Up to the present day, the origins of the city of Barth are hidden in the mists of history and give room for the most diverse kinds of foundation theories. More recent research even connected Barth with the legendary golden city of Vineta, which is also called the Atlantis of the North. What is historically certain is that the first German colonizers poured into the country after the Christianisation of Pomerania, which was concluded in 1168 with the destruction of the Slavic castle Arkona on Rügen by the Danes.
In the first half of the 13th century, a German market settlement was probably created on an elevation between two Slavic fishing villages. The town charter according to the law of Lübeck Hanseatic City was bestowed on it by Jaromar II, Prince of Rügen, in the year 1255. The two Slavic castle complexes to the south and to the north-west of the town had to
be torn down at the request of the citizens. Documents from that time prove that the town enjoyed great favour from the Princes of Rügen. The last of the noble family of the Ranen (a small people inhabiting Rügen Island) was Witzlaw III, who also was the only minnesinger of the Northern German area. Around 1315, he had a castle built in Barth, in which he often resided. Jena University Library has 14 songs and 13 sayings coming from his pen in its keeping, some of which might have been created in his Barth castle. Witzlaw III died here on 8/11/1325, and with him the Rügen Princes lineage fizzled out. In 1369, the “Ribnitzer Friede” (the peace of Ribnitz) finished the many years of energy-sapping military conflicts with Mecklenburg. Since then, Barth has been part of Pomerania. It was Duke Boglislaw XIII who resided in this town for the longest period of time. He had the castle transformed into a two-storey building in the Renaissance style and provided with a tower. During his thirty-year period of office, he founded a “Fürstliche Hofdruckerei” (Princely court printing house) in Barth in 1582, from which came a series of papers and the famous Low German Barth Holy Bible during the 22 years of its existence.
Coloured copperplate engraving from 1590 by Braun and Hogenberg (which is probably the oldest pictorial depiction of the town)
Wars, epidemics, fires and storm tides caused serious damage in the 16th and 17th century. In 1627, a contemporary reports on the invasion of Wallenstein’s soldiers: “They eat and drink like pigs. A quarter of the houses are deserted and desolate. Should it continue like this, Barth beer will soon be down to the last drop.” Because of its excellent quality, it was exported as far as Novgorod and Marseille during the Middle Ages. In 1727, the merchant Jochim Meinke had the first seaworthy ship constructed. But only after the annexation of Pomerania to Prussia in 1815 did Barth gradually develop into a place of ship-building and shipping lines. There were five shipyards and 18 shipping lines in 1872. Based on the number of ships, the town was in second place in Prussia. From 1863 to 1924, a royal school of navigation trained helmsmen and captains. Barth proudly called itself “seaside town and trading centre.”
After the decline of sail navigation towards the end of the 19th century, there was the foundation of the Pomeranian iron foundry and machine factory, a factory producing canned fish, a sugar factory, a steam mill, a dairy, a jute spinning mill and other smaller enterprises. The Barth – Velgast railway line was inaugurated on 04/05/1895 and the town developed into an industrial metropolis. The downside of industrialisation became obvious after World War I, when some of the factories were closed down and the town had to support many unemployed people. The face of the town altered when, in 1936, the airport was built and the air force garrison and the anti-aircraft unit moved into the town. The number of inhabitants increased to 15,000 by this apparent economic upward trend of the thirties due to the armament.
During World War II, there were several industrial companies that were of military importance and in which thousands of people were employed. In 1940, the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft I was built. 10,000 members of the Royal Air Force and of the US Air Force were handed over there until April 1945. From November 1943 to 1945, there was a KZ (concentration camp) on the site of the military airfield, a branch of the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. About 7,000 women and men from 21 nations had to work for the Heinkel airplane factory, more than 2,000 prisoners died.
At the end of World War II on May 2nd 1945, the Red Army marched into the town of Barth. At that point in time, a new era of development began for Barth. A number of public utilities rather quickly took up work again. This was vitally essential, as the number of inhabitants increased to 26,000 through the assumption of refugees. The transformation of many private companies into nationalised companies (VEB: volkseigene Betriebe) was the consequence of the implementation of agrarian reform. The nationalised company (VEB) for the construction of ship equipment was created from the Pomeranian iron foundry and machine factory and became supplier to the large nationalised Stralsund shipyard. Other industrial companies, such as the sugar factory, the fish processing company and especially the VEG Saatzucht und Zierpflanzen (nationalised nursery), helped Barth achieve industrial significance again.
The large number of employees required a further alteration of infrastructure. In the seventies, the new Barth-Süd (south) district was constructed with its buildings made from prefabricated slabs (Plattenbauten), which were modern at the time. A small world of its own was created, providing a kindergarten, school, sports building and “Kaufhalle” (department store), which was typical of the time.
Life in Barth now had much to offer again regarding cultural events: apart from the Barth childrens’ festival, which had already been in existence since 1828, Barth cultural days, the rifle club’s festival, the barrel-knocking contest, the annual Christmas fair and, not least of all, the light-hearted celebrations for “Barth Carnival Club BCC” were established.
Because of its ideal location by the sea, Barth was soon a holiday destination in demand. Sometimes the summer rush resulted in a “shortage in supply”, but the citizens of Barth took it good-humouredly and prepared themselves in good time for the next season. Amongst other things, this often meant the rental of their own four walls. These initial endeavours in free enterprise were certainly not responsible for what followed in 1989.
The image of the city of Barth altered again because of the political change. As in many places, roundtable conversations took place. But the realisation of unification did not happen overnight. The changes were radical and did not necessarily bring improvements for the citizens of Barth. Barth still had 11,984 inhabitants in 1987; there were just 9,730 inhabitants in 2001, whereby the greatest loss due to migration occurred in the years from 1990 to 1993.
The reasons for migration were based on the fact that the economic infrastructure collapsed. Through the dwindling of markets and a demand that hardly existed for regional products on the part of the inhabitants, many companies had to close down. In addition to this, there was the free domestic trade prescribed by the European Union. On the basis of VEG Saatzucht und Zierpflanzen (nationalised nursery), you can clearly see the consequences of privatisation: a company that up to then was established throughout Europe had to stop production from the economic point of view. It was cheaper to import flowers than to continue running the large scale greenhouses. From the viewpoint of a market economy, the formerly “flourishing” company mutated into a company obtaining subsidies and could not continue to exist in this form. VEB Sugar Company, VEB Fish Processing Company and several other smaller companies also shared this fate. Many people lost their jobs and had to modify their ideas.
Fruthermore, Barth’s attractive location blesses the inhabitants with many visitors and a new line of business, tourism, developed into an important pillar of the Barth economy. The port was transformed into an attractive strolling district with maritime gastronomy. The skyline of the port is characterised by the pilot house which stands out because of its interesting architecture, and the 4-star hotel, which was created from a former storehouse. Because of the development of industrial estates, commerce and manufacturing industry settled at the edge of town. Looking into the future, the runway of Barth airfield was also extended. New horticultural companies continued the tradition of horticulture.
Much time has been invested in cultural work. The medieval roots were recalled and the city started to renovate the stone relics with loving care, such as the “Aristocratic Ladies’ Convent”. In this context, archaeological investigations of the market square and at the site of the fishermens’ gate were carried out, which provided further insights into the medieval town layout . On the grounds of the market square, remains of old fire sites were discovered, which were described by the archaeologist in charge as “medieval snack huts”. These reveal brisk trade in a gastronomic ambience at a very early time in the town’s history.
It is not only the regional historians who share the assumption that Barth was an important trade centre during the Middle Ages. Since 1999, the City of Barth has been allowed to call itself the City of Vineta. A theory by two Berlin scientists assumes the “Atlantis of the North” to be in the mud of Barth Bodden. Since then, you can now find a Vineta Museum in town and the special Vineta Festival throughout the summer. The research work for the 750th anniversary celebrations of the City of Barth in 2005 will certainly bring to light even more new insights from the mists of time regarding the history of the town.