Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern


The once proud and mighty Hanseatic League is dead now, quite dead. There remains of it only a noble memory, the record of a high and fearless spirit which resisted tyrants petty and great, a spirit which recognized the value of independence, and strove with all its strength to attain and to maintain this boon. We have traced it from its earliest dawn to its recent complete demise; there but remains for us to speak its funeral oration. This is soon accomplished, since whether for men, for nations or associations, if their deeds speak not for them more eloquently than human words, the latter shall avail them little.

The chief title of the Hanseatic League to remembrance is that it was the means of spreading higher culture throughout wide tracts of the European continent, many of them, in those early times, still sunk in utter barbarism; that it introduced Western customs and civilization into all domains of private and social life for millions upon millions of people. This association is a bright spot that strikes the eye, as it looks back across the long, dark abyss of ages past, and we welcome it the more gladly because the bond that held this League together was neither force nor fear, but free will and clear insight into the advantages and necessity of mutual help. To quote the pertinent words of Mrs. Sinnett: "These free cities of Germany rise like happy islands amidst the wide-wasting ocean of violence and anarchy. Not by war and spoil, but by industry, enterprise, and prudent economy, did they accumulate the wealth that enabled them to heal so many of the wounds inflicted on their country by the iron hands beneath whose grasp art, science, even agriculture, by which they subsisted, was perishing. By the unions which the cities formed amongst themselves they stemmed the torrent of violence and anarchy that was threatening to turn their country into a desert peopled by hordes of robbers and slaves; they lent the most effectual aid to the Church in her efforts for the peace and civilization of Europe; yet they held the balance most firmly against the too great preponderance of her power, and rescued the human mind from the injurious subjection which she sometimes claimed as the price of her benefits when society had outgrown the leading strings that guarded its infancy, and felt as a galling restraint what had once been a needed protection. The cities built asylums for the widows and orphans whom the nobles and warriors had made desolate; they stretched out often a helping hand to the poor knight, who was regarding them with envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, taking him into their pay as a soldier, and enabling him to get a comparatively honest living, instead of wringing 'from the hard hands of peasants their vile trash,' or filling some menial office at the court of a prince, and picking up the crumbs that fell from the great man's table. Behind their walls and bastions the young tree of civil liberty, which was perishing in the open country, took root and flourished; there, even whilst striving only at first for riches and their peaceful enjoyment, did men learn to prize the blessings of social order, justice, and peace. These cities were not mere aggregations of men within a narrow space, such as may have existed among the most barbarous nations; they were organic bodies animated by a living spirit—a spirit of enlightened intelligence, courage, and self-reliance, which best supplied what was defective in the religious system of the time, and gave a more healthy and manly tone to the character both of individuals and of society. The Church, it cannot be denied, sometimes taught men, in the pursuit of an imagined perfection, to trample on the impulses, and violate the duties of nature; in these little republics, on the contrary, though originally they had only the attainment of temporal good in view, they rose insensibly to higher objects, and not only cultivated the social virtues more effectually, but in their struggle to maintain their place in the world, fought in many instances a more successful fight against the sins of the flesh, through the discipline of the manifold cares of an active life, than the recluse of the cloister, with all his fastings and flagellations. Among the happy influences belonging to these miniature states was the ardent attachment of the free citizens of the Middle Ages to the little spot which they had hedged in from the wide wilderness of slavery around, where the individual, if not of noble birth, was usually the mere helpless victim of arbitrary power. Freedom and honour, the respect of his fellows, the happiness of domestic life, the interest and excitement of active business, the joviality of social intercourse, a thousand ties entwined around him, connected him closely with the city, and even the house of his birth; for in those days it was common for men to live and die beneath the same roof under which they had been born. The merchant regarded his native town with a pride fully equal to that of birth and chivalry in the privileged classes, and little envied, we may suppose, the life of the solitary feudal lord in his castle, or the anxious and dependent position of the courtier. The citizen of a humbler class showed, by parading on all occasions the tools and emblems of his trade with the same complacency with which a soldier displays his sword, or the noble his armorial bearings, that he knew his position and was content with it, and felt none of that weak shrinking from his appointed place in society or uneasy longing after another, which has since been the epidemic malady of the middle classes."

For two centuries and more this guild of merchants made the German name respected in European lands, the German flag respected in European waters. When the empire had fallen to pieces and there was no union, no cohesion left, the Hanseatics remained German and held together staunchly and nobly. Though the time of their existence was brief, yet it was all-important, not only for their own land, but for all Europe.

To appreciate to its full extent the influence exercised upon Europe in general by the Hanseatic League, we must carry our minds back, and compare Europe as it was when the League took its rise, with Europe as it was when the League declined. The Hansa made its appearance in history at a time when barbarism, violence, religious fanaticism, political and civil slavery, and dire intellectual darkness overspread the whole continent, when liberty and industry, as we understand them, were unknown. The constant and active communication kept up by the cities of the Hansa, not only among themselves and with all parts of Germany, but with the most distant countries, awoke and kept alive the intelligence of the people. To the Hanseatics, as to the Italians of the same epoch, was reserved the honour of dispelling the obscurity that reigned in the mental and material world. The Hansa's glory only pales before that of the rival Italian mercantile associations from the fact that its energies were somewhat too exclusively confined to money-getting. Had these communities arisen in a period of literary culture, or among the glorious relics of the art of a brighter age, these cities would have presented several more salient points of resemblance to the republics of Greece and Italy. It cannot, however, be denied that in many of their institutions they improved on the model set by the Italian cities, and this more especially in all matters relating to morality and rectitude. But they were less grand and large in their policy than their Trans-Alpine brethren, and unfortunately for themselves, their commercial maxims were always narrow and selfish. Monopoly was their watchword, their grand aim. And it was largely in consequence of this narrow policy that their ruin overtook them. They perished of that disease whereof corporations are apt to perish, namely, egotism, the centrifugal force which is perpetually tending to rend asunder all human society, and must inevitably do so, when not restrained by some powerful antagonistic action.

It is strange that, while so rich commercially, the Hanseatic League lacked political ambition. Had they possessed it, there is little doubt they might have made themselves independent masters of all Northern Germany. But they seem never to have forgotten that they were merchants. They were held down by petty motives, smallness of views. Here, again, they were unlike the Italians, among whom the trader could develop into the aristocrat, as is abundantly proved by the history of the Medici and other famous great houses. The reason must be sought, no doubt, in the different native temperament of the two nations—the one innately refined, the other rougher and more boorish. Though the civic pride of the Hanseatics was highly flattered when the kings of the North and the princes of Germany trembled before them, they confined their ambitions entirely to gaining commercial advantages.

Certain it is that the two powers—the Hanseatic and the Italian Republics—each in their respective sphere of action, helped on the progress that has changed the entire face of this hemisphere, and that they did this by no other means than that of their commercial activity.

For this is the great power of commerce, if practised in its best and highest spirit, that it is able to work veritable miracles, bringing into contact the extremes of civilization, enlarging and disseminating ideas, and helping forward towards that universal brotherhood of man, that universal peace and goodwill, which is, and must be, the highest ideal of humanity. Not till war is really rooted out from among us, not till what is for the benefit of one is held for the benefit of all, not until a generous altruism reigns supreme, can mankind be said to be thoroughly civilized. Trade and commerce, though apparently egotistic factors, work strongly towards this end, even though their action proceed merely from motives of self-seeking. War is so serious an interruption to trade that men will seek to avert it, even out of a simple regard for their own pockets. By fair smiling peace, not only traders, but all the world is benefited and made happier. Once let nations fully understand and recognize its incalculable benefits, and even the lowest and most squalid souls will struggle to uproot this remnant of a barbaric spirit which can never evince itself as aught but an evil.

The Hansa uprose in a rough age, and hence had to work with the rough-made methods of its time; but in its time and in its way it did a good work, and posterity cannot withhold from it either gratitude or admiration. Its policy, its laws, its constitution, its commerce, its immense credit, the sway which it once exercised, the able magistrates, merchants, and mariners whom it produced—all these have vanished, unable to resist the torrent of time that engulfs good and bad alike. But its influence and example have remained, while much of its spirit, like many of its ideas and rules, have become incorporated into the general stock of the ideas of humanity.

Of the League itself, it is true there remains only an illustrious name. For Germany, which gave it birth, there remain memories both of pride and regret—memories that should serve as a spur to noble and useful emulation.

"The History of Commerce," says Montesquieu, "is the history of the intercommunication of peoples." The story of the Hanseatic League is an eloquent testimony to the truth of these words.