You might have heard about Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, but how much do we know about the city that inspired their namesake? What happened before Bach presented the concerti to the city’s Margrave? What is a “Margrave”, anyway? Let’s delve into the historic past of this great city, from its founding to the 20th century…
In the beginning, Brandenburg was part of a region traditionally inhabited by an ancient people known as the Semnones. They lived there peacefully before being ousted in the 7th century by Slavic peoples who had settled to the East (themselves fleeing the influence of invading Huns and Avars who were in the midst of ransacking their country). These Slavic colonizers (known as Wends) had three hundred years of relative prosperity before a German king (referred to as Henry the Fowler) captured the capitol of Branibor during the 10th century.
In the years following occupation by German forces, the name of the capitol morphed from Branibor into Brennabor, finally becoming Brennaburg. An uprising allowed the Wends to drive the Germans out of Brennaburg, but soon after a new player joined the fight for conquest of the area: Lothar, duke of Saxony. He regained during a fierce thirty year campaign those areas lost by the troops of Henry the Fowler during the uprising. Lothar was eventually named German Emperor, and put a man named Albert the Bear in charge of Brennaburg and the surrounding area (the entirety of which was now referred to as the Northern March).
The descendants of Albert the Bear (known as the Ascanians) assisted in the founding of Berlin (then just a small township) and divided the Northern March into three sections: Old March (Altmark), Middle March (Mittelmark), and New March (Neumark). Each section of the Northern March was ruled by a specific dignitary, known as a margrave. These margraves steadily grew in power until 1356, when their titles received major a boost in influence: they were established as prince-electors, and were allowed to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. So Brennaburg became the Electorate of Brandenburg, and would hold that title for years afterward.
The death of the last descendant of Albert the Bear brought about a period of chaos in the 1360s, and King Wenceslas of Luxembourg (yes, the same good king referenced in the winter carol) tried to keep the Northern March together. But the local nobility were growing in power, and the poorer were growing poorer by the day. Perhaps this is why King Wenceslas journeys out on a winter’s evening to bring alms to the poor in the holiday carol which bears his name.
The year was 1415, and the Hohenzollern clan arrived to join the fray! Frederick of Hohenzollern was appointed elector by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to the Electorate of Brandenburg. Frederick’s son, known by his troops as Iron Tooth, got the nobles sorted out and kept peace in the towns while fighting off warring Pomeranians (the people, not the dogs).
Things really started developing in the Electorate of Brandenburg after Iron Tooth’s brother (Albert III Achilles) got the Pomeranians to settle down a bit. Roman law was introduced by Elector Joachim I, and hi son Joachim II made a daring deal with the Duke of Prussia which promised half of Prussia’s resources to Brandenburg if the Duke’s family tree should topple over. The Duke’s daughter Anna married Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg, and the streets of the Electorate ran with Prussian gold upon Sigismund’s receipt of inheritance in 1618.
And then it was the Thirty Years War, here to shake things up once again. Elector George William tried for neutrality, but failed. Invading Swedes held Brandenburg for several years before Williams’ son Frederick (who was known as the “Great Elector”) took back control. He then decided to try his hand at gathering as many local territories as possible. Minden, Kammin, Halberstadt, east Pomerania, and Magdeburg all joined the state of Brandenburg in quick succession.
As the leader of one of the most powerful states in Germany (rivalled only by Prussia and Austria), passed quite the legacy on to his son (also named Frederick). A military man from head to toe, young Freddy made quite a career for himself on the field of battle. He allied himself with other German princes to battle Louis XIV of France, and helped William of Orange out in his march on England in 1688.
As the year 1700 loomed, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I had a major problem on his hands: there was far too much competition for the throne of Spain, competition which was growing nastier by the day. Leopold I couldn’t intervene without more soldiers, so he decided to name Frederick III King of Prussia in exchange for the aid of 8,000 soldiers. Prussia couldn’t refuse this deal, as their dominion wasn’t technically a part of the Empire like Brandenburg was. So 1701 saw Frederick III crowned King in Prussia, and after this event Brandenburg added few territories and turned its attention towards supporting education and developing infrastructure.
Two centuries passed, and Brandenburg continued to flourish as a powerful independent state until being absorbed as a province of German Prussia after World War I. Prussia dissolved after World War II, which meant that every part of Brandenburg to the west of the mighty Oder River became a different part of Germany. When Germany became partitioned into East and West, Brandenburg was fractured into districts (similar to the days of the Northern March). Brandenburg was ultimately able to make a comeback in 1990 just before the toppling of the Berlin Wall. The reunification of East and West signaled a new era of prosperity for the city, which has continued right up to the present day.