Freiburg was founded by Konrad and Duke Berthold III of Zhringen in 1120 as a free market town; hence its name, which translates to "free (or independent) town". Frei means "free", and Burg, like the modern English word "borough", was used in those days for an incorporated city or town, usually one with some degree of autonomy. The German word Burg also means "a fortified town", as in Hamburg. Thus, it is likely that the name of this place means a "fortified town of free citizens".
This town was strategically located at a junction of trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea regions, and the Rhine and Danube rivers. In 1200, Freiburg's population numbered approximately 6,000 people. At about that time, under the rule of Bertold V, the last duke of Zhringen, the city began construction of its Freiburg Mnster cathedral on the site of an older parish church. Begun in the Romanesque style, it was continued and completed 1513 for the most part as a Gothic edifice. In 1218, when Bertold V died, then Egino V von Urach, the count of Urach assumed the title of Freiburg's count as Egino I von Freiburg. The city council did not trust the new nobles and wrote down its established rights in a document. At the end of the thirteenth century there was a feud between the citizens of Freiburg and their lord, Count Egino II of Freiburg. Egino II raised taxes and sought to limit the citizens' freedom, after which the Freiburgers used catapults to destroy the count's castle atop the Schloberg, a hill that overlooks the city center. The furious count called on his brother-in-law the Bishop of Strasbourg, Konradius von Lichtenberg, for help. The bishop responded by marching with his army to Freiburg.
According to an old Freiburg legend, a butcher named Hauri stabbed the Bishop of Strasbourg to death on 29 July 1299. It was a Pyrrhic victory, since henceforth the citizens of Freiburg had to pay an annual expiation of 300 marks in silver to the count of Freiburg until 1368. In 1366 the counts of Freiburg made another failed attempt to occupy the city during a night raid. Eventually the citizens were fed up with their lords, and in 1368 Freiburg purchased its independence from them. The city turned itself over to the protection of the Habsburgs, who allowed the city to retain a large measure of freedom. Most of the nobles of the city died in the battle of Sempach (1386). The patrician family Schnewlin took control of the city until the guildsmen revolted. The guilds became more powerful than the patricians by 1389.
The silver mines in Mount Schauinsland provided an important source of capital for Freiburg. This silver made Freiburg one of the richest cities in Europe, and in 1327 Freiburg minted its own coin, the Rappenpfennig. In 1377 the cities of Freiburg, Basel, Colmar, and Breisach entered into an alliance known as the Genossenschaft des Rappenpfennigs (Rappenpfennig Collective). This alliance facilitated commerce among the cities and lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. There were 8,000-9,000 people living in Freiburg between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and 30 churches and monasteries. At the end of the fourteenth century the veins of silver were dwindling, and by 1460 only approximately 6,000 people still lived within Freiburg's city walls.
A university city, Freiburg evolved from its focus on mining to become a cultural centre for the arts and sciences. It was also a commercial center. The end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance was a time of both advances and tragedy for Freiburg.
In 1457, Albrecht VI, Regent of Further Austria, established Albert-Ludwigs-Universitt, one of Germany's oldest universities. In 1498, Emperor Maximilian I held a Reichstag in Freiburg. In 1520, the city ratified a set of legal reforms, widely considered the most progressive of the time. The aim was to find a balance between city traditions and old Roman Law. The reforms were well received, especially the sections dealing with civil process law, punishment, and the city's constitution.
In 1520, Freiburg decided not to take part in the Reformation and became an important centre for Catholicism on the Upper Rhine. Erasmus moved here after Basel accepted the Reformation.
In 1536, a strong and persistent belief in witchcraft led to the city's first witch-hunt. The need to find a scapegoat for calamities such as the Black Plague, which claimed 2,000 area residents (25% of the city population) in 1564, led to an escalation in witch-hunting that reached its peak in 1599. A plaque on the old city wall marks the spot where burnings were carried out.
The seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were turbulent times for Freiburg. At the beginning of the Thirty Years' War there were 10,000-14,000 citizens in Freiburg; by its end only 2,000 remained. During this war and other conflicts, at various times the city belonged to the Austrians, the French, the Swedish, the Spanish, and various members of the German Confederacy. Between 1648 and 1805, it was the administrative headquarters of Further Austria, the Habsburg territories in the southwest of Germany, when the city was not under French occupation. In 1805, the city, together with the Breisgau and Ortenau areas, became part of Baden.
In 1827, when the Archdiocese of Freiburg was founded, Freiburg became the seat of a Catholic archbishop.
On the 22nd of October 1940, the Nazi Gauleiter of Baden Robert Heinrich Wagner ordered the deportation of all of Baden's and 350 of Freiburg's Jewish population. They were deported to Camp Gurs in the south of France where many died. On 18 July 1942, the remaining Baden and Freiburg Jews were transferred to Auschwitz in Poland, where almost all were murdered. A memorial stands outside the modern synagogue in the local town centre. The pavements of Freiburg carry memorials to individual victims in the form of brass plates outside their former residences.
Freiburg was heavily bombed during World War II. First, in May 1940, aircraft of the Luftwaffe mistakenly dropped approximately 60 bombs on Freiburg near the train station, killing 57 people. Later on, a raid by more than 300 bombers of the RAF Bomber Command on 27 November 1944 (Operation Tigerfish) destroyed a large portion of the city centre, with the notable exception of the Mnster, which was only lightly damaged. After the war, the city was rebuilt on its medieval plan.
It was occupied by the French Army on 21 April 1945, and Freiburg was soon allotted to the French Zone of Occupation. In December 1945 Freiburg became the seat of government for the German state Badenia, which was merged into Baden-Wrttemberg in 1952. The French Army maintained a presence in Freiburg until 1991, when the last French Army division left the city, and left Germany.
On the site of the former French Army base, a new neighborhood for 5,000 people, Vauban, was begun in the late 1990s as a "sustainable model district". Solar power is used to power many of the households in this small community.