In English, they are known as the Ore Mountains. In the Czech Republic, they are the Krusne hory. The Germans call them the Erzgebirge. The Erzgebirge Region forms today’s border between Germany and the Czech Republic. They also served as the border between Saxony and Bohemian kingdom in the middle ages. This is a historic region, as it played an important role in the Bronze Age, mining, metallurgy, and the Industrial Revolution. In addition to its impact on society, the Erzgebirge Region is also a world-class beauty, popular with both outdoor hikers and tourists. Here is a brief overview of the Erzgebirge origins, influences, history, and current attractions.
Geology and Formation
The Erzgebirge is a Hercynian block, or a mountain range that developed approximately 300 million years ago from the Carboniferous Period collision between the Euramerica (Europe and America) and Gondwana (South America and Africa) to form the supercontinent of Pangea. During the folding of the Hercynian Mountains, crystalline slate and gneiss were formed underground. By the end of the Paleozoic Era (250 million years ago), the mountains had eroded into hills, exposing the hard rocks of the current-day Erzgebirge.
Today, the Ore Mountains stretch in the southwest to northeast direction and are about 150 km long and 40 km wide. The Erzgebirge Mountains belong to the Bohemian Massif of Europe’s Central Uplands, which is a section of the Earth’s crust that stretches over Czech Republic, eastern Germany, and southern Poland.
Hiking and Terrain
Klinovec – Photo Courtesy of Ondrej.konicek’s Flickr Page
If you’re a trekker who’s looking to explore areas of Germany, the Erzgebirge should be at the top of your list. The Erzgebirge is such a rich cultural and hiking area that it hosts one of the oldest hiking clubs in Germany: The Ore Mountain Club (or “Erzgebirgsverein”), which was founded in 1878.
The highest mountain in the Erzgebirge is Klinovec (Keilberg), which is 1,244 meters (4,081 feet) high. However, there are several other mountains that come close to this height. There are over thirty mountains that stand over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) tall in the Erzgebirge. Other famous summits include Fichtelberg, Meluzina, Blatensky vrch, and Bozidarsky Spicak. The Erzgebirge also has several important rivers running through it; all of which run from west to east (flowing towards or into the Czech Republic). These rivers include the Zwota, Zwickeauer Mulde, Muglitz, and the Red Weilberitz. The Erzgebirge also hosts many nature reserves, including the Gesingberg, Georgenfelder Hochmoor, and Grober Kranichsee.
Oldest smelting factory in Germany – still operating near Freiberg. Image Courtesy of Hennix (Wikipedia Creative Commons)
Erzgebirge is the site of the earliest-known mining district in all of Europe. Dated to 2500 B.C., tin was mined out of the Erzgebirge and traded along the Baltic and Mediterranean seas. As tin mining started to spread across European countries, all other miners used skills taught by the Erzgebirge workers; they were the proven experts in tin mining. However, the mines eventually fell under Roman control. In addition, the more convenient countries’ tin mining eventually outsourced the Ore mine near the turn of the first century A.D.
The first wave of settlers in the Erzgebirge were supported by the Hrabischitz, a family of Bohemian nobles who were in search for new ores after the land was sold to the Patrician Caspar von Berbisdorf. In 1168, shortly after the first settlement, the first silver ore was discovered near present-day Freiberg. This resulted in the first mining rush, as the first tin ore was discovered on the southern edge of the Bohemian mountains.
Following the ore discovery, the Sayda station was built on the trade route from Freiberg to Prague. This was previously a salt trade route, but it was now being used for tin, timber, glass, and fireworks. Today, it is a historic landmark in the Erzgebirge.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, new deposits were discovered on other sides of the mountains, including around the Bohemian, Schneeberge Annaberg, and St. Joachimsthal areas. Several mining camps were built around the Erzgebirge Mountains, including Marienberg, Oberwiesenthal, Gottesgab, and Sebastiansberg. Eventually, tin and silver were used as coinage and incorporated into formal economies. Coins minted in the valley of Joachimsthal became known as the “Thaler.” The English language would eventually adopt this word for the term “dollar.”
The mining industry of the Erzgebirge continued to boom until the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. Under Ferdinand, Bohemia became subject to a Re-Catholicization. Ferdinand did not wish to uphold religious freedom granted by the previous emperor, which caused many Bohemian Protestants to flee for the Electorate of Saxony (the other side of the Erzgebirge) so to not be subjected to Ferdinand’s religious impositions. The Bohemian mining villages were abandoned as people migrated to Johanngeorgenstadt during the Thirty Years’ War.
After this massive migration, the population turned its attention to less-fruitful ventures, such as agriculture and timber. However, the Erzgebirge would make another economic resurgence with the discovery of a new resource…
Glass colored with blue cobalt. Image Courtesy of Jurii (Wikipedia Creative Commons)
Cobalt blue was discovered in France in 1802. Cobalt found immediate use for coloring ceramics, jewelry, paint, and glass. To further prove its value in the art industries, Vincent van Gogh once declared, “Cobalt is a divine color and there is nothing so beautiful for putting atmosphere around things.” Within five years of its discovery, commercial production of cobalt had started in France.
Shortly after France’s good fortune, blue cobalt was also discovered in Schneeberge, Saxony. Since the material was so widely desired by artists, its excavation spurred another economic boom in the Erzgebirge. In addition, uranium was also extracted from the Johanngeorgenstadt region, which was also used to color glass.
But like the others before, this mining project came to a slow decline after costly drainage expenses started yielding a diminishing return. Additionally, the new gold standard was introduced in 1871 and led to a rapid value drop for silver mining efforts. The Erzgebirge was, once again, a milked region. However, its dormancy would not last for too long as two world wars were looming in the next century.
World Wars and Uranium
The Erzgebirge would be revived yet again during World War I, as the German military ordered a supply of raw materials. After the war ended, mining continued in the Erzgebirge as silver and tin had new uses in the modern economy for products such as toys, clocks, engineering, and manufacturing.
In 1938, one year before World War II commenced, nuclear fission was discovered. Since the Erzgebirge had uranium mines, this became the primary interest for the German military’s excavation efforts. In the very same year, all the uranium production facilities were commandeered for the development of nuclear weapons. However, Germany never finished producing nuclear weapons as the project was stalled when its physicists were drafted into the German armed forces.
After the war had ended and Germany was subjected to international sanctions, uranium processing resumed activity under the cover-up code name SAG Wismut. This demand for uranium led to the third major industrial boom in the Erzgebirge. These mining efforts occurred until 1991, around the time that the Cold War ended.
Today, the Saxony end of the Erzgebirge is still a major business area. Manufacturing, metalworking, and electrical are the major industries of the area (showing clear influence from the mines of the Erzgebirge).
The Erzgebirge culture is heavily based on its historical mining industry. The local folk art made from mined silver, such as nutcrackers and classic clocks, are sold as popular souvenirs even today. The region also has its own local dialect that originated from the miners. The Erzgebirge Mountains are more than just a lovely hiking and tourist area. They are the most important geological staple in Germany’s history.
The Erzgebirge was the main source for much of Germany’s economical success for over 800 years. If you find yourself in this region, be sure to pick up a local trinket, learn some of the local language, and do some hiking in these historic mountains.