The twin town of Dessau-Roßlau is located on both sides of the river Elbe and is the third largest town in Saxony-Anhalt with 85,000 inhabitants. The larger district of Dessau lies south of the Elbe, the smaller district of Roßlau north of it.
The two towns were historically mentioned for the first time within 2 years of one another (Dessau in 1213, Roßlau in 1215). The River Elbe ford near the mouth of the River Mulde linked the settlements, which started life as trading posts 7 kilometres apart. The Elbe and Mulde rivers with their extensive floodplains flow between the two towns.
Throughout long periods of history, these non-arable floodplains and the River Elbe isolated both settlements, so it was natural that they developed in different ways. Dessau was the royal seat of the princes of Anhalt (Dessau) for centuries, while Roßlau, as part of the Principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, remained a village of fishermen and boatmen on the River Elbe.
Residence of the princes of Anhalt
Anhalt was one of the small principalities that essentially shaped the patchwork carpet of medieval Germany (‘Holy Roman Empire’). It was surrounded by the mighty Electorates of Brandenburg in the north and Saxony in the east and south. Hereditary distributions divided Anhalt into many small units such as Anhalt-Köthen and Anhalt-Zerbst.
Dessau started its development as a residence of the princes of Anhalt and Anhalt-Dessau as early as the 1470s. The town experienced its first flourishing of culture in the early 16th century. Representative buildings such as the St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) and magnificent Renaissance structures like the Town Castle (Stadtschloss) were built in Dessau, while the splendid Water Castle (Wasserburg) was built in Rosslau where the River Rossel joins the Elbe.
All building construction was stopped during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). In contrast to the nearby river crossings at Wittenberg and Magdeburg, the Elbe crossing between Dessau and Roßlau was not fortified, so the region was helplessly exposed – and largely devastated by the armies that passed through it. Most of Roßlau was destroyed in a sea of flames during one of the deadliest conflicts of this war, the Battle of the Elbe Bridge on April 25, 1626. It took the town 100 years to recover from this.
In Dessau, Prince Johann Georg II (ruled from 1660 to 1693) and his wife Henriette Catharina of Oranien-Nassau, restored Dessau to its earlier cultural and economic position during the rebuilding phase after the devastation of 30 years of war. Henriette Catharina was influential in bringing a significant number of Dutch and Flemish masters’ paintings to the town. The Dutch and Flemish collection is one of the most important art collections of the art gallery Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie. The religious tolerance of the Prince and his wife opened the town up for the immigration of persons of other faiths, such as Lutherans and Jews, who built their own places of worship such as the St. John’s Church (Johanniskirche) and the synagogue.
Regents of European rank
Leopold I, named the ‘Old Dessauer’ (1676-1747) and his grandchild Leopold III Friedrich Franz (1740-1817) were two princes of European rank who ruled in Dessau. Leopold I. fought on numerous European battlefields, on the same side as Eugene of Savoy and the Duke of Marlborough on two occasions. During the reign of Prince Franz, Dessau became the centre of numerous reform efforts and the destination of many eminent contemporaries (Goethe, Forster, Admiral Nelson, Lord and Emma Lady Hamilton). Together with master builder Friedrich Wilhelm von Erdmannsdorff (1736-1800), he created a unique cultural landscape with outstanding park facilities – the Dessau-Wörlitzer Garden Realm (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000). Several of these parks are also located in Dessau itself (Georgium castle and park, the Luisium castle and park and the Kühnauer park). Prince Franz also founded the now 220-year-old theatre tradition of Dessau.
Economic metropolis and Bauhaus town
Both Dessau and Roßlau were to develop into important industrial towns. Hugo Junkers was one of the most important German engineers and entrepreneurs of the 20th century. Dessau gained international acclaim in the 1920s thanks to the gas appliances and aircraft of Junkers and the settlement of the Bauhaus in 1925. The Bauhaus building and other Bauhaus structures were built (UNESCO World Cultural Heritage since 1996).
The Sachsenberg brothers started their engineering and shipbuilding business in 1844 – they put Roßlau on the map as an important industrial centre.
Dessau was targeted by allied bombers during the World War II and the town was almost completely destroyed in an attack on March 7, 1945. The rebuilding of Dessau focused on housing construction, but often without regard for the history of the town’s established structures. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, most of the town’s industrial enterprises largely collapsed – followed by the well-known consequences of unemployment, relocation and urban problem areas.
Dessau-Roßlau, a town which hosted the ideas of German enlightenment, and where design, architecture and aircraft construction was revolutionised, is once again known as a centre of innovative ideas. In 2000, the town was the correspondence site of the EXPO 2000 and in 2010 it was part of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) that took place in Saxony-Anhalt focussing on town conversion projects. The German Federal Environmental Agency, the Anhalt Technical University and the shopping centres in the town characterise the image of the city today. The Bauhaus Museum, which will be completed by the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus in 2019, is yet another milestone in the development of the town and will be an added attraction for visitors.