Neuenburg am Rhein - The Never-Say-Die Town
The town of Neuenburg am Rhein sits on the banks of the Rhine in south west Germany, about half way between Freiburg and the Swiss city of Basel. With a population of less than 10,000, its small size today belies its historical significance as an important crossing point of the Rhine. Its strategic location on the river and as a border town was both boom and bust for the town. Once grand enough to support its own cathedral, the town's history is punctuated by disaster, both natural and man-made.
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Neuenburg was founded in 1175 by Berthold IV, duke of Zähringen, to protect an important crossroads at a time when the powerful Hohenstaufen dynasty was consolidating its position between Badenweiler, east of Neuenburg, and its territories in Alsace, across the Rhine from Neuenburg. The new town secured the crossing over the Rhine and allowed the Zähringer to collect tolls from the traffic that crossed there.
When the Zähringen line died out in 1218 the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II declared Neuenburg an imperial city, subject only to the authority of Holy Roman Emperor. The town reached its heyday in the middle ages as a strategic crossing point of the Rhine, making it an important political asset.
In 1302 almost half of the town was destroyed when the Rhine flooded. Nine years later Neuenburg became part of Further Austria, the personal estate in modern south west Germany, Switzerland, and France, of the powerful Habsburg family which was then establishing itself as the ruling elite in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1403 Neuenburg was granted additional town rights by the German King Ruprecht, but in 1525 half of the town, including its magnificent cathedral, was once again destroyed by flooding from the Rhine.
A Century of Torment
During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) the town had to endure military occupations, plundering, and destruction by troops of the warring sides, and suffered a significant decline in population. The town also suffered in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Following the Battle of Friedlingen near Basel (14th October 1702) Neuenburg was occupied by the French, and in April 1704 the town was completely destroyed on the orders of the French King Louis XIV. The former population of Neuenburg found refuge in Schliengen and Steinenstadt, towns belonging to the Principality of Basel. Over the following decades Neuenburg was a front-line town in continued clashes between the Habsburgs and the French, and control depended on whose forces were garrisoned there at the time.
From Empire to Empire
At the beginning of the 19th century the Habsburgs finally lost control of their territories east of the Rhine to Napoleon, who dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Neuenburg became part of the newly founded Grand Duchy of Baden, an independent state. In 1871 the duchy became part of the German Empire after Bismark unified Germany, following his victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
A Town on the Front-Line
Following the German invasion of France in 1940 Neuenburg was the first German town to be destroyed in the Second World War when French artillery shelled the town. Although immediately rebuilt, the town found itself in the front-line again as the allies advanced to the Rhine, and in 1944 more than half the town was once again destroyed. On 9th February 1945 the last German troops fighting in the Colmar pocket in Alsace retreated back across Rhine over the bridge at Neuenburg, and the fighting came to an end when the bridge was blown up that morning. At the conclusion of the war in April 1945, French troops occupied the town, which became part of the French zone of occupation following the war.
The town was rebuilt once again in the post-war years, and visitors can get a sense of the fortitude of the place by wandering through the Town Hall square ("Rathausplatz" in German) to the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Virgin Mary). The unpresuming building with its simple, austere interior that serves the catholic community is the sixth church to stand on this spot, the previous five structures having fallen victim to the town's turbulent past. The Stadtmuseum building, standing opposite the church, is a rare survivor of Neuenburg's more recent trials, and provides futher insight into the town's history.
On the western edge of town, the other side of the A5 Autobahn, visitors can walk along the wooded banks of the Rhine and enjoy picnics on one of the many quiet sand and pebble banks dotted along the river. The view across the river is of France, though only a small strip of it before the Grand Canal d'Alsace. The canal is an industrialised, man-made version of the Rhine carved out of the land after the Second World War to carry shipping (the Rhine at this point being unnavigable) and generate power.