The history of Freiburg im Breisgau can be traced back approx. 900 years. Around 100 years after the city was founded in 1120 by the Zähringer family, their lineage died out. The unpopular counts took over as the rulers of the city of Freiburg, only to lose control when the people of the city disposed of them with annexation to the Habsburg seat in 1368. Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the Austrian era end when Napoleon commandeered the handing over of the city and the Breisgau to the grand duchy of Baden in 1806. Freiburg belonged to the grand duchy until 1918, to the republic until 1933 and became a part of the Baden district under the Third Reich. After the Second World War, the city was the capital of (south) Baden from 1949 to 1952. Today, Freiburg is the fourth largest city of the federal state of Baden-Württemberg.
The first mention of settlements around the current Freiburg – Wiehre and Herdern – was found in a document from 1008 in which Emperor Heinrich II describes the hunting grounds of the surrounding forests to the bishop of Basel. To the south of the current southern parts of Zähringen and Herdern, there was a trade route close to the river Dreisam through the Rhine valley and an imperial route through Höllental towards Breisach.
Bertold II built the Schlossberg castle in 1091 for controlling this trade route away at Zähringen on top of a mountain ideal for such a building. It had a settlement of servants and manual labourers in the current area of south Altstadt and Oberlinden. This fortress settlement was partially a trading community set up by Konrad, the brother of the officiating Duke Bertold III, in 1120, who also granted the town's market rights.
A noteworthy part of this set-up was the comprehensive network of bächles constructed around 1170. These are water gutters along the streets of the Altstadt fed by the waters of the Dreisam. In the Middle Ages, they were used for domestic water supply and waste water disposal and also for ready availability for extinguishing fires.
Silver deposits discovered on the western edge of the Black Forest at the end of 10th century made the city prosperous. The Zähringers obtained the mining rights from the bishops of Basel who had regained the mineral royalty from Emperor Konrad II in 1028. With the rise of Freiburg, the city church in which Bernhard von Clairvaux had preached the second crusade in 1146, became considered too small. The last Zähringer Duke Bertold V therefore commissioned the construction of a new, grand parish church around 1200. The Freiburg Cathedral was first started as a Romanesque architectural structure and later completed in Gothic sensibilities. After his death in 1218, Berthold V was entombed as the last Zähringer in the cathedral he had founded.
After the Zähringers died out in 1218, the city's governance passed on with Egino I, the nephew of Bertold V, to the counts of Urach who called themselves the counts of Freiburg and lived in Schlossberg above Freiburg.
The reign of the counts of Freiburg was marked by frequent feuds between them and the city. In 1299, the Freiburgers refused to give money to Count Egino II and bombarded Schlossberg. In the final battle, the bishop fell, which meant victory for the city.
When Count Egino III attempted to enter the city with some troops in 1366, the Freiburgers destroyed the Schlossberg castle. In order to finally get rid of the supremacy of the counts, the citizens of the city bought their freedom in 1368 and voluntarily submitted themselves to the protection of the Habsburg seat. The city was therefore a part of the now former Austrian territories in southern Germany and had collective rises and falls with the Habsburgers until the resolution of the German Reich in 1805.
The Habsburgers quickly gave Freiburg duties and responsibilities. During any wars against the confederacy, the city had to provide financial help and soldiers. In 1386, when the Swiss won the bloody battle in Sempach, not only was the Austrian Duke Leopold III slain, but almost all of the Freiburg nobility were wiped out. The Zünfte then took over the governance of the city council.
After Duke Friedrich IV helped Pope Johannes XXIII escape to Freiburg once Constance had deposed him from the council in 1415, King Sigismund imposed a ban of the empire over the Habsburg Duke. With this, Breisgau once again came under the Reich's fiefdom and Freiburg was a Reich city from 1415 to 1425 until Friedrich's amnesty.
In 1448, the ruler of the Habsburg frontier lands Archduke Albrecht founded a general studies centre in Freiburg, which in 1457 became the University of Freiburg.
A highpoint of the city's history was the Reichstag which the Roman-German King Maximilian I convened in Freiburg 1498 onwards. Maximilian and the other nobles negotiated the Swiss peace treaty here.
Like the rest of Europe, Freiburg had its share of witch trials as well. Between 1550 and 1628, out of the 302 convicted, 131 were executed. On March 24, 1599, Catharina Stadellmenin, Anna Wolffartin and Margaretha Mössmerin and many others were beheaded and burnt outside of the city. A plaque at the Martinstor gate is a reminder of this sacrifice. Around 1599, 37 women were executed as witches and 2 men as sorcerers.
At the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, the south-west region remained largely untouched by the battles. In order to have not just military but also spiritual and religious support, the Jesuits took over the University of Freiburg in 1620.
When the Swedish king Gustav Adolf gave a crushing defeat to the imperial troops under Tilly in the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), his troops were exposed throughout southern Germany. At Christmas 1632, the Swedish General Horn came to the gates of Freiburg, which surrendered on December 30. With the advance of the Spaniards in 1633 under the Duke of Feria, the Swedish abandoned the city, only to come back later in the year to reclaim it. After the victory of the Spanish and imperial troops in the Battle of Nördlingen in 1634, the Swedish finally left southern Germany and therefore also Freiburg.
In June 1648, when the liberty negotiations were almost complete in Münster and Osnabrück, the fortress commandant von Erlach of Breisach besieged Freiburg under the orders of Cardinal Mazarin in order to improve the negotiating position of France. The people left in the city – they were now reduced to 2,000 after a total of five sieges – were relieved when after three weeks of fear, the French brought them respite.
With the loss of Alsace and Sundgau to France under the Peace of Westphalia, Freiburg to the east of the Rhine was chosen over Ensisheim not only as the capital of the frontier states of Austria but also the frontier city.
In 1661, the young Ludwig XIV took over the throne after Cardinal Mazarin's death in France. Ludwig commenced his wars of conquest by which Freiburg was initially unaffected.
Though peace negotiations in the Franco-Dutch War (1672 to 1677) had already begun in Nimwegen, Marshal François de Créquy did not send his troops to the winter quarters as required by the wars, but instead crossed Rhine in a surprise attack at the beginning of November 1677 and besieged Freiburg. After the first bombardment, the city capitulated under the advice of the city commanders. The frontier Austrian governance was shifted to Waldshut and the university moved to Constance. In the following years, Freiburg witnessed many warlike situations.
After the Treaty of Füssen, Ludwig XV had to return the city to the Habsburgers in 1745. However, before that the French razed the 50-year-old fortress walls to its foundations so that only the Breisacher Gate survived as a part of the Vaubanschen buildings. In 1754, there were only 1,627 men and 2,028 women in Freiburg.
In 1805, Franz II (as Franz I, the Austrian Emperor) challenged the self-declared French Emperor Napoleon to the Third Coalition War. Austria suffered a devastating defeat in the Battle of Austerlitz. This interplay between Modena and Habsburg for Breisgau and Ortenau was very short, since sitting in occupied Vienna, Napoleon was able to ensure that these regions fell to Baden. Freiburg found itself downgraded from being the frontier post for Habsburg in Upper Rhine region to a provincial city in a buffer region approved in the 1806 clemency granted to the Grand Duchy of Baden.
Freiburg developed into an economic and political centre in the Upper Rhine region in the years after the Vienna Conference. Within Baden, Freiburg was the seat of a municipal office and two city offices, which were integrated in 1819 into one Landamt of Freiburg, which also included the communities from the dissolved office of St. Peter. In 1827, Freiburg became the seat of the newly founded Archdiocese of Freiburg with the Freiburg Cathedral as an episcopal church.
After the northern section of the Rhine Valley railway reached Freiburg, the inauguration of the station took place in 1845.
In 1864, Stadt- und Landamt Freiburg were merged into the Freiburg District Office. In the same year, the Schwarzwaldverein founded the first German hiking association in the city.
Upon the foundation of the second German Reich in 1871, Baden proved to be a loyal part from the outset. After 1871, though Baden, as everywhere else in the Reich, celebrated the Sedantag (was a semi-official memorial holiday to commemorate the victory in the at Battle of Sedan) but the south-west also celebrated the day of the Battle of Belfort. The common war experience was intended to unite the Germans and spread the feeling. Thus, in 1876, in the presence of William I, the Grand Duke and Bismarck in Freiburg, the official symbol of Baden was unveiled.
In 1899, Freiburg University was the first university in Germany to enrol a woman.
The city experienced the economic boom of the Wilhelminian era, not least because of the annexed Alsace, as Colmar in the western part of the imperial regions was connected with Freiburg through a railway. Towards the end of the 19th century, Mayor Otto Winterer launched an unprecedented boom in construction and was named "the second founder of the city" in 1913 after his 25th birthday. As an aspiring and forward-looking modern city, Freiburg had begun to operate an electric tram, and had already had an equestrian omnibus company since 1891. For this purpose, a power plant in Stühlinger was built independently. In October 1901, the first line A was opened from Rennweg to Lorettostraße.
In 1910, the new city theatre was inaugurated on the western corner of the city centre. In 1911, the new university main building (today Kollegiengebäude I) opened diagonally opposite to it.
The outbreak of war, announced in Freiburg on July 31, 1914 in a special edition, sparked great rejoicing among most of the Freiburgers. But then, after the first battles with French troops at Mulhouse, the first wounded arrived in Freiburg on August 8th. More than 2,000 wounded soldiers were already in the hospitals set up in schools and gyms by the end of the month.
During the entire war, the records show an approximate count of 100,000 injured in the city hospitals. By the end of 1914 the lists of the dead were no longer published in the newspapers.
In the First World War – the first time on 14 December 1914 – the French air force threw bombs on the unarmed and open city of Freiburg.
After the German spring campaign had collapsed in 1918 and the defeat was foreseeable in August, Spanish flu invaded the malnourished population and the wounded in the hospitals. Freiburg lost 444 people to it.
On the morning of November 9, 1918, more than 9,000 soldiers gathered in the Karlsplatz against the orders of their superiors. Speakers urged prudence, demanding peace and freedom. When in the afternoon the news arrived that Philipp Scheidemann had called the Republic in Berlin, soldiers' councils first took over the city. In the evening, they united with swiftly formed workers' councils to maintain law and order in Freiburg.
The reunion of Alsace with France after the lost war meant the loss of part of its hinterland for Freiburg. The city also lost its garrison with the establishment of a 50-kilometer demilitarised zone to the east of the Rhine, in which industrial settlements were forbidden. Both contributed to the economic decline of the region.
In 1923, at the initiative of the French parliamentary and pacifist Marc Sangnier, at the 3rd International Peace Congress in Freiburg, about 7,000 people from 23 nations gathered to discuss ways of breaking down hatred between nations, understanding the world, and overcoming wars.
The NSDAP was quite active in Breisgau before 1933, but an indigenous central party and a strong social democratic system prevented a premature takeover of power by the Nazis. When Hitler came in 1932 to address a gathering in the Mösle Stadium, the Freiburgers came out to protest. He is said to have always avoided the city after that.
The "power grabbing" of the National Socialists at the end of January 1933 in Berlin led to a quick takeover by the Brownshirts in Freiburg. Later, on March 20, five members of the NSDAP and a DNPP deputy declared the city council to be dismissed and installed themselves as commissioners who would cooperate with Lord Mayor Bender.
At the University of Freiburg, the new Rector Martin Heidegger proclaimed the greatness of the National Socialist rebirth as well as the leadership cult, and declared in his introductory speech that the bloodthirsty forces were the only safeguard for the German culture.
During a bomb attack on Freiburg on May 10, 1940, an aircraft of the German Luftwaffe mistakenly bombed the city, dropping a total of 69 bombs and killed 57 people.
Freiburg was largely spared from the bombardment of the Allies until the evening of November 27, 1944, when the British Royal Air Force bombed the town centre as part of the Tigerfish operation, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring some 9,600. 14,525 explosive, incendiary and flash bombs with a weight of 1,723 tons were dropped to the city. It almost completely devastated. More attacks took place on 2/3 December on western Wiehre and on Stühlinger on December 17, 1944.
In the midst of all this turmoil, the Cathedral remained essentially untouched. There was no direct hit on it and thanks to its solid stone construction from the Middle Ages, it resisted the air pressure of the detonating bombs around it but the roof tiles were destroyed. With roof tiles generously donated by the city of Basel, the Cathedral was largely roofed by January 1945.
On 21 April 1945, before the end of the war, the French marched with the 2nd regiment of the Chasseurs d'Afrique on the ruins of Altstadt. In October, General de Gaulle held a victory parade on Kaiserstraße. Freiburg belonged to the French occupied zone of Baden. In the years up to the monetary reform of 1948, the reconstruction of the city was slow. From 1947 to 1949 the rubble was transported to the Flückiger Lake by means of the Freiburg rubble railway, called the Volksmund Trümmerexpress.
From 1946 to 1952 Freiburg was the capital of the state of (from 1949 federal state) Baden as a consequence of the unnatural division of south-west Germany into a French and American occupation zone. Attempts to unite Württemberg-Baden, Württemberg-Hohenzollern, and Baden to form a federal state to unite the south-west of the country, led to a vote in 1951. Although a majority in the three states generally approved the merger, the people of south Baden disagreed. Freiburg was the centre of resistance to the formation of the south-west state under Prime Minister Leo Wohleb. They wanted to see the old region of Baden along the Upper Rhine from Constance in the south, to Mannheim in the north. Despite strong protests by southern Baden, the state of Baden-Württemberg was formed with Stuttgart as its capital. In a court-enforced re-vote in 1970, only 18% of the electorate voted for the independence of Baden. Today Freiburg is the seat of the administrative district of the same name, which largely corresponds to the former federal state (South Baden).
With the steady reconstruction of the city centre, which was largely compatible with the original streets, Freiburg also knew a thing or two about celebration: In 1957, the university was 500 years old. In 1959, the first university partnership was established with the French university town Besançon, which would be followed eight more times over the years. In 1964, Freiburg was added to the route of the Tour de France.
In 1970, the city celebrated its 850th anniversary with numerous events.
In 2002, Dieter Salomon was the first from the Green party to be elected as the mayor of a German city. In 2001 and 2010, German-French summit meetings of the heads of state and government took place in Freiburg.
On February 12, 2008, Freiburg Archbishop Robert Zollitsch was elected Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference. With this election, the seat of the Archbishopric and of church institutions such as the German Caritas Federation, Freiburg strengthened its position as the centre of the Catholic Church.
With its involvement in environmental issues, Freiburg was nominated for the European Green Capital Award in Brussels in 2010. Up against 35 candidates for the "Green City", Freiburg came in eighth place at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
On 24 and 25 September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI came to Freiburg as part of his visit to Germany.
In 2020, the city of Freiburg will celebrate its 900th anniversary with numerous events and guests from all over the world.