The city of Aachen

| Navigation | Contents


Aachen and Europe


Skyline von Aachen: Aachen - A great place to be

How did Charlemagne go into outer space? What declaration of affection was made in the Coronation Room? Discover your own angle on Europe from entirely perspectives…

Aachen · Aquisgrana ·  Aquisgrani ·  Aix-la-Chapelle ·  Aken

The very fact of Aachen’s toponymy suggests the city’s European identity and destiny. While in Italian and Spanish it bears a name (‘Aquisgrana’ and ‘Aquisgrán’ respectively), which derives from the medieval Latin designation (‘Aquisgrani’) and apparently harks back to a Celtic god of healing named Grannus, in French-speaking regions it is called ‘Aix-la-Chapelle’, in allusion to Aachen’s Church of St. Mary’s (the Cathedral of today). Like these romance versions, the German name ‘Aachen’ and the Dutch equivalent ‘Aken’ point to the special importance of the local waters and the hot springs.

Palace (Pfalz) of Charlemagne

It was the hot springs that caused Charlemagne to choose Aachen from the end of the eighth century on as his preferred winter palace and to develop and extend it more and more into his actual residence. Of this Carolingian palace, large parts still survive today and are clearly identifiable: for example, the octagonal Statue of Charlemagne in the Town Hall (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannand sixteen-angled central edifice of St. Mary’s, which Charlemagne had built near his palace; and the Town Hall of today, which in its foundations and dimensions is probably identical with the old Royal Hall. As de facto residence, with its Imperial Assemblies and Synods and the diversity of its political and cultural life, Aachen under Charlemagne and his immediate successor became a kind of capital of Europe - not in the sense of a modern capital but in the medieval one of a ‘curia regalis’ or ‘prima sedes Franctiae’. Early medieval Europe was decisively formed from here: expressed in and as a Latin and western entity, an agrarian and Christian age, the revival of Latin literature, and the verifiable beginning of European vernacularization: the ‘lingua rustica Romana’ as well as the Germanic-Frankish language, the ‘lingua theodisca’. The Latin West created here largely remained the foundation and framework for the subsequent development of the European world: the political development into nations and nation-states as well as the intellectual-cultural development of a specifically occidental world and life view.
In these terms Charlemagne rightly stands at the beginning of Aachen’s European importance. This special role was early sensed by Charlemagne’s contemporaries, who accorded him historic stature and called him the father of Europe. This unique and special nature of Charlemagne’s historical achievement has been corroborated by scholarly research into his life and personality, although certain limitations - unfinished and crumbling bits and pieces of this colossal lifework - have since emerged.
Despite this qualification, the lasting achievement of the Great Carolingian is that he pointed the road, politically and culturally, to medieval Europe and to the Latin West, particularly in France and Germany, thus helping to lay Europe’s foundations.
So the Charlemagne Prize rightfully points back to this Founding Father. To be sure, it must not be forgotten that the boundaries of Charlemagne’s empire excluded the British and the Spanish, and in fact part of the later Germans, i.e. the peoples beyond the Elbe as well as all Slavs and Northern Europeans. But such fencing-in and fencing-out falls short of the truth, even historically, since one must consider that the encounter - so decisive for Europe - between classical antiquity and Christianity and Germanentum had already been prepared in the period of ethnic migration and that this early medieval link had created in England, for example, an Anglo-Saxon culture and church that subsequently spread from the Isles to the Continent by the work of its missionaries. Without Willibrord, apostle to the Northumbrians and Frisians; or Boniface as Christian architect of Europe; or the York polymath Alcuin, who here in Aachen became a leader of Charlemagne’s Palace School and a kind of ‘Cultural-Educational Minister’ of the Frankish empire - without their achievements, the historically foundational work of the Carolingians can neither be explained nor understood.

Medieval Coronation Site

When in the ninth century during the further course of the Carolingian period the importance of the Aachen palace receded, it was in the Church of St. Mary’s (the Cathedral of today) that the continuity of Aachen was most durably preserved. From 936, in veneration of Charlemagne, more than thirty German medieval Crown (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannkings were crowned here. It was here in 1002 that Emperor Otto III was buried; here in 1165, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa had his remote predecessor canonized. For this ceremony, Charlemagne’s remains were solemnly raised; a half-century later they were laid in the precious Shrine of Charlemagne, which today is located in the late-Gothic choir of Aachen’s Church of St. Mary’s. St.Mary’s was frequently the recipient of valuable gifts lavished upon it by German kings and emperors - as for example the Cross of Lothair of Otto III, the Golden Altar and the Gospel Pulpit of Heinrich II, the Barbarossa Chandelier, and the bust of Charlemagne created at the instigation of Charles IV. Various other imperial insignia and treasures such as the Purse of St. Stephen and the Imperial Evangelistary (the Gospels), were also preserved in this important church of the Empire.

‘Head of the Empire‘

Besides St. Mary’s and the Palace and a number of farms serving for supply (the main Aachen farm, the Haupthof, and the subsidiary Ponttor (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannfarms in Seffent, Richterich, Orsbach, Vaals, Würselen, Haaren and Eilendorf), early-medieval Aachen also included a small settlement which had its beginnings in the first century as a Roman military bath with thermal facilities, and which during the Carolingian period, after a long intermission, developed into a centre of artisans and merchants, with a marketplace and dwellings for nobility. Little is known between the early-medieval period and the High Middle Ages about this ‘vicus Aquensis’, until in 1166 at the canonization of Charlemagne it was elevated by Barbarossa to the ‘head’ of the Empire (‘caput regni Theutonici’), its inhabitants were declared freemen, and the burgher-community was granted liberal rights of coinage and commerce. In the 1170s the ‘Barbarossa-town’, obviously growing in population, got its own wall whose outlines are still discernible and remnants of which are still preserved. Around and along this wall - the Barbarossamauer - towns and churches were built (St. Adalbert, St. Peter, St. Jakob or James); and this sprawling tendency resulted in the mid-thirteenth century in the building of a second and larger wall with the town gates - the Marschier- und Ponttor - of today.

European Pilgrimage Site

This urban development had been augmented not only by the abundant water resources of the Aachen Basin, commerce in textiles and the working of brass and copper, but above all by the European pilgrimages to Aachen’s renowned sacred relics: the robe of Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of Jesus, and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. This display of sacred objects from Charlemagne’s treasury of relics made Aachen a cynosure for pilgrims: they came primarily from the Balkans - Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia - but also from Poland and Bohemia, as well as the North Sea and Baltic regions. Aachen developed into the most important pilgrims’ shrine north of the Alps, and was frequently also used as a collecting-point or stopping-place en route to Santiago di Compostela. From the time of the great mid-fourteenth century plague, the solemn exhibition of the costly relics was carried out in prescribed sequence and repeated every seven years (cf the ‘Aachen Sabbath Year’). In the interim, the objects of veneration were kept in the Shrine of Our Lady, a masterpiece crafted in 1238 by Aachen’s goldsmiths.

The People’s City

The economic flourishing of Aachen in the High Middle Ages had a formative influence on the self-assurance of its citizens. When in the mid-thirteenth century they erected their Bürgerhaus, the old Town Hall at the Fish Market, they decorated the front of it with a banner that has been preserved until this day, choosing as an inscription the opening words of the ‘Charlemagne Sequence’ dating from about 1200, which is still sung at every Charlemagne celebration and at every awarding of the Charlemagne Prize: ‘Urbs aquensis, urbs regalis, regni sedes principalis’ (‘Aachen, thou regal city and principal seat of the realm’). In the fourteenth century, with similar panache, Aachen’s citizens erected upon the foundations of the old Carolingian Royal Hall their new Town Hall, lavishly decorating its northern side and turning its adjoining square lined with stately patrician homes into their main marketplace. In the Imperial Hall of this new and now multi-storey Town Hall were held the customary coronation banquets probably dating from the accession to the throne of Charles IV in Aachen in 1349, so that Aeneas Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II (1458-64), had good reason to describe this monumental Aachen edifice as the ‘palatium tota Germania nobilissimum’, the Haus Loewenstein (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannnoblest palace of all Germany. Its late-medieval decorative figures of saints and rulers gave way to the baroque taste of the eighteenth century, followed in turn by a neo-Gothic remodelling in the late nineteenth century. This approach to iconography today combines, in its statues of kings and emperors as well as in its princely coats of arms, the political idea of the old Empire with the arts and sciences of the Middle Ages and/or the major crafts and trades of the world before modern times. In that world, at the end of the Middle Ages, the town of Aachen had landed in a critical state of isolation as a consequence of general European developments. The political focal point of the Empire had shifted towards the south and southeast, and the Burgundian State was rising in the west. The lack of major arteries of transport in the form of rivers or suitable trade routes meant that a link to the Hanseatic league was lacking as well; and finally the nearby Galmeiberg - a vital source of raw material for the important brass-manufacturing sector - was lost to the dukes of Burgundy. Added to this in the early sixteenth century was the turmoil of the Reformation, which in Aachen lasted ninety years in various configurations and drew to the city from the neighbouring Netherlands numerous victims of religious persecution. Not until 1614 did Spanish troops bring about the restoration of the old faith and political conditions, of which the baroque statue of Charlemagne created back then and surmounting the Town Hall fountain may still serve as a remembrance.
In the religious conflicts and during the Thirty Years’ War, medieval Aachen was largely spared, until 1656 when a great fire devastated ninety percent of the city’s structures. ‘O großer Karl, wie ist vom Thron der Schönheit deine Stadt gesunken/ vom Aschenstaub verdeckt und Funken’ (‘O Great Karl, how is thy city from throne of beauty fall’n and marred/By ashes hid, by fire charred’) - with these and other verses the Dutch poet Jost van den Vondel mourned the destruction of the late-Gothic city: only a few buildings survived both the flames of that disaster and the subsequent ravages of time. Among those still standing today are the Haus Lšwenstein on the marketplace and the brick building housing the present newspaper museum in the Pontstrasse, two of Aachen’s oldest civic structures.

Baroque Spa

What fire had destroyed, water had to rebuild.’ Under this motto of the Aachen balneologist Franz Blondel, Aachen developed in early modern times into a popular spa. The foundation of this new prosperity was the balneological development and therapeutic application of Aachen’s water resources. Aachen grew into a baroque and rococo city, which under the guidance of such leading architects as Johann Josef Couven and his son Jakob Couven was also structurally transformed. It was not only the Cathedral and Town Hall that were given a baroque note; similar evidences are manifest in many other parts and buildings of Altes Kurhaus (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannthe city: the former Abbey Church of St. John’s in Burtscheid, for example, which was remade by Couven père into an imposing baroque domed edifice; and the Haus Monheim at the Hühnermarkt (housing the Couven Museum today), designed by Couven fils. The latter also designed the ‘Altes Kurhaus’ in the Komphausbadstrasse, which in earlier times was the ‘Redoute’ (festive hall) and centre of the life of the spa.
A European high point of this phase of Aachen’s history is considered to be the 1748 Peace Congress at the end of the War of Austrian Succession, at which the major powers of the time tried to settle their differences: England, France and Spain and their colonial problems; Austria and the question of the Pragmatic Sanction governing the succession of Empress Maria Theresia as well as the safeguarding of the major-power status of the Habsburgs. Still today, the Peace Hall designed by Couven père in the Aachen Town Hall and its White Hall lined with the portraits of the envoys of that time bear witness to this attempt to reach a European peace settlement - which, however, was subsequently sacrificed in the Seven Years’ War to Austro-Prussian dualism, and in the colonial war overseas to Anglo-French polarities.

French Period

The city’s French phase comes between the Aachen Peace Conference of 1748 and the second major assemblage of royalty of 1818, when the rulers of Austria, Russia and Prussia gathered in Aachen to set the basic lines of early nineteenth-century European politics. In 1794, the armies of the French revolution Town Hall: Weisser Saal (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannoccupied Aachen, joining it and the left bank of the Rhine to France. Aachen became the capital city of the Roer département (comprising the Lower Rhine region), and in 1802 for the first time the seat of a bishopric and a diocese as well. Incorporated into the economy of the French empire and fostered by Emperor Napoleon I, who held the city of Charlemagne in special esteem, the Aachen region flourished economically to an undreamt-of degree: Currency and weights and measures were standardized, freedom of trade and commerce was introduced, compulsory guild membership was lifted, transport was improved, and the market was protected from English competition by the continental barrier.
The major production sectors - mining, iron-smelting and metalworking, paper and needle manufacture, the production of cloth and glass - were combined in a unified economic region extending from Jülich, Düren and Stolberg across Monschau, Verviers and Eupen to Lüttich/Liège.
All these trades, especially the Aachen cloth manufacturers, achieved a prosperity that is recorded in French statistics and in the general encylopedias of the times. The old Frankish axis between Paris and Aachen seemed to revive - a link that is still called to mind today in the Council Chamber of the Aachen Town Hall by a portrait of Charlemagne (a copy of a Dürer painting) and pictures of Emperor Napoleon and his consort Josephine.

Prussian Border Town

But the Vienna Congress of 1815 incorporated the Rhinelands into the Kingdom of Prussia, and made Aachen the seat of a Prussian district government. Various evidences in modern-day Aachen of Prussian classicism stem from that time: examples are the entrance hall of the Elisen (‘Elisabeth’) Springs with its rotunda Elisenbrunnen (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannand its Doric columns, built to the blueprints of the Berlin architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel; and the Schinkel-designed entrance of the municipal theatre, which with its porticos and its gable-relief is modelled on a temple of classical antiquity. In the neighbouring external regions to Aachen’s west originated in 1831 today’s borders between the Netherlands and the newly-founded Kingdom of Belgium, meaning that the vicinity of Aachen became the point of convergence of the Prussian Rhine province, the Belgian province of Liège and the Dutch province of Limburg (the last of these remaining linked to the German Federation as a duchy until 1866). Owing to this political reorganisation, the Aachen region lost its surrounding western countryside and its advantageous transport connections. Moreover, the technologically far superior English cloth-making industry was making inroads into the continental market with low-priced products; the Aachen manufacturers were hard-pressed as a consequence. The only long-term remedy to this bleak economic and social situation was industrial-structural readjustment - measures that would mechanize and commercially boost the Aachen economic region.

Early Industrialization

The beginnings of mechanization in Aachen - a close meshing of textile manufacture and steam-run engines - go back to the French period of the city, but now they are continually further developed. From now on, fulling mills and spinning and cutting machines are steam-powered. In 1834 there were 76 steam-driven machines in the district of Aachen; in 1849 there were over 180, and in 1859 over 280. Among those responsible for this technological development were, not least, William Cockerill and his sons, who brought the innovations from England via the Wallonian Liège region to Prussia, turning Aachen into a hub of the technological transfer of the time.
The Englerth, Reuleaux and (Samuel) Dobbs machine factory had been founded in this way back in 1818-19 in Eschweiler. A few years later, under Dobbs’s Talbot Wheels (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmannmanagement, the Lendersdorf iron and steelworks was built near Düren, where one Eberhard Hoesch was among the first in Germany to use the English method of steel manufacture. In Aachen in 1832, Samuel Dobbs together with the cloth manufacturer Carl Franz Nellessen founded a machine factory which supplied the Rhenish Railway Company with the first locomotive built in Prussia. Other milestones in Aachen’s early industrialization include Germany’s first boiler factory, which was built in Aachen in 1833 by Jacques Piedboeuf (from Jupille, Belgium), and the Aachen Rothe Erde rolling and hammer-mill, which Piedboeuf and Hubert Jakob Talbot started in 1845. A few years before, in 1838, Talbot together with Pierre Pauwels, a mail-coach manufacturer from Brussels, founded a railway car factory, Germany’s first, which like the other factories mentioned profited from the construction of the Rhenish railway, whose Cologne-Aachen line was opened at the early date of 1841 as part of the railway link to Brussels and Paris and to Antwerp and London. That the railway was routed via Aachen at all is owing to David Hansemann, the then president of the Aachen Chamber of Commerce, and later for a brief time Finance Minister in Prussia. In the course of Hansemann’s other work in Aachen - such as the establishment of fire insurance still in existence today, and the creation of social welfare facilities - the seamy side of early industrial development in Europe was exposed: social deficits that Hansemann and other Aachen citizens motivated by Christian and social responsibility tried to remedy, such as child labour, the exploitation of female labour, financial hardship, human suffering - in short, the growing impoverishment and squalor of the working population.

Economic Position today

A comparison of this early age of industry and technology with Aachen’s present-day economic situation reveals interesting lines of Ford Research Center Aachen (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmanndevelopment. Aachen cloth, for which the first steam-operated loom of German manufacture was assembled in this city, and which at the turn of the century and later was an important commodity on the world market, is only produced in a few factories today; but these factories continue to make a large proportion of German cloth and textiles. The needle industry - another traditional hallmark of Aachen quality - now specializes in machine-needles, reportedly producing almost half of the world’s requirements. The Rothe Erde iron and steelworks - once the largest manufacturer of Thomas steel, employing up to 7000 people - was shut down after World War I and has been replaced by large branch offices of a tyre company and an electrical equipment business. Even so, most of Aachen’s production workforce is still employed in metal production and steel construction and the manufacture of machines and vehicles. Only after that follow such production sectors as electro-technology and chemistry. The textile and glassware industries, long typical of Aachen, today represent only ten percent of total employment in the production sector.
In addition, the industrial base of the Aachen economic region, although still strong, is being challenged by the increasing importance of the services sector. Keeping pace here entails constant modernization and further diversification of the region’s industrial structure. The necessary impetus may come from the Aachen Polytechnic (RWTH), which was founded nearly 125 years ago in 1870 at the initiative of Aachen municipal and business leaders (the first polytechnic in Prussia and its industrially early-developing Rhenish province), and which has become today an advertisement for a city that welcomes business, as well as a landmark in the European university scene. Contributing factors here are the Aachen Polytechnic’s scientific competence in research and teaching, the many students from other European and foreign countries, and also its modern clinic, which in the European regional area ranks as a high-performance medical centre.
Finally, the Single European Market offers further important approaches to and opportunities of economic development. After the end of World War II, the region and the city not only counted as widely destroyed population areas of the Federal Republic of Germany of the time but were also largely cut off from their Belgian and Dutch neighbours by tightly-sealed borders. Thus, as repeatedly in the not far-distant past, Aachen had become once more - or was still - a University Hospital of Aachen (c) Stadt Aachen / Andreas Herrmann)border town. Germany’s reconstruction and the special boost to the mining sector did little to alter this marginalization. Not until the creation of the EEC, and later the EC, did the disadvantages inherent in a national border situation grow less and less significant. The borders became more open: for jobholders on both sides, for cross-border business cooperation, for branch offices and subsidiaries, for choice of domicile, for shopping and pleasure trips. This economic interlinking and human interaction found its political and administrative expression in the creation of a Rhine-Meuse Euregio, which will probably be further broadened and deepened, now that the various segments of the border region are gaining via the Single Market a truly central and thus highly advantageous location. Two hours away from the Ruhr and Rhine areas, or from the international port of Antwerp and the Eurocrat-headquarters of Brussels; three hours from Frankfurt in the Rhine-Main area, or from the Dutch ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, or from the northern French centre of Lille, the cities of Aachen and Liège and Maastricht are securing vital advantages of location that could turn this region - with its training and technology resources and potential, its residential quality and leisure-time attractions, its high degree of development and its multilingual character - into a central landscape of Europe, thus investing it with the importance it once possessed at the time of the Carolingians and of Charlemagne.

Prof. Dr. Maximilian Kerner, Professor of Medieval and Modern History at the Aachen University of Technology (RWTH)