An early Slavic tribe's settlement was located at Kamienica, and the first documented use of Chemnitz was the 1143 site of a Benedictine monastery, around which a settlement grew. Circa 1170 Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor granted it the rights of an imperial city. In 1307, the town became subordinate to the margraviate of Meissen (the predecessor of the Saxon state). In medieval times Chemnitz became a centre of textile production and trade. More than one third of the population worked in textile production. By the early 19th century Chemnitz had become an industrial centre (sometimes called "the Saxon Manchester"). In 1913, Chemnitz had a population of 320,000 and is one of very few cities which were larger at that time than they are today.
During World War II, Chemnitz included factories that produced military hardware and a Flossenbürg forced labour subcamp (500 female inmates) for Astra-Werke AG. The oil refinery was a target for bombers during the Oil Campaign of World War II, and Operation Thunderclap attacks included the following raids:
- 14/15 February 1945: The first major raid on Chemnitz used 717 RAF bombers, but due to cloud cover most bombs fell over open countryside.
- 2/3–5 March: USAAF bombers attacked the marshalling yards.
- 5 March: 760 RAF attacked.
The headquarters of the auto manufacturer Auto Union were also based in Chemnitz since 1932 and its buildings were also badly damaged. At the end of the war, the company's executives fled and relocated the company in Ingolstadt, Bavaria—where it evolved into the modern day Audi company of today.
The World War II bombings left most of the city in ruins, and post-war, the East German reconstruction included large low rise (and later high-rise plattenbau) housing. Some tourist sites were reconstructed during the DDR era and after German reunification.
From 10 May 1953 to 21 June 1990, Chemnitz was named Karl-Marx-Stadt (English: Karl Marx City).
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