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When I was in Köln I found myself on the street called "Deutzer Freiheit." I was curious, what does the term "Freiheit" mean in this case. I know that it translates to English as "freedom", but why would a street have this name? It is unlike other German terms denoting streets (i.e. -straße, -gasse, -weg, -allee, etc.)

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In general, many streets do have some word for "street" or similar in their name, "-straße", "-gasse", "-weg", "-allee" as you noted. But there's also no small number of street names that don't follow this pattern. To name just one example of many, in Langen in Hesse there's a street simply called "Außerhalb".

Regarding your specific example, to understand that we have to take a birds-eye look at the organisation of communities in the Middle Ages. A central element was the Lehnswesen, a system of fiefs. The king owned the country, and he gave parts of it to members of the nobility. Those nobles in return had to pledge allegiance to the king and support him in war and politically. They also had to deliver specified kinds of tributes, like tithes, in money and/or in goods. Those nobles often gave shares of their fief to lesser ranking nobles after the same basic principle. At the end of the chain, the local population had to deliver "Abgaben" (tributes) to their respective "Landesherr" (local territorial ruler).

In those days, the word "Freiheit" often referred to being free of those obligations. For example, a "Freie Stadt" or "Freistadt" had the privilege to govern itself, and didn't have to deliver tributes to a a Landesherr.

Over centuries, Deutz was a community separate from Köln (it only got "eingemeindet" in 1888), and the two cities often competed. At some point, Köln successfully advocated to put down the fortifications of Deutz. That meant that Deutz became an unfortified community - and that meant that Deutz didn't have to pay tributes to the Archbishop of Cologne any more. The street name of "Deutzer Freiheit", "freedom of Deutz", refers to this freedom to this day.

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    A reason why exactly this street was named as such might be its function: Up to 1859 this was the street leading to the sole connection between Deutz and Köln, the ferry or since 1822 the pontoon bridge. Leaving Deutz unfortified meant merchants could freely approach the river crossing without first paying taxes for entering Deutz. – In exchange, the ferry itself was licensed to a guild from Deutz.
    – ccprog
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 19:45
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Henning Kockerbeck has explained the case of Deutz already, but there are more cities where the name "Freiheit" for a street is meant to indicate the street was free of certain taxations or commercial regulations:

  • Freiheit in Meißen is a street leading up to the Albrechtsburg. The courts at the street were direct fiefs of the Count, not part of the city and thus were not obliged to pay city taxes.

  • Große und Kleine Freiheit in Hamburg were streets with a privilege by the city of Altona to open businesses outside of the otherwise obligatory guilds. This was installed in the 18th century as a special support for the Mennonite community of Altona.

There are also several Danziger Freiheit, but those names were part of the NS propaganda to denounce the injustice of the Versailles treaty, and were all named after 1933. Most of these names were dropped after 1945 or re-interpreted like the Stadtfreiheit in Erfurt and the Münchner Freiheit. The Fürther Freiheit equally is a politically motivated name choosen after the liberation in 1946. Finally, there are two Berliner Freiheit in Bremen and Bonn, named in protest against the division of the former German capital.

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  • The linked article concerning Münchner Freiheit contradicts the NS propaganda claim and attributes it to a resistance group, i. e. quite the contrary. There is also Fürther Freiheit where the name resulted after some other names were dropped due to relation to NS.
    – guidot
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 19:19
  • @guidot Ah. Between 1933 and 1945, the name was also Danziger Freiheit. Thanks for the hint.
    – ccprog
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 19:24
  • Excellent answer! Another example is a street called "Freiheit" in Spandau (part of Berlin since 1920). The "Freiheitswiesen" used to be a taxation-free common green. berlin.kauperts.de/Strassen/Freiheit-13597-Berlin
    – marquinho
    Commented Sep 25, 2023 at 8:57
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For place names that would have developed centuries ago, it makes sense to look up the term in old dictionaries. Grimm's Wörterbuch has the following definition of "Freiheit":

freiheit, ein ort, eine stätte, immunitas. ein schutzort, asyl hiesz freiheit (s. freiort):in den geräumgen hallen,wo Junos freiheit ist. Schiller 37a.

theile einer stadt, einzelne räume, ganze flecken führen den namen freiheit, so wurde in Cassel neben der altstadt eine freiheit erbaut und bildete eine gesonderte gemeinde, zu Friedberg in der Wetterau heiszt der breite platz vor der burg die freiheit. in Naumburg der domplatz die domfreiheit, vgl. schloszfreiheit, burgfreiheit.

Your confusion might partially stem from the ambiguous meaning of "frei" - It may translate to "free" (as in "liberty"), but also to "open" (like in "open sky") and "unoccupied". For place names, the latter meanings are more obvious, for parts of a settlement that have been placed "in the open", in "formerly unoccupied places" or even simply "just outside the city walls".

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To understand what "Freiheit" here means (basically a place which is unoccupied - free [from buildings]) we need to look at german suffixes. "-heit" is a suffix added to the Adjektiv "frei" (free, unoccupied).

"-heit" is usually the German equivalent to the English "-ness", meaning a state of having the property the adjective to which it is affixed describes. For instance:

healthy - healthyness
gesund - Gesundheit

Analogous with "Freiheit". In most cases this can be translated with "freedom", but that is only a derived meaning. The most literal meaning is "freeness", meaning the state of being free - not being occupied or - as @ccprog explained in his answer - being exempt (free) from some regulations. This is what is meant here.

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