Salzburg’s history: town is the birthplace of composer Mozart

Salzburg (literally: «Salt Fortress») is the fourth-largest city in Austria and the capital of the federal state of Salzburg.

Salzburg’s «Old Town» (Altstadt) is internationally renowned for its baroque architecture and is one of the best-preserved city centers north of the Alps. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.


The city has three universities and a large population of students, two of them:

Tourists also frequent the city to tour the city’s historic center, many palaces, and the scenic Alpine surroundings.

Salzburg was the birthplace of 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the mid‑20th century, the city was the setting for the musical play and film The Sound of Music.

Ancient and Medieval history of Salzburg

Lying at the northern boundary of the Alps, on the banks of the Salzach River, the city of Salzburg is among the oldest and most significant spiritual and cultural centres of Austria. The closest alpine peak (Untersberg, 1,972 metres) is just a few kilometres from the city’s downtown area.

The historical area of the city is dominated by Baroque towers and monumental churches. Interestingly, since the earliest times, it has been divided into two regions on the sides of the Tauern Mountains.

The names Pinzgau and Pongau date back to the 700s. Lungau was first mentioned in a written document in the first half of the 10th Century.

Archaeologists have presented evidence that the area of modern Salzburg was settled as far back as the Neolithic Age. It was believed to have become a Celtic camp later. After 15 BC, the scattered communities gradually united into a town, which became known as Juvavum, after the Romans captured it.

It was elevated to a municipium, the second-highest class of a Roman city. Its regional importance began to grow after 45 BC.

Bavarian dukes ruled the province of Salzburg in the 7th Century. Later, in 700 Bishop Rupert von Worms was appointed to the position of a missionary in the region. He established the monastery of St Peter in Juvavum as his base.

monastery of St Peter in Juvavum

Salzburg was known as one of the wealthiest churches in Franconia thanks to the large donations of the Bavarian dukes. It became a bishopric in 739, and an archdiocese in 798. The Irish bishop Virgil consecrated the newly built Salzburg Cathedral in 774.

In the early Middle Ages, Salzburg’s political and cultural influence spread to parts of present-day Hungary and Croatia This was primarily in result of the missionaries' activities. The Hungarians put an end to the first stage of colonisation towards the East with their invasions in the early 10th Century.

In the 13th Century, the archbishops began to oust large landowners and expand their influence by using vast manorial lands as a basis for power. The most prominent archbishop of this period, Eberhard II, adopted the title of prince in 1213. By the 1290s Land Salzburg had practically become an autonomous community.

Significantly, in the late 14th Century, Salzburg acquired independence from Bavaria. The archbishopric and Land of Salzburg comprised regions of the present-day Tyrol and what is called today the Federal Province of Salzburg.

Between the 16th and the 18th Centuries

Salzburg entered a cultural renaissance in the 16th Century, but its political significance began to wane. The last prince-archbishop who attempted to amass more territories was Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, who declared an unsuccessful war on Berchtesgaden in 1611.

Despite this, von Raitenau is noted for commissioning the Mirabell Palace and reconstructing the centre of Salzburg.

Raitenau was succeeded by archbishop Markus Sitticus von Hohenems, who erected the Hellbrunn Palace and the new Salzburg Cathedral.

Hellbrunn Palace

Due to diplomatic talents of one man, Count Paris von Lodron, Salzburg remained intact throughout the Thirty Years War. Moreover, the University of Salzburg opened in 1622.

A large number of notable buildings in Salzburg date from the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, which include the Collegiate Church, St John’s hospital, the Presbytery, the Ursulinen Church and Church of the Holy Trinity, which were all commissioned by Archbishop Johann Ernst Count Thun.

On October 31, 1731, Archbishop Count Leopold Anton von Firmian signed an edict of expulsion against Protestants living in the territory of the province, ordering them to change their beliefs, or be banished.

This date marked the 214th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (95 Theses) in Wittenberg, challenging, among other issues, the authority of the pope, the nature of penance and the usefulness of indulgences. His theses sparked a debate that eventually led to the 16th Century Protestant Reformation.

The archbishop’s belief was that his edict would drive away many infidels, but it had quite the opposite effect, with some 22,000 people publicly professing Protestantism. Von Firmian reacted by giving the converts three months to sell their lands and leave.

He personally confiscated much of the land for use of his own family and ordered the burning of all Protestant bibles and books. Young children were also taken away from their parents, in order to be raised by Catholics.

Those who did not own land had to leave in eight days. They crossed the mountains in the worst of winter. The story of these exiles forms the basis of Goethe’s poem «Hermann and Dorothea».

Goethe's poem Hermann and Dorothea

Some aid was offered for these refugees, as they passed through various towns, but they could not find a place to call home. In 1732, King Frederick William I of Prussia, a Lutheran, accepted 12,000 of these migrants, who settled in East Prussia, a region on the southeast Baltic seacoast.

Other groups settled in the present-day territories of Romania, Slovakia, Hanover, Berlin, the Netherlands and Debrecen.

A group of around 60 exiled Salzburgers moved to the British-American colony of Georgia in 1734. Later, they were joined by more refugees and eventually founded the town of Ebenezer on the banks of Savannah River.

Swiss Germans and Swabians soon moved to this town as well, as the German people came to be known as Salzburgers.

In the 18th Century, Salzburg found it very difficult to resist constant pressure from its Austrian and Bavarian neighbours. Nonetheless, territorial integrity was preserved until the end of the century.

The province enjoyed great progress in science and economics under Archbishop Hieronymus Count Colloredo (1772 to 1803), when Salzburg was also a centre of Illuminism, a system of beliefs involving spiritual enlightenment or illumination.

Until the end of the 18th Century, the archbishops enjoyed sovereign rule in Salzburg, who also were assisted in their state duties by the diet and cathedral chapter, which consisted of 24 canons.

They presided over the most important positions, responsible for administrative tasks delegated to specially educated laymen.

It was in 1803 that the province was secularised, and the power of the archbishops came to an end. The archbishopric was handed over to former Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand III.

Berchtesgaden and Salzburg were annexed by Austria two years later. In 1810, Salzburg was returned to Bavaria, but it passed under Austrian control again, after the Congress of Vienna in 1814−1815. It became an independent territory of the Austrian monarchy in 1850.

In the 19th and 20th centuries

Prior to 1803 Salzburg encompassed a territory of 14,000sq km, almost twice as much as today, and had around 150,000 inhabitants. Since the earliest times, Salzburg has been divided into two regions on the sides of the Tauern Mountains, which now include the districts Lungau, Pongau, Pinzgau, Tennengau and Flachgau.

The Pinzgau and Pongau districts date back to the AD 700s. The south-easternmost corner of the Salzburg valley, the Lungau, was first mentioned in a document in the first half of the 10th Century. Tennengau dates from the 19th Century and Flachgau from the 20th Century.

the Salzburg valley, the Lungau

Town was incorporated into Austrian territory under the 1805 Treaty of Pressburg, becoming a province of a vast empire. Austria declared war on France in 1809, which it lost. As a result, Salzburg passed under French rule for one and a half years.

From 1810 to 1816, the area as far as Kitzbuhel went to Bavaria under the name Salzach, when the regional assembly was dissolved and the university closed. A Salzburg parliament was elected again in 1816, and has gathered regularly ever since, except during the Second World War.

The last Austrian emperor abdicated in the early 20th Century. In 1918, the German Austrian Republic was proclaimed. The federal constitution was adopted in 1921, and Austria has been governed according to republican and federalist principals ever since. In the referendum of 1921, the citizens of Salzburg refused to be annexed by Germany.

In 1933, the unemployment rate in Salzburg was at 32 percent, but construction of the Grossglockner High alpine Road, a major tourist attraction today, commenced in 1935 and created many jobs.

The first performance of the mystery play Everyman took place in 1920, marking the beginning of the Salzburg Festival, which today ensures a buoyant economy for the city.

The Nazis annexed Austria during the Anschluss in 1938, when German troops occupied Salzburg. Jews and political opponents were arrested, the synagogue in the city was demolished and several Prisoner of War (POW) camps were established.

A total of 7,600 houses in Salzburg were destroyed and 550 people killed by Allied bombing during the Second World War. The majority of Baroque buildings survived.

In 1945, the Germans surrendered the city to American troops and a regional government was set up by the Americans. Camps for displaced persons in Salzburg after the war included Camp Herzl, Bet Bialik, Camp Mulln, New Palestine and Bet Trumpeldor. Salzburg became the centre of the area occupied by American troops in Austria.

New Palestine and Bet Trumpeldor

The Second Republic was proclaimed after the war, when the city faced great difficulties in the wake of the disastrous events. It was necessary to provide food for the population during the winter months, so convoys of clothing and food came primarily from Switzerland.

The Marshall Plan also helped launch reconstruction of the city and province. The city’s economy finally flourished in the next years and Salzburg enjoyed progress in culture and arts.

The Salzburg Festival was re-established in 1945, and the cathedral, which had been bombed, was rebuilt, and the State Bridge completed.

In 1995, during the term of Governor Hans Katschthaler, Austria entered the European Union (EU), which had lasting consequences for Salzburg. One year later, the regional parliament elected Franz Schausberger as governor, who reformed the regional constitution of Salzburg.

The 1921 constitution had established a proportional system of regional government membership, and the reformed constitution allowed a free majority system, since the beginning of legislative period of 1999−2004.

Social Democrat Party member Gabi Burgstaller was elected governor of Salzburg in 2004, the first woman to hold this position. The new constitution of Salzburg is considered the most modern in Austria.

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