Ordered in 1921, construction was delayed first by Allied objections to the design and then by the German hyperinflation in 1923. The original design envisaged the eight guns being installed in four twin-turrets and would have made Emden one of the most advanced cruisers of her time. But the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany the development of new weapons, including new turrets. Like most navies, the German navy had never before used twin-turrets for such small guns. All previous designs were for 8 inch or larger guns and were too heavy for a 6000-ton cruiser as allowed by the Treaty. This forced a redesign of the ship with the guns placed in 8 less effective single-gun turrets, making Emden look very similar to her WWI predecessors.
Used primarily as a training vessel, Emden made several cruises into the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean between 1926 and 1939. For a time, until his promotion to Captain and transfer to the 1st U-boat flotilla in 1935, Emden was commanded by Karl Dönitz, who recalled the cruises in his autobiography, Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days.
On 4 September 1939, following the outbreak of World War II, the ship was damaged in a British air raid on Wilhelmshaven: a Bristol Blenheim bomber was hit by AA-fire and crashed into the foreship of Emden, killing 9 German sailors of World War II. By a strange coincidence the British pilot's name was Flying Officer H. L. Emden.
After repairs Emden participated in laying minefields in the North Sea for much of 1939. During the invasion of Norway (Operation Weserübung) Emden was part of the ill-fated Kriegsschiffgruppe 5, tasked with taking Oslo. The group's flagship, the heavy cruiser Blücher, was sunk by the Oscarsborg coastal fortress inside Oslofjord and the heavy cruiser Lützow (ex pocket battleship Deutschland) was severely damaged by a torpedo hit from a British submarine off the Danish coast on her way back to Germany.
Emden spent the rest of the war in the Baltic Sea, mostly on training cruises. From January 1945 on she helped evacuate German troops and civilians from East Prussia to northern Germany and Denmark. On one of these trips, she also brought back the coffins of former German President Paul von Hindenburg and his wife.
In the night from 9 April to 10 April 1945 Emden was severely damaged in an air attack at Kiel. She was towed with a 15° list into the Heikendorfer Bucht and beached there on 14 April. The ship was decommissioned on 26 April 1945, scuttled on 3 May and scrapped after the war.
REFIT - 1 April 1933 - 29 September 1934