1540 First documented mention of a watermill house in Wattertal. The first of consequently three watermill houses was destroyed by fire in 1716.
1717 Friedrich Anton Ulrich of Waldeck (1676-1728), who was raised to the rank of Prince of the Realm in 1712, was extremely busy with the construction of his stately residential mansion in Arolsen, which was finally completed in 1728 and which would also provide the basis of a new town. Wonderful stucco work and ceiling frescos, tapestries from Amsterdam and busts sculpted from Italian marble had to be designed, commissioned and paid for; and continual activity on the construction site engaged the skills of many casual labourers, dealers and craftsmen from the Waldeck area.
There was hardly time enough for the everyday things of life. But 1712 was the Count’s lucky year. The Count of Waldeck was honoured by the German Emperor, Karl VI, with the hereditary title of ‘Prince’, and his state became a royal principality. Whether in order to better provide for the growing population at a time when the relief of hunger remained a priority or, perhaps in addition, to raise a modest increase in further revenues required to meet the escalating costs attendant to the construction of his Baroque mansion, the prince built a flour mill in the contemplative environment of Wattertal, not far from the proud town of Freienhagen.
1780 The tenant of the mill sat in the light of the sun, which did little to bring warmth to a clear, cold day. As the mill wheel clattered and the tenant brought his daily work to an end, the peculiar odour of burning flesh met his nose. Hardly to be missed against the dimming light of the setting sun, thick black clouds of smoke rose inexorably on the horizon just as the son of the landlord arrived, fully out of breath, having run as if for his life the two kilometres to the mill. “Fire!” he yelled. “Fire! Come quickly - everyone on the cart! And bring with you whatever you have – buckets, bowls, hosepipes!”
Whence and how the drama began, nobody really knew. Was it in the forge, where perhaps the wind whistled its way through an open store window, inadvertently left open, blowing some rags onto the burning furnace? Was it the old farmhand, befogged by too much pipe-smoking and wine, who dozed off, allowing the hot embers of his pipe to kindle a flame in the straw that lay heavy as thermal protection against the cold stone floor? Whatever the cause, it was now too late. The inferno consumed everything in the narrowly built lanes of Freienhagen, this once so very important city in which delegates from Frankfurt and Cologne would often meet and confer with the German Order of Knights. Almost all homes, 46 in all, were burned to the ground, and it would take generations for the wounds to heal.
1832 Formerly an ancestral castle and seat of royalty, which in the 13th century provided defence for the Dukedom of Waldeck, the castle was used as a prison and workhouse between 1734 and 1866.
Following a visit, the miller of Wattertal described the situation thus: “As soon as one begins to climb the steps and even before he finds himself facing the bars in order to see the slovenly knaves, one is so overwhelmed by nauseous, musty fumes that one must hold one’s nose. A single room holds the prisoners, old and young, men and women, forty-eight in all. Here they spin wool; here they eat; here they sleep partly too, at least the women, on half-decayed straw; here they urinate and defecate.
An unbearable stink had spread throughout the entire quarter; the floor was covered with filth and the walls black and terrible. I could no longer bear it here. Even sadder to see were the enclosures, in which, during night, the men slept on a damp earthen floor, or were kept awake on account of the numerous vermin. Usually, the poor souls also remained here when they were ill – and illnesses were frequent – and happily learned to see death more often enough as a blessing. It also came to them violently. A weariness of life and despair compelled them in that direction, especially since the type of punishment meted out to prisoners who committed assaults was the promise of death by hanging, with which they willingly complied; and such punishments were neither seldom nor humane. But that’s how it has been in almost all prisons in the first two-thirds of this century.”
The execution chamber in Waldeck Castle, circa 1750
1943 The 16th of May 1943 was a calm, contemplative day at the Freienhagen mill. The fourth year of the war had brought with it misery and hunger; yet the mill was far removed from the tempest of war and nobody went hungry. It was Mothers’ Day and nature was in full bloom. Everything would change the next day. The idyll became an inferno.
In the middle of the night, the miller was torn from his sleep. “They flew so closely over our house that the noise of the aircraft alone caused it to shake.” In their approach toward the Edersee reservoir, at a low-altitude flight of only 30 metres above the Wattertal, the three Lancaster bombers had primed their deadly load. A few moments later, Karl Bergmann, in Hemfurth, heard a dull yet tremendous impact, then something resembling a roar of thunder, a strange humming and an ominous tremor: “Just like an earthquake”. The ‘bouncing bombs’ destroyed the wall of the dam to the Edersee reservoir. Heinrich Meister from Bergheim commented: “I was in Alt-Wildungen on the way home. I had to lower my head; otherwise the bombers would have shaved my hair off”.
A breach in the dam measuring 70 metres in width and 22 metres in depth released 160 million cubic metres of water into the valleys below. The violent force of the raging flood transformed the Eder and Fulda valleys into a disaster landscape. Over 70 innocent civilians were killed in the tidal wave.
The destruction of the Edertal dam, 1943