The Westerwald (German pronunciation: [ˈvɛstɐvalt]; literally 'Western forest') is a low mountain range on the right bank of the river Rhine in the German federal states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia. It is a part of the Rhenish Massif (Rheinisches Schiefergebirge or Rhenish Slate Mountains). Its highest elevation, at 657 m above sea level, is the Fuchskaute in the High Westerwald.
Tourist attractions include the Dornburg (394 metres), site of some Celtic ruins from La Tène times (5th to 1st century BC), found in the community of the same name, and Limburg an der Lahn, a town with a mediaeval centre.
The geologically old, heavily eroded range of the Westerwald is in its northern parts overlaid by a volcanic upland made of Neogene basalt layers. It covers an area of some 50 km × 70 km (31 mi × 43 mi), and therefore roughly 3,000 km2 (1,200 sq mi), making the Westerwald one of Germany's biggest mountain ranges by area. In areas of subsidence, it has in its flatter western part (Lower Westerwald) the characteristics of rolling hills. Typical for the economy of the Upper Westerwald, some 40% of which is actually wooded, are traditional slate mining, clay quarrying, diabase and basalt mining, pottery and the iron ore industry, and among other things mining in the Siegerländer Erzrevier (roughly "Siegerland Ore Grounds"). Despite its relatively slight elevation, the Westerwald has for a low mountain range a typical agreeable climate. Economically and culturally, it belongs among Germany's best known mountain ranges.
The name "Westerwald" was first mentioned in 1048 in a document from the Electorate of Trier and described at that time the woodlands (Wald is German for "forest" or "woods") around the three churches in Bad Marienberg, Rennerod and Emmerichenhain, west of the royal court at Herborn. Only since the mid 19th century has the name come into common usage for the whole range.
The High Westerwald has since the Middle Ages formed the heart of the Herrschaft zum (also vom or auf dem) Westerwald ("Lordship over the Westerwald"). This comprised the three court districts of Marienberg, Emmerichenhain and Neukirch. The Lordship later fell under the governance of the Lordship or County of Beilstein.
The Westerwald lies mostly southwest of the three-state common point shared by Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and North Rhine-Westphalia in the districts of Altenkirchen, Lahn-Dill, Limburg-Weilburg, Neuwied, Rhein-Lahn, Rhein-Sieg, Westerwaldkreis and partly in Siegen-Wittgenstein. It is found south of the Rothaargebirge, southwest of the Lahn-Dill-Bergland (another low mountain range), north of the Taunus and east of the Middle Rhine and stretches more or less southwards from Siegen and Burbach, southwestwards from Haiger, northwestwards from Weilburg, northwards from Limburg an der Lahn, northeastwards from Koblenz, eastwards from Linz am Rhein, southeastwards from Wissen and southwards from Betzdorf. In its centre lie Bad Marienberg and Hachenburg.
Clockwise, the Westerwald is bordered by the following river valleys: the Rhine between Koblenz and Linz, the Sieg as far as Betzdorf, the Heller, the Dill and from its mouth near Wetzlar, the Lahn up to Lahnstein.
Geomorphologically, the Westerwald belongs to the Rhenish Massif, which forms the greater part of that range's eastern half on the Rhine's right bank. Likewise, the Gladenbach Uplands, lying east of the Dill, also belong to the Westerwald, whereas the mountains reaching up to 680 m (2,230 ft) near the Haiger Saddle (Haiger Sattel) and east of Siegen are counted as part of the Rothaargebirge.
District seats in the Westerwald are: Altenkirchen (Altenkirchen district), Montabaur (Westerwaldkreis) and Neuwied (Neuwied district). Furthermore, the Lahn-Dill-Kreis, the Mayen-Koblenz district, the Rhein-Lahn-Kreis and the Limburg-Weilburg district each have shares of the Westerwald. If Sieg is taken as the Westerwald's northernmost limit, then the Rhein-Sieg district likewise belongs here, at least in parts (for example the Siebengebirge and the communities of Eitorf and Windeck).
The Westerwald and its outer edges are crossed by stretches of Bundesstraßen 8, 42, 49, 54, 62, 255, 256, 277, 413 and 414, over which there are connections to the Autobahnen A 3 (Cologne–Frankfurt), A 45 (Dortmund–Aschaffenburg) and A 48.
The most notable railway is the Cologne-Frankfurt high-speed rail line with minor stops at Montabaur and Limburg an der Lahn.
Geologically, the Westerwald is part of the Rhenish Massif, and likewise represents a heavily eroded remnant of a great Variscan mountain system which in the Mesozoic characterized a great deal of Europe.
The Devonian bedrock is covered by volcanic masses from the Tertiary, particularly basalt and tuffs. Economically important, besides slate, limestone and clay quarrying, were, and still are, iron and its processing industry between Rheintal (Unkel, Linz) and the lower Wied, pumice gravel in the Neuwied Basin, various mineral springs and, once, brown coal mining.
The whole Westerwald region lay under a tropically warm arm of the sea in the Palaeozoic (600 to 270 million years ago). This sea deposited layers of sediments many kilometres thick into the Variscan geosyncline, which were heavily folded in the orogeny that followed. The towns of Siegen and Koblenz on the Westerwald's north and southwest edges even gave two Lower Devonian layers, with their colourful slates, their names. The upper mountain layers are formed of volcanic strata made of basalt containing tuffs.
In a few areas, slate and clay have long been quarried, the latter notably in the so-called Kannenbäckerland, but also in a few other places where the clay is worked into the salt-glazed grey Westerwald Pottery with cobalt blue decoration. The pottery industry is centred on Höhr-Grenzhausen. Exports, particularly to Italy, are also important (more than one million metric tons each year). In the mid 16th century, potters from Raeren in Belgium migrated into the Westerwald, bringing with them some of their moulds. This type of pottery was taken to the New World and was found in the early Chesapeake settlements. Today one finds not only highly crafted moulded vases and mugs but also a range of handcrafted utility ware, with hand-painted swirling floral motifs.
In the eastern Westerwald (the part lying in Hesse) are found interesting limestone deposits from the most varied of geological times. Erdbach limestone from the Lower Carboniferous gave one small time period the name "Erdbachian".
Near Breitscheid are found the remnants of an atoll from the subtropical Devonian sea that was here 380,000,000 years ago. Parts of this limestone formation are worked in open-pit mining; near Enspel, a "fossil conservation area" has been instituted, in which institutes from several colleges conduct research and excursions. A few karst caves are of interest to spelaeology and bring about the temporary disappearance and reappearance of the Erdbach.
The Westerwald's highest mountain is the Fuchskaute in the High Westerwald, meaning "fox hollow". Many peaks and crests exceed the 600-metre level. Sorted by elevation above sea level, these are some of the Westerwald's highest elevations:
Through prehistoric finds it can be determined that the Celts settled in the Westerwald and were using the iron ore deposits in the so-called Hallstatt times (Iron Age, roughly 750 to 500 BC). In all likelihood they came into the area from the Hunsrück. From La Tène times come the Celtic ringwall-girded defensive and sheltering castles which may be found on, among other peaks, the Malberg. Already by La Tène times, Germanic peoples were thrusting in from the east and from the Sieg valley. They came about 380 BC into the Upper Westerwald, bypassing the High Westerwald, seeing it as nothing more than a trackless wooded wilderness, after which they eventually came up against the Rhine in the 2nd century.
Even in the time when the Celts found themselves having to avoid the Germanic invaders by moving to the west, the Romans were also pushing in from the Rhine's left bank to the southwest. However, the Romans only managed to seize a strip of land on the Rhine's right bank and the so-called Rhine-Westerwald; the Westerwald itself lay outside the Roman-occupied area, for the Romans preferred to maintain a little-settled, most likely pathless wilderness as their border.
The Westerwald's permanent settlement and thereby its territorial history began with the Chatti (Hessians) pushing their way into the area after the Romans were driven out in the 3rd century. Placename endings such as –ar, –mar and –aha ("Haigraha" = Haiger) stemming from the Migration Period ("Völkerwanderung") can still be found now. These lie around the forest's outer edges in basins and dales whose soils and climate were favourable to early settlers, and include, for instance, Hadamar, Lahr and Wetzlar. From the 4th to the 6th century, the settlements from the time of the taking of the land arose in formerly pathless areas, taking endings such as –ingen and –heim, like Bellingen and Bladernheim; these lie on the broad, raised plains in the Upper Westerwald.
The Franks built their old settlements on the edge of the Westerwald in the central areas of their districts, to build up slowly and permanently strongholds in the interior. There arose places with names ending in –rode, –scheid, –hahn, –berg, –tal and –seifen. Once clearing settlements had been established and logging for iron ore smelting was under way, the widespread destruction of the forest began. Between the 6th and 9th centuries came settlement expansion from the old settlements towards the edges, a process still witnessed in placename endings such as –hausen, –hofen, –kirch, –burg or –tal.
The last settlement period in the Westerwald began in the 10th century and ended about 1300. Through Carolingian policy and therefore the Trier and Cologne mission, this area underwent Christianization. Trier advanced up the Lahn, Cologne to the Rhine and Sieg. Trier-Lothringian and Lower Rhine influences were nevertheless brought into the Westerwald. Among the witnesses to the art of building at that time is the monastery church at Limburg-Dietkirchen, in its oldest parts.
After many changes in ownership between the Ottonian and Salian noble families, it was in the end the Counts of Sayn, Diez and Wied who managed to take hold of extensive landholdings. Particular importance was achieved by the Counts of Laurenburg, who later called themselves the Counts of Nassau. In the east, the Landgraves of Hesse put it about that they could beat the Archbishopric of Mainz on the battlefield. Moreover, the Counts of Wied, the Counts of Sayn-Wittgenstein and the Electorate of Trier were all prominent landlords.
Political relations were simplified until the 16th century. Among the four greater powers' spheres of influence (Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Hesse), the House of Nassau managed to expand and strengthen its hold on its territory on the Dill between Siegen and Nassau. After the Napoleonic upheavals, Nassau had to share broad swathes of the Westerwald with the newly minted power Prussia. A sovereign Duchy of Nassau existed until it was annexed by Prussia in 1866.
Nowadays, the Westerwald is shared among three German federal states: Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate.
The Westerwald is also internationally known in songs, above all in folksongs, and particularly the "Westerwaldlied" ("Westerwald Song"), as well as "Westerwald-Marsch" ("Westerwald March"), "Westerwald, du bist so schön" ("Westerwald, you are so lovely"), the "Neues Westerwaldlied" ("New Westerwald Song") by songwriter Ulrik Remy, "Ich bin aus 'm Westerwald" ("I am from the Westerwald") and "Das schönste Mädchen vom Westerwald" ("The Loveliest Girl from the Westerwald") by Karl-Eberhard Hain and Jürgen Hardeck, made well known by De Höhner, Die Schröders and other groups.
The "Westerwaldlied" is also sung by the Chilean Armed Forces and is known as "Himno de la Sección". It is also the inspiration for the South Korean military song, "Our Nation Forever". In recent years it has become somewhat controversial in Germany due to its origins during the National Socialist era, with the German military ceasing performances of it in 2017.
The standard German term for a Westerwald dweller is Westerwälder (IPA: [ˈvɛstɐvɛldɐ]; plural: same), but they are also popularly known as Basaltköpp (“Basalt Heads”), as they are said to be thickheaded, and they live in a basalt-rich region. Wäller is another vernacular name for them.