Chemnitz is the third-largest city in Saxony, and its population has started growing again in the past few years. The city lies at the foot of the Erzgebirge (also known as the “Ore Mountains” in English), and over the past century it has expanded from the banks of the River Chemnitz, stretching out over the hills to the west and the east. The river, from which the city takes its name, means “stony brook”. It rises at the southern edge of the city where the rivers Würschnitz and Zwönitz meet.
Chemnitz is first mentioned as “locus Kameniz” in 1143, when King Conrad III granted market rights to a Benedictine monastery founded in 1136 under the immediate authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. While the charter granting these rights does indicate the king’s intention to establish a town, it is not the founding document for the medieval settlement. The town, built according to a plan and then subordinate to the king alone, was probably constructed after the 1180s. A century later it had a town council and code of law. However, the town would soon be transferred from imperial possession to the Margraves of Meissen.
Photo: City of Chemnitz, Municipality archive
In the 14th century, the margraves granted the town certain privileges that strengthened it economically. The most important of these was a charter issued in 1357 that granted four of the town’s residents the right to establish a bleachery on the Chemnitz. The margrave also forbade the export of yarn, flax, twine and unbleached linen. This allowed Chemnitz to assume a central role in textile production and trade. The town’s economic power can be seen in the fact that it was able to acquire territory from the monastery in 1402 and purchase jurisdiction in matters of high and low justice from the local lord, along with the right to collect customs, in 1423.
For about eight centuries from 1470, Chemnitz was the site of a liquation smelting works and a copper hammer mill. Directly connected with mining in the Erzgebirge, Nickel Thiele and Ulrich Schütz the Elder and his son managed to create an empire characterised by early capitalist production methods. Without the smelting works and the hammer mill in Chemnitz, the passages in Georgius Agricola’s De re metallica describing their activities would have been unthinkable. The famous early modern polymath worked in the town from 1531, serving as a physician and at one point as burgomaster.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, more than a third of the town’s population was employed in textile production, with calico printing becoming especially important. In 1770, bleacher and colourist Georg Schlüssel introduced calico printing in self-contained production units as a forerunner of mass production. This was followed by the opening of the calico printing work Pflugbeil und Co. in 1771, which was combined with a distribution house for woven goods. The business would later employ around 1200 people and first attempted to use machines in 1799. Macedonian (i.e. Greek) cotton merchants were heavily involved in this development as major stakeholders.
In the 1780s and 1790s, it was master craftsmen such as Christian Wilhelm Forckel, Matthias Frey, Carl Gottlieb Irmscher and Johann Gottlieb Pfaff who heralded the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Saxony with their inventions, along with the construction of spinning and carding machines. By the time the first mechanised cotton mills were built by the Bernhard brothers in Harthau and by Wöhler & Lange around 1800, it had fully arrived. Chemnitz thus became one of the most important industrial centres in the region, and by 1817 it was already known as the kingdom of Saxony’s first factory town and its second trading town.
From the 1830s and 1840s, figures such as Carl Gottlieb Haubold, Richard Hartmann (the “Saxon locomotive king”), Louis Schönherr and Johann Zimmermann and the companies they founded would come to dominate the town’s appearance and its economic development. In 1852 the town was connected to the railway network, allowing Chemnitz to increasingly develop into the “Saxon Manchester”. Berthold Sigismund described the industrial town in 1859: “... in Chemnitz and the surrounding areas, factory buildings prevail, and of these only some of the most recently built betray any attempt to consider beauty alongside utility.”
The comparison to the English industrial metropolis had much to do with the numerous smokestacks of the town’s factories and foundries, the smoke and filth they produced, and the miserable social conditions that came with it. But the term “Saxon Manchester” also reflects pride in the achievements of local industry, especially in machine construction, which was coming closer and closer to breaking the lead enjoyed by its English competitor. It was in the 1860s that Richard Hartmann and the founder of German machine tool manufacturing, Johann Zimmermann, broke out onto the international scene, winning multiple prizes at the world expositions for their machines, which were no longer inferior to their English rivals in any way.
While this industrial boom was taking place, the town grew and developed.
Transport within the town also improved after the introduction of horse-drawn trams in 1880, which were followed by electric-powered trams in 1893. New production plants with modern engines and machines took up large areas of the town and left their mark. Chemnitz became a national centre of textile production and machine construction, and its products were among the most sought-after throughout the whole world. Factories that were modern for the time sprung up, including the annex to the Haubold machine works in 1917 and the Astra factory in the late 1920s. In 1936, Auto Union established its headquarters in Chemnitz.
The town’s population was experiencing tremendous growth. In 1883, Chemnitz became a city with over 100,000 residents, and just 30 years later this figure had risen to 320,000. In 1930 the city had 360,000 residents, the highest population in its history. Between 1844 and 1929, 16 smaller municipalities were incorporated into the city, significantly expanding its size. The Anger (“meadow”; the area behind the Mercure Hotel) and the Graben (“ditch”; Theaterstraße and Bahnhofstraße to the Posthof) were built over, Kaßberg and Stollberger Straße were opened up for upscale residential construction, and the Sonnenberg, Brühl, Südvorstadt and Schlosschemnitz districts were developed as workers’ housing.
The city centre also underwent changes as Chemnitz grew to become a major city:
along the market and Johannisplatz, on Poststraße, Theaterstraße and Königstraße, various businesses, offices, banks and insurance agencies opened up. Between 1883 and 1915, the city authorities built the slaughterhouse, market hall, power station, city museum, fire station, lending office, the New City Theatre, New Town Hall, gasworks, Küchwald Hospital, numerous schools and the cycling track. In the mid-1930s Chemnitz was connected to the Autobahn, Germany’s network of motorways.
During the Second World War, businesses in Chemnitz ramped up manufacturing to contribute to the war effort. Air raid warnings began in 1940, with the most destructive bombings taking place in February and on 5 March 1945. At the end of the war, nearly 4,000 people in the city had lost their lives, and over six square kilometres had been destroyed in the city centre and neighbouring residential areas. Reconstruction efforts were abandoned in the mid-1950s in favour of extensive new building projects in the inner city, and the city centre was given an entirely new appearance. While the remaining mid-19th century buildings in the city’s historic districts were neglected, large housing developments began to spring up on the edge of the city from the mid-1960s. Karl-Marx-Stadt (“Karl Marx City”), as Chemnitz was known from 1953 to 1990, continued to be a centre for machine construction and had 315,000 residents by the end of the 1980s.
The profound political and economic changes that began in autumn 1989 led to the establishment of local self-government and administration and the development of competitive industrial firms. Today, mid-sized, innovative companies and start-ups based in new business parks play a crucial role in the city’s economic life. The city’s appearance has been transformed by the construction of new buildings for homes and businesses, the renovation of listed buildings and residential areas steeped in tradition like Kaßberg and Sonnenberg, and in particular the redesign of the city’s business centre.