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An overview of the mining periods in the Erzgebirge

The rich ore deposits and the associated mining activities in the area gave the Erzgebirge or Ore Mountains their name and laid the foundation for the region to become economically, culturally and sometimes also politically important on both the German side of the mountains as well as the Bohemian side. Mining has influenced the landscape and the culture in the region for hundreds of years. Not only did it influence economic and cultural developments in Saxony and Bohemia, but it also had an influence on other mining regions, both national and international.

To date, evidence has been found for six distinct mining periods between the 12th and 21st century. These show the history of mining in the Erzgebirge and highlight its significance in the development of the region’s cultural landscape over more than 800 years.

The first mining period: the start of mining (1168-1450)

The first mining settlement in the Erzgebirge, at that time named the Bohemian Mountains, Bohemian Forest or Miriquidi (dark forest), sprang up in the middle of the 12th century. 
Between 1156 and 1162, Margrave Otto von Meißen (1125-1190) had the forest cleared between the river valleys Freiberg Mulde and Striegis, and had several villages built in the forest clearings for the Altzelle Monastery, including Tuttendorf, Berthelsdorf and Christiansdorf. In 1168 silver ore was discovered near Christiansdorf. This discovery quickly led to mining fever or “Berggeschrey”.

On this news, the Margrave claimed back the three villages and asserted droit de régale in order to claim for himself the subsurface natural resources on his land, in particular the silver, although these resources actually fell under the king’s mining rights. News of the discovery of silver and the promise of riches tempted many miners to the area, particularly from the south of Germany and the Harz region, and with them came retailers, craftsmen and their families to the Erzgebirge. The assurance of special freedoms for miners, including personal freedom and release from various soccage taxes and services, also increased the population influx. In particular, the freedom to mine introduced by Margrave Otto led to an influx of experienced miners. Everyone was allowed to mine the precious silver, and everyone was able to receive authorisation to mine for a corresponding fee. The silver mined and processed, however, was only allowed to be sold to the Margrave’s mint.

Through the wave of immigration, the formerly agricultural forest village of Christiansdorf became the high medieval town of Freiberg (literally the “free mountain”) within two centuries, and it remained the largest and most populous town in the Erzgebirge for several decades. Ius Fribergensis, the famous Freiberg town and mining law, first mentioned in 1233, became very important for the Erzgebirge from 1307 in its written form. In 1267 the silver from Freiberg was described as the “most pure and best silver” in the Book of Minerals by the Dominican monk Albertus Magnus.

The Freiberg mine is the oldest documented and most important mine in the Erzgebirge. However, mining also started from an early date in other areas of the Erzgebirge, in some cases in parallel to developments in the Freiberg area and elsewhere independently from them. For example, the mining town Dippoldiswalde was settled in the 12th century. In the following one and a half centuries mining spread to the north side of the Erzgebirge. In 1387 a first ore mine was named in what was later to become the Brand-Erbisdorf ore fields. More mining areas sprang up in Nossen and Hohen Forst near Schneeberg.

After silver mining came tin mining, at the latest between the 13th and 14th century, on either side of the Erzgebirge. There are records of tin ore finds at Ehrenfriedersdorf in 1293 and tin ore mining in Graupen (Krupka) in 1305. In 1241, Erzgebirge tin had a significant effect on the Cologne metal markets, which were important across Europe. The most important tin deposits at this time were Altenberg’s Zwitterstock from 1436. Over the course of the century, these tin deposits became one of the most important tin mining areas in Europe. During this first mining period from 1168 to the middle of the 15th century, ore mining as well as manufacturing and processing copper and iron began to take off in the entire region.

The second mining period: town formations and the heyday of mining (1450-1620)

From the middle of the 15th century, the search for silver deposits spread to the upper Erzgebirge south-west of Freiberg and led to a revival of silver production in the region. Rich silver deposits were found in 1470 in Schneeberg, in 1491/92 near Schreckenberg (today Annaberg-Buchholz), and in 1516 near St. Joachimstal (Jáchymov) in the Bohemian area of the Erzgebirge. Several new silver mines sprung up over a short period of time and led to an unprecedented boom for mining in the Erzgebirge.

As a result of the increasing mining activities, new towns – in some cases planned settlements – were founded across the whole of the Erzgebirge near to the discovered ore deposits. Included amongst them were important mining towns such as Schneeberg, Annaberg and Marienberg on the Saxon side and Platten (Horní Blatná) on the Bohemian side. Altogether around thirty of the mining towns on the Saxon side and twenty of the mining towns on the Bohemian side of the Erzgebirge were established within just a few decades as a result of mining, making the Erzgebirge one of the most densely populated low mountain ranges in Europe with a number of mining towns that was unique internationally. With a number of privileges (e.g. market, brewing, tavern and butchering rights), these new towns did not just lure in miners and their families but also craftsmen and merchants as well as artists and scholars. In particular the larger mining towns, such as Freiberg, Annaberg, Marienberg, Schneeberg and St. Joachimsthal (Jáchymov), became economic, spiritual, scientific and cultural centres with numerous spectacular sacred and secular buildings.

But the foundation and rapid development of new mining towns is not the only characteristic of the Erzgebirge’s second main mining period; the exploitation of new ore deposits in the upper Erzgebirge, combined with new mining technology that enabled the mining and exploitation of ore at greater depths, is also a feature of this period. This meant that investments by merchants, electors and dukes gained in significance in the mining industry.

The increased capital inflow led to an intensification of mining activities and the discovery of new, rich ore veins. It was this capital inflow that enabled the construction and productive use of new technology as well as hauling, water-lifting and dressing machines. This allowed ore deposits to be mined at greater depths even under more difficult conditions. Important advances in conveying and water storage technology in particular were made after 1470, while mining work on the ground largely remained the same as it had in the centuries before.

The silver mined in the Erzgebirge was minted in the Freiberg, Annaberg, Buchholz, Schneeberg and St. Joachimsthal (Jáchymov) mints and later made into coins on the Saxon side. Here the Joachimsthaler minted by the Dukes of Schlick in St. Joachimsthal (Jáchymov) from 1519/1520 were particularly important both in Europe and internationally. In addition to the buildings in the mining towns, many spectacular buildings were also constructed elsewhere in Saxony with the proceeds from mining in the Erzgebirge. These include the Albrechtsburg castle in Meißen from 1471 and the hunting lodge Augustusburg from 1568.

Around the middle of the 16th century, the Erzgebirge’s mining industry had attained a worldwide leading position technologically and economically, and the Erzgebirge became the centre of mining in Central Europe. The intense mining activities in the 16th century led the area to be renamed from the “Bohemian Forest” or “Bohemian Mountains” to the Erzgebirge or Ore Mountains. The name Erzgebirge was first used in mining records in 1527.

In addition to silver ore, which had its heyday in the 1530s, many other ores, such as tin, copper, iron and cobalt, were mined and processed in the Erzgebirge in the 15th and 16th centuries. The start of the second mining period is connected in particular to the boom in tin ore mining in the east of the Erzgebirge on both sides of the Saxon-Bohemian border. Graupen (Krupka) received the first mining regulations for the eastern part of the Bohemian Erzgebirge in 1464. In the years from 1514 to 1518, collective mining regulations based on those from Graupen (Krupka) were passed for Altenberg, Geising, Mückenberg (Komáří hůrka) and other tin mines.

In the 16th century, the focus of tin mining activities shifted to the western part of the Erzgebirge, where, after smaller deposits had been depleted, particularly rapid exploitation began in new ore fields, in particular in Hengstererben (Hřebečná), Platten (Horní Blatná), Gottesgab (Boží Dar) and other areas. The Bohemian part of the Erzgebirge, along with Schlaggenwald (Horní Slavkov) in the Kaiserwald (Slavkovský les), south of the Erzgebirge, became the largest tin production centre in continental Europe. Bohemian tin even displaced tin delivered from British mines in certain periods. The highest production figures were achieved between the 1550s and the 1570s, after which tin mining declined.

The third mining period: war and rebuilding (1620-1750)

The Thirty Years’ War had tragic consequences for the economy and society in the Erzgebirge. The mining towns of the Erzgebirge suffered particularly during this war. Much damage was due to plundering. Many towns were burnt down during the war (e.g. Graupen, Kupferberg) or were heavily damaged (Freiberg, Joachimsthal). Several mines were destroyed or collapsed due to insufficient maintenance. Mining practically came to a halt in the entire Erzgebirge during the Thirty Years’ War as a result of the destruction of mining and smelting complexes as well as the occupation and burning of many mining towns.

The violent re-Catholicisation pursued by the Habsburgs from 1620 was a particularly hard blow for the Bohemian Erzgebirge, which had been largely Protestant since the 1520s. It finally led to a political, economic and cultural division of the Erzgebirge between the Catholic Bohemians and Protestant Saxons, whose development took separate paths from the 1650s at the latest. The soon-to-follow rebuilding of the state and the economy was characterised entirely by absolutism, both on the Bohemian and on the Saxon side.

Only in a few regions of the Bohemian Erzgebirge was it possible to maintain mining activities during and after the war. In the tin mines of Hengstererben (Hřebečná), mining was able to restart, albeit on a lesser scale than in the 16th century. However, the subsurface mining of tin ore in the neighbouring area of Platten (Horní Blatná), was limited to a minimum and could largely only be sustained by extracting tin through placer work. Overall, the Thirty Years’ War plunged the mining industry in the Bohemian Erzgebirge into a deep and long-lasting crisis that would soon be exacerbated by the Counter-Reformation. As a result, many Protestant families from Platten and neighbouring mining towns emigrated to Saxony. Here they established the newest mining town in the Erzgebirge, Johanngeorgenstadt, right next to the Bohemian border, with the permission of the Saxon Elector at the beginning of 1654.

In Saxony, many miners and their families had to turn to other professions as a result of the general decline in the mining industry after the Thirty Years’ War. This led to the establishment of many trades more or less directly connected to the mining industry in the Saxon Erzgebirge, such as toy making in the Olbernhau-Seiffen area, serpentine turning in Zöblitz and braid and lace-making around Annaberg and Schneeberg. These trades took advantage of the raw materials to be found in the region as well as its manpower. The specific abilities and knowledge of the miners laid the foundation for the creation of an early centre for publishing and manufacturing production in the Saxon Erzgebirge. The development profited largely from the massive influx of Protestant exiles from Bohemia, who significantly contributed to the commercial structure of the Saxon Erzgebirge with their abilities and knowledge. This also led to a new boom in mining on the Saxon side, as the establishment of Johanngeorgenstadt (1654) and the “Zwitterstock zu Altenberg” union (1663) show.

A significant boom in blue dye production occurred from 1635 in the Saxon Erzgebirge due to the collapse in revenues from cobalt mining between 1625 to 1635 as a result of the war. By 1650 blue dye factories were established in Niederpfannenstiel, Jugel, Oberschlema, Sehma and Zschorlau (Schindler’s Factory). They merged by 1694 to form a blue dye consortium and created an international monopoly on blue dye, which was only broken in the 19th century with the development of synthetic production of ultramarine dye (1828). To this day, Schindler’s factory in Zschorlau continues this tradition of blue dye manufacture – with synthetic ultramarine since 1855, however – in the Erzgebirge.

In Saxony the crisis in the Erzgebirge mining industry triggered by the Thirty Years’ War was slowly overcome at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, a period characterised by absolutism. In 1702 a fund for the practical and scientific education of Saxon mining officials was established in Freiberg by the mining authority, as a result of which Freiberg Mining University would emerge in 1765.

New mines also went into operation outside of the Freiberg ore fields around the turn of the 18th century. In 1698 in Aue kaolin deposits were found. There provided the basis for the development of European hard-paste porcelain by Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) and others at the beginning of the 18th century in Saxony. The silver and the kaolin that provided the basis for porcelain manufacture from the Saxon Erzgebirge contributed considerably to financing the expensive upkeep of the court and the enormous buildings and art collections of Elector Augustus II (1660-1733) in Dresden.

The fourth mining period: the dawn of industrialisation (1750-1850)

Following Saxony’s economic decline, exacerbated by the chaos of the Seven Years’ War in the first half of the 18th century, the mining industry experienced another boom from about 1770 onwards. In this fourth main period, the mining industry could not match the yields of the 16th century, due to the poorer veins of ore, but the founding of the Mining University in Freiberg in 1765 led to fundamental new scientific and technological breakthroughs that enabled the transition into the industrial age.

In the following decades the entire mining and smelting industries were reorganised. The main focus was the technical modernisation of the mining industry. The founding of the Mining University in Freiberg contributed considerably to the mining, processing and smelting of ore on a sound scientific basis.

Previously hardly used ores such as bismuth, cobalt, nickel, zinc and uranium became more important during this time. The mining industry in the Erzgebirge remained a significant economic factor in Saxony. From a quantitative perspective, Saxon ore mining in the 19th century became less important on the international and national stages, but in qualitative terms it continues to represent a number of technical innovations and scientific advances until this day.

New mining and smelting processes were introduced based on technological and scientific knowledge. Use of improved hauling and water storage technology allowed mining at greater depths, therefore enabling miners to reach more of the existing deposits. With the technical modernisation and the expansion of the infrastructure funded by the state, such as the construction of the ore canal in Freiberg’s northern ore fields (operational from 1789), or the construction of the Rothschönberg adit (1844 to 1877) to drain the Freiberg ore fields, attempts were made to halt the decline of the mining industry. In the end the hardly profitable mining industry in the Erzgebirge owed its existence to the intense investment and support of the State of Saxony.

The same applied to the smelting industry in the Erzgebirge, which, following the closure of unprofitable sites such as Antonshütte smeltery in the western Erzgebirge, was concentrated in two key locations near Freiberg: Muldenhütten and Halsbrücke. New smelting processes based on scientific and chemical research were developed at the Mining University that proved useful in the modernisation of the silver smelteries owned by the state.

In 1823, argentan (nickel silver) was produced in Aue from nickel, zinc and copper. The first factory for argentan production was constructed in 1829 in Auerhammer. Under the trademark Alpaka, a significant amount of tableware and jewellery was manufactured in Aue. This meant that the traditional cutlery manufacturing industry already present in the Erzgebirge was continued in a new form and quantities.

As a new branch of Saxon mining, coal mining at the edge of the Erzgebirge began as a privately funded industry in the first half of the 19th century. It was at the most modern level at the time, with workings in Plauenschen Grund near Dresden and the Zwickau and Lugau/Oelsnitzer ore fields. Coal mining would become an important foundation for the rapid industrialisation occurring in Saxony. The general development of industry in Saxony, particularly mechanical engineering, had a direct influence on the technology used in mining, but it also profited directly from the mining industry and the technology developed there. It was no coincidence that the first locomotive built by Richard Hartmann (1809-1878) in Chemnitz was called “Glück Auf” (a traditional miners’ greeting), and that the steam engine of the shaft complex at Alte Elisabeth in Freiberg designed by Christian Friedrich Brendel, Saxony’s mechanical engineering officer, was constructed by the Chemnitz-based engineering company Pfaff.

The fifth mining period: liberalisation of the mining industry (1850-1945)

The following period of the Erzgebirge mining industry in Saxony was characterised by the final attempts to halt its decline, which had been evident over the past decades, particularly in silver ore mining. In 1871, the gold currency was introduced with the establishment of the German Empire, which caused the price of silver to plummet further. The Saxon State tried to avert or at least delay these developments with dramatic reforms in mining administration as well as organisational and technical modernisation.

Around 1870, 5,000 miners were still working in the Freiberg ore fields alone. But even the completion of the Rothschönberg adit in 1877, the largest and most important adit in Saxony, which drained the entire Freiberg ore fields, could do little to halt the decline. Despite all of the measures taken, ore mining remained unprofitable. For that reason, a policy decision was taken in 1903 to close the Freiberg ore mines, which led to the planned closure of the majority of the mines by 1913.

Coal mining of the three largest Saxon deposits on the other hand took a different turn, a turn that represented an important step for the region’s industrialisation at that time. At the northern edge of the Erzgebirge, this included the Lugau-Oelsnitz coal fields, with important shaft complexes such as the Kaiserin Augusta shaft. This shaft, named in 1869/1874, was completely modernised from 1920 onwards and its performance significantly improved.

Ore mining in the Saxon Erzgebirge first experienced a revival under the National Socialists with their goal of autarchy and the rearmament of Germany in the 1930s. Sachsenerz Bergwerks AG was formed to this end in 1937 and was designed to relaunch non-ferrous metal mining in Freiberg and other ore fields. This led to the building of new mines in the Erzgebirge to extract strategically important natural resources below the surface, including a variety of steel alloying elements such as tungsten, nickel and manganese. By the end of the Second World War, both ore mining and coal mining in the Erzgebirge had attained great strategic importance.

The start of the fifth mining period in the Bohemian part of the Erzgebirge is defined by a number of important events. In 1850 the state became virtually the only mining operator in Joachimsthal (Jáchymov), after acquiring the Einigkeit mine (Svornost) from the town. The ensuing reorganisation of administration and changes to the technical equipment in the mine laid the foundation for the extraction of more silver ore but also for uranium extraction, which was conducted on a large scale for the first time.

Uranium ore was particularly important in the development of mining in Joachimsthal and used for the extensive production of uranium dyes in the second half of the 19th century and later periods. These dyes were manufactured from 1852 in a new factory, which no longer exists, directly in the town. The Joachimsthal mines gained in importance once more when the French physicist Henri Becquerel proved the existence of radiation from radioactive materials in 1896, and when Marie Curie isolated the new chemical elements polonium and radium from waste from the uranium dye factory in Joachimsthal in 1898. At the beginning of the 20th century, the mines in Joachimsthal were the only uranium mines in the world. Following the discovery of the healing properties of radioactive mine water, the world’s first radium and radon spa baths were built in 1906 in Joachimsthal.

The economic boom in the Bohemian Lands, and with it in the Erzgebirge, was severely disrupted between 1914 and 1918 by the First World War. The militarisation of industry at the beginning of the war meant a temporary revival of tungsten mining in Graupen (Krupka) and Zinnwald (Cínovec) and manganese ore mining in Platten (Horní Blatná), but overall the economy suffered severe losses as a result of the war.

Following the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, attempts were made to revive some of the mines in the Erzgebirge, but ore mining could not be revived, with the exception of uranium ore mining in Joachimsthal.

The sixth mining period: mining in the age of socialism (1945-1990)

The uranium ore deposits in the Erzgebirge became of great strategic importance after the Second World War in the development of Soviet atomic weapons on both the Bohemian and Saxon sides. Directly after the war therefore, an intense search for uranium began in the Saxon Erzgebirge, too. The majority of the shaft and mine complexes in the Erzgebirge mining industry that were not destroyed by the war were placed under the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD), which began large-scale prospecting for uranium ore. 

Under the cover name Staatliche Aktiengesellschaft der Buntmetallindustrie “Wismut” (AG Wismut, state corporation for the non-ferrous metal industry), mining of the rich uranium ore deposits began in the old mining fields as well as in new, deep shafts in the western part of the Erzgebirge. The Saxon Erzgebirge therefore experienced an unusual mining period from 1946 with the mining of uranium ore. These mining activities, which were unique worldwide, took place in densely populated areas of the Erzgebirge and employed hundreds of thousands of miners. They had a long-lasting effect on the region. For the third time in history, thousands of people came to the Erzgebirge to start a new life. In the early years political prisoners and criminals were forced to mine for uranium, but benefits such as better supplies of food and consumer goods, higher wages and better health care from AG Wismut soon also drew many workers of their own free will to the Saxon Erzgebirge. Under the control of AG Wismut, a “state within a state” developed within the new German Democratic Republic with its own party and state security organisations and its own transport system and health care facilities.

Whereas only 15.7 tonnes of uranium were produced in 1946, a year later it was already 145 tonnes. On 29 August 1949 the first Soviet atom bomb was detonated, which was only possible due to the uranium ore mined in the Erzgebirge. AG Wismut became the most important uranium producer in the USSR’s sphere of control. Initially, the centres for uranium mining were mainly the historic mining areas near Johanngeorgenstadt, Schneeberg and Schlema. Johanngeorgenstadt became one of the most important uranium mining areas in the German part of the Erzgebirge. The intensity of mining activities resulted in many of the deposits being exhausted after a short period of time. New uranium ore deposits were then exploited. In Thuringia, near Ronneburg, Wismut geologists discovered uranium ore deposits that could be mined from the surface. Slowly mining shifted from the Erzgebirge to neighbouring Thuringia. AG Wismut was transformed from a Soviet into a Soviet-German corporation (SDAG) in 1954. Until 1953 the profits of AG Wismut were paid to the Soviet Union as reparations. In this time around 10,000 tonnes of uranium were mined.

With the end of the GDR and the reunification of East Germany with the FRG, SDAG Wismut’s mining activities came to an end after 1990. On the one hand uranium ore was no longer needed in large quantities, and on the other it became unprofitable for Saxon uranium mining to continue on the free market. Following the political changes, the now federally owned Wismut GmbH was responsible for cleaning up the remains of uranium mining and the uranium ore dressing industry. Once again, this transformation is without precedent. Uranium ore mining only continued until 1990 in Schlema and Pöhla. Altogether AG Wismut mined 231,000 tonnes of uranium ore in the GDR. A large part of this came from deposits in the Erzgebirge.

Following the end of the Second World War, the re-establishment of Czechoslovakia let to the displacement, expulsion and emigration of German inhabitants from the Bohemian Erzgebirge and the settlement and immigration of Czechs to this region. Directly after the war, all mines were nationalised, and private companies were forbidden from operating in this industry. In the 1950s and 1960s most of the well-known deposits in the Bohemian Erzgebirge were explored again, and in some areas, mining activities actually restarted.

Uranium ore mining had a very specific role in mining activities after the war. In May 1945 the Jáchymov mines (Joachimsthal) were once more seized by the Czechoslovakian state. But on 11 September 1945 they were occupied by Red Army soldiers. The whole operation was organised by the Red Army’s headquarters in Annaberg, Germany. Along with Jáchymov, the areas around Annaberg and Johanngeorgenstadt were also affected.

After intense recruitment drives, miners began to arrive in Jáchymov, as well as new residents from across Czechoslovakia. At the end of 1947 around 3,750 people were employed here. But even this increase in manpower was no guarantee of meeting the increasing demands of the Jáchymov Commission. As early as February 1948, German prisoners of war, transported here from the USSR, started their “work” in the state-owned corporation Jáchymovskédoly (in total 12,000 people; from the beginning of 1949 they were slowly “expelled” to Germany). Prisoners’ camps were erected near the mines, whose internal organisation, all the evidence they produced and other organisational matters were monitored by the employees of the Soviet security services.

From February 1948, following a government takeover by the communist regime, a boom in ore mining never seen before in the Jáchymov mines occurred: it is unprecedented in the history of Bohemian mining. Sufficient manpower for Jáchymov was now secured from concentration camps and prison camps that were set up directly next to the uranium shafts. The Red Tower of Death remains as a witness to this period in mining.

As a result of the mining activities in the whole history of these ore fields more than 8,000 tonnes of uranium ore were mined, of which 7,200 tonnes was mined under the state-owned corporation Jáchymovskédoly. Prospecting for radioactive materials shortly after the Second World War was not restricted to the Jáchymov ore fields, which included Abertamy (Abertham), but was also conducted in several other ore fields, such as Boží Dar (Gottesgab), Měděnec (Kupferberg), Přísečnice (Preßnitz), Přebuz (Frühbuß) and Oloví (Bleistadt). However, these endeavours had little success.