Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

Period III: The Decline and Fall of the Hansa

From the law of change to which all human affairs are subject the mighty Hanseatic League was not exempt. Great though its power seemed to all outward appearance, and rich as were its members, still, for some time past, signs of decay and decline had made themselves manifest, here and there ominous rents and fissures, that threatened, if not an entire, yet a partial fall of the building.

The latter years of the fifteenth and the early years of the sixteenth centuries were a time of the greatest moment in the history of modern Europe. They mark the transition from the mediaeval to the modern spirit, embracing two such potent factors in human development as the Reformation and the discovery of America. It is almost sad to think that the decrepitude of a powerful institution should have coincided with the transformation and rejuvenescence of Europe. Yet so it was. So it will ever be; we must march onward with our time, or be trodden down.

Many of the ideas of the Hansa had grown effete or were becoming gradually obsolete. Individuality in men, independence in nations were factors beginning to manifest themselves and to rebel against those notions of blind obedience and of selfish monopoly inculcated by the Hansa. The time was nearing when the old system of staple, of factories was to give place to the busy varied life of the Exchange.

The discovery that the earth was round, not flat, that Ulysses had no idle dream when he dreamed that there was another continent beyond the pillars of Hercules, was a matter of unspeakable moment to trade. When we recollect that almost to the same date belong the discovery of a maritime route to the East Indies, and the invention of printing, we cannot but recognize that a power, not willing to move with the times, but painfully, obstinately clinging to its own ideas and images, had to be left behind. The very causes for which the Hansa had been founded, insecurity of roads, want of international justice, and other barbarous and intolerant conditions, no longer existed. The League itself had developed from a liberator into an oppressor. It no longer fitted with the changing conditions; it too must change or perish. In vain did it point to ancient charters, evoke "inviolable treaties" acquired at the point of the sword or by might of wealth. It had to learn that of these treaties, as indeed of treaties in general, must be said that which is sadly, but too truly said of human promises, that they are "like pie-crust, made to be broken."

The spirit of revolution, or rather of change, was abroad. It made itself felt in manners, in institutions, in governments. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks contributed to the new development. By warning Europe of a new and menacing danger, it drew yet more closely together the different states which the Crusades had already put into relations with one another, and for which the feudal system formed a sort of common link. This same event turned the stream of sciences, letters, and arts towards Italy. On the other hand, the princes were finding out the means of diminishing the power of the feudal lords and nobles. The subjugation of the power of these vassals undermined little by little the feudal system, and allowed this worn-out institution to be replaced by institutions more in conformity with the needs of modern society.

Various states, that had been unable to develope their forces, owing to the abuse of the feudal system, moved swiftly forward, now that they were free from restraint, and, having succeeded in centralizing their power desired to give it a firm and equal step in the march onwards. Meanwhile the forces that existed in the hands of the rulers were active enough to assure the tranquillity of the people, but it was always possible to turn them from their destination; war might arise any moment out of the very institutions that ought to secure the maintenance of peace. The people, recognizing this and fearing lest ambitious rulers should form projects of aggrandizement and conquest, had recourse to that policy which the Italian republics had already initiated and in which Florence took the lead.

The democracy understood full well that it was for their good, and even essential to their very existence as a power in the state, that they should act upon the forces that determined the government, just as these re-acted upon them: that, in a word, they should mutually hold each other within the limits of the law and that general security could only arise from the equilibrium of the means of attack and defence. This new policy which demanded frequent communications between the parties interested, gave rise to the system of embassies, itself quite a new feature in international and political life, though it was really an extension of ideas and systems long ago pursued by the Hansa. In a word, the whole method of the world was changing, and it remained to be seen whether the Hansa could still keep ahead as it had hitherto done.

While other nations were looking about them all round the globe, the Hansa was, as ever, occupied in securing to itself the monopoly of the Baltic basin, in order that no other peoples should deprive them of the wealth of Scandinavia. And yet this "monopoly of the herring and the cod-fish," as it has been named, was steadily becoming less and less valuable. More than half of Europe was Protestant and no longer fasted; wax was no more required in quantities for Church ceremonials and the evidences of personal piety; the imitation of Italian and Spanish fashions in dress caused less demand for the furs of the North. The English were among the chief commercial rivals of the Hansa at this date, and after them the Dutch, those very Dutch whose cities had at one time formed part of the League, but who had seceded after the wars with Waldemar, finding it more profitable to keep friends with the Danes.

It is strange that this combination of merchants, generally so astute, should not have recognized whither the stream of things was tending.

Nor in its perplexities could it find any help from the emperor. The German Empire was suffering from the same ills as the League, and with equal steps was advancing towards its dissolution. Until now the Hansa had gone on its triumphal way in spite of all inner and outer political complications, indeed had rather profited than lost by these. This was now altered. It was now no longer a body animated by one will, one spirit. The disintegrating element of religious discord had entered among its members, they were mixed up with the bloody doctrinal wars, that followed the Reformation and ravaged Germany, and they were divided among themselves on this very point. At last, after the treaty of Augsburg (1555), which restored to Germany a more or less agitated peace of some fifty years, there followed the terrible, devastating Thirty Years' War, which gave the death blow to the League.

The Thirty Years' War left behind it only a heap of ruins. It had consequences so disastrous that from some of them Germany has not recovered even to this day. It caused her to lag in the onward march of progress, and for all her military strength at this present moment, she has not yet overtaken her neighbours and contemporaries in many important points of civilization, that are more unfailing sources of a nation's power than mere brute strength in arms or tactical skill in battle.

One of the first serious causes of decline in the Hanseatic power was due to the fact that as time went on and conditions of trade altered, the interests of the maritime and continental cities were no longer identical. The sea-board towns used to furnish to the inland the means of selling the produce of industries with profit in the countries east, north, and west of the Baltic. The Hanseatic ships and factories facilitated this distribution of goods. But when other nations, and, above all, the merchants of the Netherlands, and after them the English, Danes, and Swedes carried on a part of this commerce with their own ships, the inland cities no longer had the same interest in remaining united with the maritime. They even thought that their union with the League was more onerous than useful, and began to grow restive and would no longer pay their dues to the general fund, which consequently became much weakened and impoverished. Thus there were not only enemies from without, but enemies from within to contend against. "A house divided against itself cannot stand" is a saying of which our Hansa was very soon to learn the full truth.

But before the final collapse came the League was to know one more moment of proud prosperity, a moment which, had it been wisely and unselfishly used would have secured to the Hansa a prolonged dictatorship in Northern Europe.

After this rapid survey we will consider these events in detail and order.