History of the City of Strasbourg

Today, the city of Strasbourg, France is mostly known for being the location of the European Parliament and is frequently used as a symbol of the European Union secondary only to Brussels. However, Strasbourg has a much richer history than this. From its beginning as a Roman outpost, Strasbourg has been one of the most important cities in the Upper Rhine.basin.

Strasbourg’s city center sits on the Grand Ile in the middle of the Ill River, five kilometres west of the Rhine. Prior to the Roman invasion of Gaul, the area had a significant Celtic settlement. The Romans arrived some time between 50 BCE and 10 BCE as the Empire’s conquest of Gaul pushed its frontier to the western bank of the Rhine River. The Rhine formed the natural border of the Roman Empire in the west, and around this time the settlement of Argentoratum was founded as a military border outpost to protect Gaul from the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine.

Shortly afterward during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century CE, the Roman Empire reached its maximum extent. Argentoratum remained the main legionary base on the upper Rhine, though it was no longer on the Roman border. Argentoratum, along with Mogontiacum, later to become the city of Mainz, operated as the two headquarters for the Roman Legion in the province of Germania Superior on the Upper Rhine. However, the Roman presence on the Rhine would only last a few centuries. One of the most significant events in Strasbourg’s early history was the Battle of Argentoratum in 357 CE. The Western Roman Empire was beset by successive invasions from Germanic tribes. The Alemanni confederation under King Chnodomar had settled on the eastern bank of the Rhine in what is now Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany. Chnodomar attacked across the Rhine into Gaul near Argentoratum. The Roman general Julian, who later became Emperor Julian the Apostate, crushed the Alemanni at Argentoratum driving Chnodomar back across the Rhine in one of the greatest victories of the Romans over the Germanic tribes of that time. Despite this, however, the Western Roman Empire continued to collapse, culminating in its disestablishment in 476 CE.

In the immediate period following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Strasbourg was occupied successively by the Alemanni, the Huns, and finally the Franks. By 800, Strasbourg was part of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne. Strasbourg continued to be the major trading center on this segment of the Rhine, though Mainz to the north had eclipsed it in importance as a commercial city. However, Strasbourg’s more central location within the Carolingian Empire made it an important city again after Charlemagne’s death. Charlemagne’s empire was divided among his grandsons, with Charles the Bald receiving West Francia comprising most of what is now France, Louis the German receiving East Francia comprising much of what is now southern Germany and Austria, and Lothair I, who received Middle Francia, comprising much of the Rhine and Rhone River basins and Italy as well as being crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Charles and Louis were unhappy with this division, seeing Lothair as unfit for the office of Holy Roman Emperor and disputing his succession to the title. In 842, Charles and Louis met in Strasbourg. In the city’s marketplace, they signed an alliance against Lothair called the Oaths of Strasbourg. The Oaths not only set out this alliance between the two brothers, but is also one of the first documents that demonstrates the splitting of France and Germany into two distinct cultural identities. Each brother spoke the Oaths in the language of the other. Charles spoke the Oath in the Germanic language, the predecessor of German, while Louis spoke in the Romance language, the predecessor of French. Thus, on February 14, 842, the French and German languages and nationalities were laid out in diverging directions in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg’s medieval history is dominated by its role as both a religious and commercial center within the Holy Roman Empire. Strasbourg joined the Holy Roman Empire around 900 when the entire region of Alsace was annexed from Lotharingia into the Empire. The Catholic Church made the city the see of a bishopric at least as early as 982. One of the more prominent early bishops was Werner I of the House of Habsburg, appointed by Emperor Otto III in 1001. Werner was the brother of Radbot von Habsburg, one of the forefathers of the counts of Habsburg and the entire Habsburg dynasty. Werner, who served as bishop from 1001 to his death in 1028, began construction on the Strasbourg Cathedral in 1015. The cathedral, blending Romanesque and Gothic architecture and bearing a unique red hue from the use of sandstone from the Vosges Mountains to the west, dominates the island Strasbourg’s old town sits on and is the most recognizable landmark in the city. It took over four centuries to construct and was finally completed in 1439. At 466 feet high, the Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building for over two centuries. The cathedral received this distinction after the taller belltower of Saint Mary’s Church in Stralsund was struck by lightning and burned down in 1647, and was only surpassed again in 1874 by Saint Nicholas’ Church in Hamburg.

During the Middle Ages, Strasbourg also sought to elevate its role within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1262, the city of Strasbourg was granted rights as a fully independent entity within the Empire as an Imperial Free City. In the 1300s, Strasbourg asserted these rights further and declared itself a free republic. At the same time, Strasbourg led an alliance between several Imperial Free Cities in Alsace called the Decapole. The Decapole was signed by Emperor Charles IV in 1354, uniting ten free cities in alliance with each other. Strasbourg was the site of court proceedings for the Decapole, which lasted until the late 1600s when Alsace was annexed into France.

Strasbourg’s most important historical period is probably the 16th and 17th century, as the city became renowned for its role in the Protestant Reformation. Even by 1500, Strasbourg was already destined to become an early center for the budding movement, as it was one of the first cities in Europe with a printing press. Indeed, Johannes Gutenberg perfected and unveiled the movable type press in Strasbourg in 1440, and a printing office was opened in Strasbourg by 1460. Strasbourg also later became the first city with a published regular newspaper. The World Association of Newspapers now recognizes the Relation, first published by Johann Carolus in Strasbourg as 1605, as the world’s first newspaper.

As a center of knowledge and by the Reformation the seat of an archbishop, Strasbourg’s role as a contentious city for the feuding Church movements was almost assured. Many of the churches in Strasbourg have complicated histories relating to the Reformation. Strasbourg was one of the earliest cities to side with the Protestants, and the Strasbourg Cathedral was declared a Protestant church by the city council in 1524. Reformer and minister John Calvin stayed in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541 while in exile from Geneva. During those three years, Calvin preached at the Saint-Nicholas Church on the outskirts of the city and at the Temple Neuf in the middle of the Grand Ile. Organist and theological historian was also the pastor of the Saint-Nicholas Church from 1900 to 1913. The Saint-Thomas Church on the Rue Martin Luther at the southern point of the Grand Ile was one of the main Lutheran churches in Strasbourg. Reformer Martin Bucer served as pastor there in the early years of the Reformation. After the cathedral returned to a Catholic doctrine in the 1680s, the Saint-Thomas Church became the city’s main Lutheran church.

Strasbourg remained part of the Holy Roman Empire through the Thirty Years’ War when it was a strategic crossing point for Imperial armies crossing the Rhine. Its location made it a primary objective for Louis XIV in his wars to expand French borders. Louis XIV occupied Strasbourg in 1681, and formally annexed the city into France with the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The city remained part of France until the Franco-Prussian War. As the largest city in Alsace and just across the Rhine from Germany, Strasbourg was a key objective for the Prussian army. The Siege of Strasbourg from August to September of 1870 saw the Prussians heavily bombard the city. Many historical structures were damaged or destroyed by the bombardment, including the former Dominican Church where the Temple Neuf is now located, and the Prussians entered Strasbourg in late September. Prussia decisively won the Franco-Prussian War, and in 1871 Strasbourg became part of Germany, adopting its German spelling of Strassburg.

The twentieth century has been a period of both turbulence and prosperity for Strasbourg. With much of the active combat on the Western Front taking place in Belgium, Strasbourg and Alsace were luckily spared much of the fighting during the war. Strasbourg was still in German control when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. However, with the Treaty of Versailles, Alsace was returned to France. For about a month after the armistice, Alsace became a self-declared independent country with Strasbourg at its capital as a legal vacuum developed between the armistice and the arrival of the French army. A number of cities, beginning with Strasbourg, declared themselves Soviet republics, run by workers’ or soldiers’ councils as part of a nationwide protest calling for the overthrow of the German monarchy. French forces under Henri Gouraud arrived in Strasbourg on November 22, and the Alsace Soviet Republic was dissolved by December 5. Between the two world wars, Strasbourg became part of the buildup of defensive structures along the French-German border known as the Maginot Line. Fortifications were constructed around the city, but this did not slow the German army down during the invasion of France in 1940. Strasbourg was occupied again for over four years during World War II. The city was liberated by Allied forces on November 23, 1944.

After World War II, Western European countries strove for increased cooperation and interconnection between them as a counter to the Soviet bloc and as a move toward greater European integration. With France and West Germany leading the way in this cooperation, Strasbourg’s location made it an excellent city for the location and symbol of this integration. The Council of Europe first met in Strasbourg in 1949, and is now housed in its own building, the Palais de L’Europe, where it has met yearly since 1977. The European Parliament has also met every year in Strasbourg in a building across the River Ill from the Palais de L’Europe. This area of Strasbourg northeast of the city center is known as the European Quarter due to the concentration of Europe-wide institutions there. Along with the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights and several other continental institutions are located in Strasbourg. This concentration of organizations makes Strasbourg second only to Brussels as the claimant for the title of “capital of Europe.”

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