otto von Bismarck made Siebleben (today part of Gotha) his summer home. Ernest II made Freytag Hofrat (privy councillor) in 1854, when the Prussian government had issued a warrant for his arrest.
In 1875, the German socialist party (SPD) was founded in Gotha through the merger of two organizations: the Social Democratic Workers' Party, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, and the General German Workers' Association, founded by Ferdinand Lassalle. A compromise known as the Gotha Program was forged, although it was strongly criticized by Karl Marx for its reformist bias in his Critique of the Gotha Program.
Industrialization started in Gotha around 1850, as the city was connected to the Thuringian Railway in 1847. The city became a centre of engineering with companies like the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a tram and airplane manufacturer, founded in 1883. During the 19th century, Gotha also became a centre of banking and the insurance business in Germany. Ernst-Wilhelm Arnoldi founded the first fire insurance in 1820, followed by the first life insurance in 1827. The Gothaer mutual insurance remains one of the largest insurance companies in Germany (it moved to Cologne after World War II). Gotha's tram network was established in 1894. The first crematory in Germany was built in Gotha in 1878.
The German Revolution of 1918–19 brought some trouble to the city. The dukes of Gotha abdicated in 1918 and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), a left-wing breakaway of the SPD was founded in Gotha in 1917 in opposition to the SPD's war policies during World War I. A far-left government was elected in Gotha in 1919 and worked against both the Weimar National Assembly and the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch in 1920 bringing the city to the edge of a civil war. Nevertheless, the state of Gotha joined the newly created Freistaat Thuringia in 1920.
Under Nazi rule, Gotha became a centre of the arms industry with nearly 7,000 forced labourers working in the city's factories, where more than 200 died. Furthermore, the Gotha barracks in the southern periphery were enlarged and the synagogue was destroyed during the Kristallnacht in 1938. Bombings in 1944/45 damaged some buildings in the city, in particular the theatre (ruin demolished in 1958) and the main station (which remains only "half-a-building" until today) and the main church (rebuilt after the war). Nevertheless, some 95% of the city's buildings survived the war unscathed.
The American Army reached the city in April 1945 but was replaced by the Soviets in July 1945 and in 1949 Gotha became part of the GDR. During this period, some historic inner-city quarters were replaced by Plattenbau buildings, especially west of the Hauptmarkt and at Gartenstraße north of the city centre. Many other buildings fell derelict during the later GDR period and the city's time of shrinking in the 1990s, whereas others were refurbished after German reunification in 1990. Gotha's economy was hit by the transition from state to market economy after 1990, nevertheless, some companies survived or were newly founded and have made Gotha an economically relatively successful city.