Rothenburg was a Free Imperial City from the late Middle Ages to 1803.
The name "Rothenburg ob der Tauber" means, in German, "Red fortress above the Tauber". This is so because the town is located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. As to the name "Rothenburg", some say it comes from the German words rot (red) and burg (burgh, medieval fortified settlement), referring to the red colour of the roofs of the houses which overlook the river. The name may also refer to the process of retting ("rotten" in German) flax for linen production.
In 950, the weir system in today’s castle garden was constructed by the Count of Comburg-Rothenburg.
In 1070, the counts of Comburg-Rothenburg, who also owned the village of Gebsattel, built Rothenburg castle on the mountain top high above the River Tauber.
The counts of the Comburg-Rothenburg dynasty died out in 1116. The last count, Count Heinrich, Emperor Heinrich V appointed instead his nephew Konrad von Hohenstaufen as successor to the Comburg-Rothenburg properties.
In 1142, Konrad von Hohenstaufen, who became Konrad III (1138–52), the self-styled King of the Romans, traded a part of the monastery of Neumünster in Würzburg above the village Detwang and built the Stauffer-Castle Rothenburg on this cheaper land. He held court there and appointed officials called 'reeves' to act as caretakers.
In 1170, the city of Rothenburg was founded at the time of the building of Staufer Castle. The centre was the marketplace and St. James' Church (in German: the St. Jakob). The development of the oldest fortification can be seen, the old cellar/old moat and the milk market. Walls and towers were built in the 13th century. Preserved are the “White Tower” and the Markus Tower with the Röder Arch.
From 1194 to 1254, the representatives of the Staufer dynasty governed the area around Rothenburg. Around this time, the Order of St. John and other orders were founded near St. James' Church and a Dominican nunnery (1258).
From 1241 to 1242, the Staufer Imperial tax statistics recorded the names of the Jews in Rothenburg. Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rothenburg (died 1293, buried 1307 in Worms) had a great reputation as a jurist in Europe. His descendants include members of the dynastic family von Rothberg, noteworthy in that they were accorded noble status in the 19th century, becoming the hereditary counts of Rothenburg (Rothberg). The family is survived by its last living descendant, Andrew Sandilands Graf von Rothberg, 9th Count of Rothenburg (born 1972), who resides in the United States.
In 1274, Rothenburg was accorded privileges by King Rudolf of Habsburg as a Free Imperial City. Three famous fairs were established in the city and in the following centuries, the city expanded. The citizens of the city and the Knights of the Hinterland build the Franziskaner (Franciscan) Monastery and the Holy Ghost Hospital (1376/78 incorporated into the city walls). The German Order began the building of St. James' Church, which the citizens have used since 1336. The Heilig Blut (Holy Blood) pilgrimage attracted many pilgrims to Rothenburg, at the time one of the 20 largest cities of the Holy Roman Empire. The population was around 5,500 people within the city walls and another 14,000 in the 150 square miles (390 km2) of surrounding territory.
The Staufer Castle was destroyed by an earthquake in 1356, the St. Blaise chapel is the last remnant today.
In October 1631, during the Thirty Years' War, the Catholic Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, wanted to quarter his 40,000 troops in Protestant Lutheran Rothenburg. Rather than allow entrance, the town defended itself and intended to withstand a siege. However, Tilly's troops quickly defeated Rothenburg, losing only 300 soldiers. After the winter, they left the town poor and nearly empty, and in 1634 a bubonic plague outbreak killed many more townsfolk. Without any money or power, Rothenburg stopped growing, thus preserving its 17th-century state.
Since 1803, the town has been a part of Bavaria. The famous German landscape painter Eugen Bracht visited Rothenburg in 1877; although he stayed only two days, he was clearly impressed. Some years later, especially artists of Romanticism, such as Hans Thoma and Carl Spitzweg, visited Rothenburg, too, followed by the first tourists. Laws were created to prevent major changes to the town.
Rothenburg held a special significance for Nazi ideologists. For them, it was the epitome of the German 'Home Town', representing all that was quintessentially German. Throughout the 1930s, the Nazi organisation KDF (Kraft durch Freude) "Strength through Joy" organized regular day trips to Rothenburg from all across the reich. This initiative was staunchly supported by Rothenburg's citizenry – many of whom were sympathetic to National Socialism – both for its perceived economic benefits and because Rothenburg was hailed as "the most German of German towns". In October 1938, Rothenburg expelled its Jewish citizens, much to the approval of Nazis and their supporters across Germany.
The creation of an ideal Nazi community reminded the peoples of Germany of the way the Nazis wanted them to live as a family and as a community; Rothenburg simply exemplified this Nazi ideology as an idealised family life. Additionally, other German towns followed the 'example' set by Rothenburg for the Nazis, this began a trend of Nazi German Nationalism which led to the creation of an "ideal" Nazi community in Rothenburg. This then grew to reveal the ideal Nazi family, as illustrated in propaganda of the time. This ideal lifestyle was taken further when an approved upbringing for the sons of Nazi Germany was introduced, first growing up in a Nazi or Hitler Youth organization, then protecting the ideals of both Nazi Germany and the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler as a civilian or as military personnel, thus forming the core idea of Nazi patriotism, protecting their own beliefs. In many ways, Rothenburg demonstrated key elements of Nazi ideology and epitomised their desire to expand National Socialist thinking throughout Germany and in all areas with German-speaking people across Europe.
In March 1945 in World War II, German soldiers were stationed in Rothenburg to defend it. On March 31, bombs were dropped over Rothenburg by 16 planes, killing 37 people and destroying 306 houses, six public buildings, nine watchtowers, and over 2,000 feet (610 m) of the wall. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy knew about the historic importance and beauty of Rothenburg, so he ordered US Army General Jacob L. Devers not to use artillery in taking Rothenburg. Battalion commander Frank Burke (Medal of Honor) ordered six soldiers of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division to march into Rothenburg on a three-hour mission and negotiate the surrender of the town. First Lieutenant Noble V. Borders of Louisville, Kentucky, First Lieutenant Edmund E. Austingen of Hammond, Indiana, Private William M. Dwyer of Trenton, New Jersey, Private Herman Lichey of Glendale, California, Private Robert S. Grimm of Tower City, Pennsylvania, and Private Peter Kick of Lansing, Illinois were sent on the mission. When stopped by a German soldier, Private Lichey, who spoke fluent German and served as the group’s translator, held up a white flag and explained, “We are representatives of our division commander. We bring you his offer to spare the city of Rothenburg from shelling and bombing if you agree not to defend it. We have been given three hours to get this message to you. If we haven’t returned to our lines by 1800 hours, the town will be bombed and shelled to the ground.” The local military commander Major Thömmes gave up the town, ignoring the order of Hitler for all towns to fight to the end and thereby saving it from total destruction by artillery. American troops of the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division occupied the town on April 17, 1945, and in November 1948, McCloy was named an honorary citizen (German: Ehrenbürger) of Rothenburg. After the war, the residents of the city quickly repaired the bombing damage. Donations for the rebuilding were received from all over the world. The rebuilt walls feature commemorative bricks with donor names. Traffic-reducing measures were put in place in a significant portion of Rothenburg to increase safety and accommodate tourism.
The Rathaus (town hall) is a notable renaissance building. The rear Gothic part of the building dates from 1250, and the attached front Renaissance building was started in 1572. This building served as the seat of government for the city-state during the medieval ages and for the city of Rothenburg since the formation of the federalist government. The town hall tower of Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the only accessible towers in the town of Rothenburg. The other is the Roedertor tower at the east end of the city, and is open daily for visitors to climb. It is almost 61 meters (200 feet) tall. At the top of the tower, an admission fee of 2 euros is charged to enter the room with a scenic view of almost the entire town. The room also contains manuscripts providing the visitor with historical information about the construction and relevant history of the city wall.
While buildings within the walled city reflect the city's medieval history, this part of the city is in many ways a normal, modern German town with some concession to the tourist trade. Many stores and hotels catering to tourists are clustered around the Town Hall Square and along several major streets (such as Herrngasse, Schmiedgasse). Also in the town is a Criminal Museum, containing various punishment and torture devices used during the Middle Ages. For authentic Rothenburg ob der Tauber fare, one should have a Schneeball, deep-fried dough shaped like a snowball and covered in either confectioner's sugar or chocolate.
From 1988 until March 2006, Herbert Hachtel (SPD) was the mayor of Rothenburg. He was succeeded by Walter Hartl.
Rothenburg has appeared in several films, notably fantasies. It was the inspiration for the village in the 1940 Walt Disney movie Pinocchio. It was the location for the Vulgarian village scenes in the 1968 family movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It is sometimes mistaken as the town at the end of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971); that town was Nördlingen. The town served as a loose basis for the fictional town of Lebensbaum ("life tree") in the video game Shadow of Memories (Shadow of Destiny in American market). Pictures of the town were used in some parts of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and in the trailer for the film the camera flies over the town from the direction of the valley towards the Town Hall. A plaque exists on the rebuilt town wall to commemorate this. Filming was done in Rothenburg for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010) and Part 2 (2011).
Robert Shackleton's Unvisited Places of Old Europe contains a chapter, "The Old Red City of Rothenburg", about the city and its history. Rothenburg is the primary location for Elizabeth Peters's mystery novel, Borrower of the Night (1973) about the search for a missing Tilman Riemenschneider sculpture. The town featured as the location in the Belgian comic book La Frontière de la vie (The Frontier of Life, 1977) and it inspired the look of the town in the Japanese manga and anime series A Little Snow Fairy Sugar (2001).
Rothenburg's famous street Kobolzeller Steige and Spitalgasse is depicted on the cover of two Blackmore's Night albums, 1999's Under a Violet Moon and their 2006 album Winter Carols. The same image was also used as the town center of Mêlée Island in the 1990 point-and-click graphic adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island.
The video game Team Fortress 2 features a map titled "Rottenburg", a play on the original's namesake along with visually similar architecture.
The southern part of the marketplace is prominently featured in the video game Gabriel Knight 2 depicting the fictional town of Rittersberg.