Stendal is the biggest town in the Altmark region. The town was founded in 1160. From its inception, it belonged to the Margraviate of Brandenburg that later developed into the Kingdom of Prussia. During the 14th to 16th century, Stendal was a member of the Hanseatic League and—despite being more than 150 km off the nearest seashore—had its own seafarer guild.
The 18th-century archeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) was born and went to school in Stendal. He significantly evoked a revival of classical antiquity and thereby paved the way for the Neoclassical movement in different arts. The Winckelmann Society that preserves his heritage has its seat in Stendal. The French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (1783–1842) was an admirer of Winckelmann and therefore chose the pseudonym "Stendhal" as a bow to his idol. Incidentally, Beyle/Stendhal lived in the region for a short time, serving in the administration of the French puppet state "Kingdom of Westphalia".
The population of Stendal grew rapidly during the 19th and early 20th century, quadrupling between 1830 and 1910. After the end of communist rule and the re-unification of Germany in 1989/90 however, the town lost 30 % of its population. The number of inhabitants could only be held relatively stable at 40,000 by incorporating several neighbouring municipalities.