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A short history of the city of Herborn

Herborn, a small city on the river Dill in Hessen, is positioned in a corner of Germany, where the three federal states of Hessen, Rheinland-Pfalz and Nordrhein-Westfalen meet.
On the grounds of Herborn itself finds of richly ornamented artefacts made from bronze point to the Celts as first settlers in the last centuries B. C. The name Herborn of today sounds German, its oldest documented version “Herbore”, however, has resisted all efforts of interpretation and may not be German at all.
The settlement “Herbore” became part of a network of central places forged by the Frankish kings for the administration of their possessions east of the Rhine in the early Middle Ages. A large castle from stone was erected over the meeting of three valleys only a mile to the north of Herborn. Its village became appropriately known as “Burg”. Herborn itself was chosen as seat of a large parish and also of the king`s local representative, who governed the “Herboremarca” (Herborn marches) for them. In 1231 the German king gave his assent to the donation of the parish to the Teutonic Order of Knights. This deed was part of an endowment given to this powerful order by the counts of Nassau as one of their family entered it. The act was ratified by the Pope in 1257. The Teutonic Knights remained as owners of the parish till 1577.



The counts of Nassau were well established rulers of Herborn when they obtained the borough-charter for the place in 1251 from the German king. The year after they granted freedom from tolls in Herborn to the ladies convent of Altenberg near Wetzlar. This convent was renowned at the time because it was directed by Gertrud, a daughter of Saint Elizabeth. Its church was selected as a burial place of the Nassau dynasty and later endowed with income based on property in Herborn in 1324. The counts of Nassau remained overlords of the city, while climbing the ranks of the German high nobility from counts to princes and from princes to dukes till 1866, when the duchy of Nassau became part of the kingdom of Prussia. The castle was first built before 1350. The main building, however, a fortified palace in French Chateau-fort style, was completed around 1440 by count Engelbert I., a direct ancestor of the present royal family of the Netherlands.
During the 13th and 14th centuries Herborn became a small fortified city, controlling a cross-roads and river-crossing which developed a prospering economy based on the manufacture of woollen cloth, leather and shoes, as well as retail-trade and inn-keeping. Besides the weekly market on Thursdays there were fairs during the year. The most important of them, Martinimarkt, still attracts the crowds today. Long-distance trade for the export of Herborn cloth depended on the famous fairs of Frankfurt, which were also used for the import of raw materials and luxury goods from abroad. The small city of about 1.000 inhabitants bore the characteristics of many landlocked rural centres in the German hills. It did have a modest cultural life with a school, which taught Latin. It did have events like open-air theatre plays enacted by the burghers in Lent and it boasted some bright boys making their way abroad after their studies, especially at Erfurt university. The best known of them was Nikolaus Ferber called “Herborn”, a leading Franciscan monk, who died in Toulouse in 1535.
The Lutheran Reformation, introduced in Nassau around 1530, did not change much in Herborn. The Second Reformation, however, which was started by count John VI. of Nassau, a brother of prince William I. of Orange, around 1580, enlarged the parameters of the tiny cities existence out of recognition. The count founded an academy to support the new reformed denomination based on the teachings of John Calvin in Herborn. It started lectures here in the autumn of 1584. The following year it got a printing-office of its own.
The foundation of the Hohe Schule brought Herborn to the forefront of the centres of the Calvinist denomination in Central Europe. This small academic establishment, staffed with a few dedicated professors, attracted considerable numbers of students, many of them from abroad. The connections of the Hohe Schule reached from Transsylvania to Scotland and from Poland to France. Sometimes its students were drawn from five nationalities at a time. Teaching and writing were in Latin. The most famous student was Jan Amos Comenius from Moravia, who stayed in Herborn from 1611 to 1613. The best known professors were:
-Johann Piscator, an important theologian. He completed a new translation of the Bible into German - as alternative to Martin Luther `s – which was first printed in Herborn from 1602 onwards.
-Johann Heinrich Alsted, who edited the first encyclopaedia to be published in Germany, printed in Herborn in 1630.
-Johann Althusius, who wrote the Politica, an influential handbook on constitutional law and political science, proclaiming the right of the citizens to depose tyrants, first printed in Herborn in 1603.


Hohe Schule Herborn

The bloom of city and academy was terminated by the Thirty Years War. Especially the years between 1626 and 1635 proved testing for both, when the biggest fire in Herborn `s history destroyed over 200 buildings and the plague, for the last time as it were, killed hundreds of people. Reconstruction started in the 1640s. The intention of Emperor Ferdinand III. of the Holy Roman Empire to raise the Hohe Schule to the status of university came to nothing, though. From 1648 to 1806 Herborn enjoyed the status of a provincial centre of academic life and commerce. The woollen crafts were strengthened by the mass-production of stockings on frames, retail-trade grew from the importation of colonial goods. The students liked the place, calling it half-mockingly “Dill-Athen” but their numbers declined as the academy was too poor to attract important professors any longer.


memorial tablet of Comenius


Nevertheless it still numbered famous people amongst its students. Karl Fuchs became a renowned professor of medicine in Kazan/Volga and Friedrich Adolph Diesterweg an influential reformer of schools in Berlin.
In 1806 Napoléon deposed the Prince of Orange and annexed Herborn to the Grand Duchy of Berg. In 1811 he declared his intention to shut the Hohe Schule down but the tiny corporation struggled on till it was relieved by his downfall 1813. The Vienna Congress awarded Herborn to the older line of the Nassau dynasty, which governed its new duchy of Nassau from Wiesbaden. In a big sweep the duchy`s educational system was reorganised completely in 1817 leaving only the faculty of divinity of the Hohe Schule in place. It became and still is the Theological Seminary in Herborn.
The city itself suffered under the enmity between Prussia and Nassau, inherited from the era of Napoléon. Trade barriers were erected, the old economy declined, industrialisation was slowed down. Only when the two states finally agreed on building a railway connecting the north of Nassau to the coal-mining area on the Ruhr things improved from 1862 onwards. Herborn became a centre of machine-building, manufacturing of kitchen-stoves and cattle trade.
Its citizens had shown themselves as supporters of liberal-democratic ideas since the revolution of 1848. Yet dominance of “Herborner Freisinn” was gradually eroded in the years preceding the outbreak of World War I and collapsed during the “Weimar Republic” when it was replaced by the antagonism of Nationalists and Social-Democrats.
The Nationalists became supporters of Hitler and gained the upper hand in the elections of 1932 and so Herborn hastened to elect Adolf Hitler freeman of the city in 1933. First thing after World War II was indeed the revocation of this but twelve years of Hitler`s dictatorship had done great harm to the civic society of Herborn: The Jewish community was wiped out by emigration and murder in the concentration-camps, leftwing democrats and Christian opponents of the regime had been prosecuted, many families lamented the loss of beloved ones in World War II.
The reconstruction started in 1946 and could rely on the active co-operation of about 3.000 Germans who had lost their homes in the east. In 1977 a new city of Herborn was formed out of the old city and nine neighbouring villages.
The new city of Herborn is an industrial town, which also has central functions in retailing and services. The health care sector is strong due to a psychiatric clinics founded in 1911. Herborn is home to a number of different nationalities and denominations and actively taking part in European integration, with partners in France (Pertuis), Austria (Schönbach and Guntersdorf) and Poland (Ilawa). Overseas links are maintained with Post Falls in Idaho/USA, a city founded by Frederick Post of Herborn.

Rüdiger Störkel

City historian

Westerwald Westerwaldsteig Lahn Dill Bergland Das Lahntal Geopark Rothaarsteig Deutsche Fachwerkstraße Herborn ist Fairtrade-Stadt

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