East Frisia or Eastern Friesland (Low Saxon: Oostfreesland, German Ostfriesland) is a coastal region in the northwest of the German federal state of Lower Saxony. It connects Western Frisia (in the Netherlands) with the district of Nordfriesland ("Northern Frisia", "Northern Friesland") in Schleswig-Holstein, all of which belong to the historic and geographic Frisia.
There is a chain of islands in front of the coast, called the East Frisian Islands (Ostfriesische Inseln). These islands are (from west to east) Borkum, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog and Wangerooge. A German verse to remember the first letters of the islands from east to west is Welcher Seemann liegt bei Nanni im Bett (which seaman lies with Nanny in bed).
East Frisia is not very industrialized and has a large number of people who are out of work. The economy mainly depends on agriculture and tourism. Main industrial sites are the harbour towns of Emden and Wilhelmshaven. The largest industrial complex is the Volkswagen car factory in Emden. Leer is after Hamburg the second most important location of shipping companies in Germany.
In earlier years, many people left East Frisia for reasons of poverty and emigrated to the United States or elsewhere. Today the region is again suffering from the loss of young educated people, who go away to find better employment in, for example, southern Germany. Many communities face a rising number of aged people as a source for structural problems in the future.
The geographical region of East Frisia was inhabited in Paleolithic times by reindeer hunters of the Hamburg culture. Later there were Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements of various cultures leading up to the invasion of Germanic tribes belonging to the Ingvaeonic group. Those were Chauci and Frisians. The region between the rivers Ems and Weser was inhabited by the Chauks, who were partly displaced by Frisian expansion after about 500, and were later partially absorbed into the Frisian society. After the second Christian century there is no mention of the Chauks. Saxons also settled the region and the East Frisian population of later times is based on a mixture of Frisian and Saxon elements. Nevertheless, the Frisian element is predominant in the coastal area, while the population of the higher Geest area expresses more Saxon influence.
In the Middle Ages people could only settle on the higher situated Geest areas or by erecting so-called "Warften" (artificial hills to protect the settlement, whether a single farming estate or a whole village, against the North Sea floods) in the marsh-areas.
In about 1000 BC the Frisians started building the large dikes along the North Sea shore. This had a great effect on establishing a feeling of national identity and independence. Until the late Middle Ages Ostfriesland resisted the attempts of German states to conquer the coasts. The first proven historical event was the arrival of a Roman fleet under Drusus in 12 BC; the ships sailed into the course of the Ems river and returned.
The period after prehistory can only be reconstructed from archaeological evidence. Access to the early history of Ostfriesland is possible in part through archaeology and in part through the studying of external sources such as Roman documents. The information becomes clearer by early Carolingian time, when a Frisian kingdom united the whole area from present-day West Frisia (the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and part of North Holland) throughout East Frisia up to the river Weser. It was ruled by kings like the famous Radbod whose known names were still mentioned in folk tales until recent times. Frisia was a short-lived kingdom, and it was crushed by Pippin of Herstal in 689. East Frisia then became part of the Frankish Empire. Charles the Great then divided East Frisia into two counties. At this time, Christianization by the missionaries Liudger and Willehad started; one part of East Frisia became a part of the diocese of Bremen, the other the diocese of Münster.
With the decay of the Carolingian empire, East Frisia lost its former bindings, and a unity of independent self-governed districts established. Their elections were held every year to chose the "Redjeven" (councillors), who had to be judges as well as administrators or governors. This system prevented the establishment of a feudalistic system in East Frisia during mediaeval times. Frisians regarded themselves as free people not obliged to any foreign authority. This period is called the time of the "Friesische Freiheit" (Frisian freedom) and is represented by the still well-known salute "Eala Freya Fresena" (Get Up, Free Frisian!) that affirmed the non-existence of any feudality. Frisian representatives of the many districts of the seven coastal areas of Frisia met once a year at the Upstalsboom, a place at Rahe (near Aurich).
During the 14th century the Redjeven constitution happened to decay. Catastrophes and epidemics such as pestilence intensified the process of destabilizing. This gave a chance for influential family-clans to establish a new rule. As chieftains (in Low German: "hovedlinge"; in standard German: "Häuptlinge") they took over the control over villages, cities, or regions in East Frisia; however, they still did not establish a feudal system as it was known in the rest of Europe. Instead, the system implemented in Frisia was a system of followship which has some similarity to older forms of rule known from Germanic cultures of the North. There was a specific relation of dependence between the inhabitants of the ruled area and the chieftain, but the people retained their individual freedom and could move where they wanted.
The Frisians controlled the mouth of the Ems river and threatened the ships coming down the river. For this reason the state of Oldenburg made several attempts to subjugate East Frisia during the 12th century. Thanks to the swampy terrain, the Frisian peasants defeated the Oldenburgian armies every time. In 1156 even Henry the Lion failed to conquer the region. The conflicts lasted for the next few centuries. In the 14th century Oldenburg had given up all plans to conquer Ostfriesland, restricting their attacks to irregular invasions, killing the livestock and returning.
The East Frisian chieftains used to provide shelter for pirates like the famous Klaus Störtebeker and Goedeke Michel, who were a threat to the ships of the powerful Hanseatic League which they attacked and robbed. In 1400 a punitive expedition of the Hanseatic League against East Frisia succeeded. The chieftains had to promise to discontinue their support for the pirates. In 1402 Störtebeker, who was not a Frisian by birth, was captured and executed in Hamburg.
The range of power and influence was different between the chieftains. Some clans achieved a predominant state. One of these were the Tom Broks from the Brokmerland (also: Brookmerland) who ruled a large part of Eastern Friesland over several generations until a former follower, Fokko Ukena from Leer, defeated the last Tom Brok. But a party of opposing chieftains under leadership of the Cirksenas from Greetsiel defeated and expelled, Fokko who later died in a place near Groningen.
After 1465 one of the last chieftains from the house of Cirksena was made a count by Emperor Frederick III and accepted the sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire. However, in 1514 the emperor ordered that a duke of Saxony should be the heir to the count of East Frisia. Count Edzard of East Frisia refused to accept this order and was outlawed. Twenty-four German dukes and princes invaded Frisia with their armies. Despite their numerical superiority they failed to defeat Edzard, and in 1517 the emperor had to accept Edzard and his descendants as counts of East Frisia.
In 1654 the counts of East Frisia, seated at Aurich, were elevated to the rank of princes. Their power, however, stayed reduced due to a number of factors. Externally East Frisia became a satellite of the Netherlands, Dutch garrisons being stationed in different cities permanently. Important cities like Emden were autonomously administrated by their citizens, the Prince not having much influence on them. A Frisian Parliament, the Ostfreesk Landschaft, was an assembly of different social groups of East Frisia, jealously protecting the traditional rights and freedoms of the Frisians against the Prince. East Frisian independence ended in 1744, when the region was taken over by Prussia after the last Cirksena prince had died without issue. There was no resistance to this takeover, since it has been arranged by contract beforehand. Prussia was wisely respecting the traditional autonomy of the Frisians, governed by the Frisian chancellor Sebastian Homfeld.
In 1806 East Frisia (now called Oostfreesland) was annexed by the Napoleonic Kingdom of Holland and later became part of the French Empire. Most of East Frisia was renamed the Département Ems-Oriental, while a small strip of land, the Rheiderland, became part of the Dutch Département Ems-Occidental. The French Emperor Napoléon I undertook the greatest reform of Frisian society in history: He introduced mayors, where the local administration was still in the hands of autonomous groups of elders (like the Diekgreven, Kerkenolderlings etc.), introduced the Code Civil and reformed the ancient Frisian naming system by newly introducing family names in 1811.
The genuine language of East Frisia was East Frisian which now is almost extinct, largely replaced by East Frisian Low Saxon. Original East Frisian survived somewhat longer in several remote places as for example in the islands, such as Wangerooge. Today a modern variant of East Frisian can be found in the Saterland, a district near East Frisia. In former times people from East Frisia who left their homes under pressure had settled in that remote area surrounded by moors and kept their inherited language alive. This language which forms the smallest language-island in Europe is called Saterland Frisian or, by its own name, Seeltersk. It is spoken by about 1000 people.
East Frisian Low Saxon (or Eastern Friesland Low Saxon, as some people prefer to say for a better distinction from East Frisian, which is Frisian but not a Low German) is a variant of Low German with many of its own features due to the Frisian substrate and some other influences originating in the varied history of East Frisia. It is similar to the Groninges dialect spoken in The adjacent Netherlands province of Groningen.
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