Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

C8: The Survivors

Although the peace of Westphalia found the Hansa hopelessly broken, yet it was not until after this event that the various members fully realized their condition. Until then they had anticipated a resuscitation with the advent of political calm. When the Hanseatic deputies had assembled at the Diet of 1628, the last of which an official record exists, they had voted to postpone to a more convenient season all proposals that were brought forward for consideration. This Diet revealed the confusion into which the Hanseatic accounts had fallen. Still even on this occasion various cities pleaded for re-admission into the union. It throws a sad light upon the character of the delegates to read that those of Brunswick, reporting to that city the history of this Diet, should lay great and detailed stress upon the fact that they had not been regaled with the customary wine of honour and the wonted supply of cakes!

All that was achieved on this occasion was that the cities of Lubeck, Bremen, and Hamburg, were charged with the protection of the Hanseatic interests, in the name of all the other cities, so far as such interests could at present be said to be at stake.

Yet another Diet was summoned in February, 1630, at Lubeck. On this occasion there occurred what of late had not been unusual, namely, that no Hanseatic delegates appeared, with the exception of those of Bremen and Lubeck.

It is a picturesque historical invention, but, unfortunately, like most picturesque legends, quite untrue, that on this occasion all the members of the most ancient German Hansa put in an appearance, and in Lubeck's Hansa Saal decreed, in all solemnity, its own dissolution; that, in short, the Hansa was present at its own funeral. As the Hansa never had an actual foundation day, so it had no day of dissolution. As its growth had been gradual, the result of time and circumstance, so was its decay. It had been built up imperceptibly, it passed away almost as imperceptibly.

After the Diet of 1630, and again in 1641, the three cities above named—Lubeck, Bremen, and Hamburg—made still closer their friendly alliance, erecting a species of new Hansa upon the ruins of the old. With great modifications this compact survived down to our own times, and was not dissolved until forcibly rent asunder, as disturbing to Prussian ambition and to Prussian ideas of protective trade. For these cities kept up a species of free trade, while all the rest of Germany was protective, and to this day, though despoiled and shorn of their honour, the cities call themselves proudly the Hanseatic towns. In those days their main endeavour was to save as much as possible from the general wreck, and to try and keep alive the spirit of the League, of which most ambitiously they retained the name. They believed, indeed the other cities believed too, that with the restoration of peace they could establish themselves upon the old foundations.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


This vain, daring hope, so common to all who suffer from incurable disease, did not quit them till the conclusion of the peace so ardently desired. This peace inaugurated a state of things incompatible with the commercial tendencies of the Hanseatics, and showed indisputably the futility of their hopes.

Yet with that doggedness or obtuseness which prevents a man from knowing when he is beaten, and which was at all times both the strength and weakness of the Hansa, even after facts had been made plain to them, they still refused absolutely to accept them. They still hoped against hope, to shape the course of events, and as usual Lubeck the energetic was to the front in these endeavours.

After the peace of Westphalia, this city tried repeatedly to organize a Hanseatic Diet in the old style. It was not until 1669 that a number of cities could be found willing to send deputies sufficient to qualify the assembly with the name of a Diet. But many of these deputies came only to announce that their towns would not in future pay contributions to the League, putting forward as their reason either that the war had impoverished them too much, or that the changed manner and course of trade made them doubt as to the continued utility of their union.

The discussions on this occasion were most animated. It was a stormy sitting, but it produced no real result. Too many different and absolutely conflicting opinions were advanced. The only conclusion that was arrived at was the choice of a certain Dr. Brauer, of Lubeck, to fill the honoured post of Hanseatic Syndic.

Vain honour truly, a very sinecure. For our poor old League, already in its death throes, did not survive this Diet. After eighteen sittings had been held it was made manifest that no accord could be arrived at, and the city of Lubeck even doubted if it were worth while to draw up an official report of the proceedings. Respect for ancient usages, however, prevailed, and the minutes were therefore drawn up in all due form. But they had no fact to record, except that the assembly had not been able to arrive at a unanimous opinion on any one point put forward.

Speaking of this final moment, the eminent historian of the League, Sartorius, writes—

"The constituent elements of the League had been united together in silence, and it was also without noise that they were decomposed. No one could be astonished at this end, which for some time past have been foreseen by any intelligent person."

"Sic transit gloria mundi" might have been written on its tomb. Its glory had been great and real indeed.

No less a person than the eminent philosopher, Leibnitz, in 1670, advised the imperial authorities, of course without result, to revive German trade by the re-establishment of the Hanseatic towns. The profound indifference of the empire was a fact too great to be overcome. The Emperor Charles VI. even went the length of formally forbidding his subjects to trade with the two Indies by way of England and Holland. At no single princely court of the whole realm was there to be found a sound view of commerce and commercial requirements. In the midst of such apathy and ignorance it was a real piece of good fortune for Germany that, at any rate, the three cities of Lubeck, Bremen, and Hamburg, were allowed to keep their independence.

It was in these cities, then, gradually as trade revived and the disastrous effects of the Thirty Years' War were somewhat overcome, that wealth concentrated itself. Here too was still to be found commercial knowledge, activity, and enterprise, while the old name of Hansa was discovered to have sufficient power left to conjure with. That German industry still found foreign outlet, that it still survived, and proved profitable, was henceforward due solely to the three remaining Hansa towns.

The empire, meanwhile, whenever it did not harry them by attempts at futile restrictions or by foolish criticism of their policy, ignored them entirely. This was always for the cities the happiest course, allowing them free room to act as they, with their commercial knowledge and insight, thought fittest.

But as time went on, and the political state of Germany grew more and more abject, it naturally came about that the Germans grew less and less respected and feared in the foreign markets, the foreign people with whom they had to deal knowing full well that there was no real power to back them. They had to see all other strangers preferred before them and the name of German become a by-word. Indeed they would be scornfully asked what was meant by German, seeing there was no land really so styled, and that the country which once bore that name was split up into a vast number of small principalities. No wonder that this condition of things did not help on German trade. No wonder that under these circumstances the foreign policy of the new League, or rather of the union of the three towns, for league it could not be called, was a policy of weakness, almost of cringing, far different indeed from that of their predecessors, who had played with thrones and deposed kings. Where once they commanded they had now to plead or flatter, and if these methods failed they were driven to observe the mores mundi, to use their own phrase, and let fly silver balls, unlike the heavy balls used in olden times, that is to say, they had to bribe.

After the French Revolution and the European disorders of that time, the Hansa towns by common accord of Russia and France were declared to be perpetually neutral, a gift of doubtful value. The cities were soon made to feel what was meant by owing their existence to aliens.

A little later Napoleon the Great was frequently on the point of giving away the Hansa cities, even before he had appropriated them to himself. In 1806 he offered them as compensation for Sicily, and, according to Lord Yarmouth, would have given them to Hanover if thereby he could have procured the peace with England. Sometime after they were destined by him to serve as the footstool of the throne he designed for his brother Louis in North Germany.

While he was making up his mind they were held by his soldiers, and these days of French occupation were spoken of to their dying days by the burghers in accents of terror. At last, in 1810, quite suddenly and without previous warning, "without due regard and courtesy," as was pleaded afterwards at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon incorporated the Hansa towns with the empire.

It was well for them that this period was of short duration, for trade was in those days a matter of no small difficulty. Napoleon's mania regarding the continental system had reached its culminating point. Commerce was carried on either by submitting to grave sacrifices owing to the blockade, or by smuggling on a colossal scale. Neither method brought with it prosperity or calm.

Then dawned the memorable year of 1813, and with it came the first check in Napoleon's victorious path. The citizens of the three Hansa towns were among the first in Germany to put on armour and draw the sword for the liberation of themselves and of their suffering fellow-countrymen. Great oppression, happily for mankind and progress, often produces a strong recoil. Enthusiasm knew no bounds; German courage, which seemed dead, was revived.

Alas! it was a false hope. Reaction once more got the upper hand after Germany was liberated from Napoleon's yoke, and it is a question whether the yoke of the native rulers was not even heavier to bear than that of the foreign usurper. It was certainly less liberal.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The three Hansa towns, however, fortunately for them, managed to secure their independence, though not without a struggle. There were not lacking neighbours who gazed at them with covetous eyes, nor others who would have looked the other way had some power appropriated them.

At the Congress of Vienna Lubeck was all but given away to Denmark. But this was more than the Hanseatic delegates present in the assembly could stand. Accustomed of old to lift up their voices boldly, and not to fear crowned or anointed heads, they fiercely denounced this project as a deed of darkness, and appealed so strongly to the consciences of those present, reminding them of the everlasting shame attending a broken word or promise, that they actually succeeded in bringing them round to their point of view. The project was abandoned.

Thus the towns remained virtually free, while nominally attached to Germany, and continued, as of old, as willing, as they were able, to serve their country with the talents that had been entrusted to their keeping. Their flag again appeared on all the seas, their commerce extended in all lands, they even succeeded in concluding favourable trade alliances in virtue of the old Hanseatic firm of "the Merchants of the German Empire."

But, as ever before, they were not backed by the nation or by any real power at home, and now that they were only three towns they could not act as in the days of old, when their number extended across Europe.

But since the many hundred little states of which Germany consisted have been all absorbed by Prussia, and incorporated under the collective name of Germany, even the three Hansa towns, the last to resist and to stand out for their autonomy, have had to succumb to the iron hand of Prince Bismarck and the Prussian spiked helmet. Hamburg still keeps up a semblance of independence, but it is but a shadow, and even that shadow is rapidly vanishing from its grasp. Military, protectionist Germany does not care to have in its confines a town where free trade and burgher independence are inherited possessions. The name of Hansa towns, the title of Hanseatic League, is but a proud memory, one, however, to which modern Germany may well look back with satisfaction, and from the story of the "common German Hansa" it can still, if it chooses, learn many a useful lesson.

Note — Progress of the Zoll Verein

Since writing the foregoing, the event, long anticipated as inevitable, has taken place, and the last two cities to uphold the name and traditions of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg and Bremen, have been incorporated into the German Zoll Verein, thus finally surrendering their old historical privileges as free ports. Lubeck took this step some twenty-two years ago, Hamburg and Bremen not till October, 1888—so long had they resisted Prince Bismarck's more or less gentle suasions to enter his Protection League. But they foresaw what the end must be; that his motto was that of the Erl King in Goethe's famous ballad:

"Und bist Du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt."

("And if thou be not willing, I shall use force.")

Still they, and Hamburg in particular, held out nobly, jealous, and rightly jealous, of the curtailment of those privileges which distinguished them from the other cities of the German Empire. It was after the foundation of this empire that the claim of the two cities to remain free ports was conceded and ratified in the Imperial Constitution of April, 1871, though the privilege, in the case of Hamburg, was restricted to the city and port, and withdrawn from the rest of the State, which extends to the mouth of the Elbe and embraces about one hundred and sixty square miles, while the free-port territory was reduced to twenty-eight square miles. This was the first serious interference with the city's liberty, and others followed, perhaps rather of a petty, annoying, than of a seriously aggressive, character, but enough to show the direction in which the wind was blowing.

It was in 1880 that the proposal to include Hamburg in the Customs Union was first politically discussed. It met, not unnaturally, with much opposition among the citizens, and especially among the merchant class, of whom these citizens are so largely composed. Not only did it wound the Hamburgers' pride to see an old and honourable distinction abolished, but they feared, and not without reason, that their trade would be seriously affected by such a step. They were afraid that their city would cease to be the great international distributing centre which it had been so long. Hot and animated were the discussions in the Senate, the House of Burgesses, the press, on docks and quays, in public and in private. But the pressure exercised from Berlin, though in appearance gentle, was firm and decided. How could a single city stand against a strong military empire? In May, 1881, therefore, was drafted a proposal to the effect that the whole of the city and port of Hamburg should be included in the Zoll Verein. This was laid before the Senate, who passed a resolution that the treaty should be accepted, stating its conviction that the inclusion of the free ports in the Zoll Verein would not only be beneficial for the empire, most of whose foreign commerce passed through them, but also would increase the prosperity of the cities themselves. Whether the Senate really held this belief, or whether they thought it wise to profess this opinion, does not appear. The proposal was then sent down to the House of Burgesses. Here it did not find such facile acceptance as among the more aristocratic senators; here no real or professed illusions reigned. For seven hours did the fathers of the city discuss the resolution of the Senate in a sitting that will ever be famous among the annals of the town. The speech made by Dr. Petersen, the Commissioner for the Senate, was most impressive, and it touched the hearts of all his hearers.

He reminded the Assembly that their thousand years' history testified to the fact that the Hamburgers were ever an active, practical, patriotic people, who took life earnestly, caring not only for business and family, but for the common weal. Every good Hamburger has always been ready to sacrifice his feelings and his personal interests for the good of the Fatherland. Let all of them, he urged, even those who could not do it heartily, vote for the measure, in the sure and certain conviction that the "Father City" would flourish and prosper, and increase through the skill, the energy, and, above all, the public spirit of its citizens. Hamburg would still remain the emporium, for the wide world, of the German Fatherland, to which she would be more closely united than ever.

This speech was followed by much and earnest discussion, after which the proposal of the Senate was at last agreed to as an inevitable measure, and Hamburg was included in the Zoll Verein by one hundred and six votes against forty-six.

The details for carrying into effect this conclusion have occupied seven years, and the event was finally celebrated with great pomp, the Emperor William II. coming in person to enhance the solemnity of the sacrifice brought by the burghers of the erst free city for the common weal of the German Fatherland.

As we have said, the step was inevitable sooner or later, and the Hamburgers knew it. The German Empire, so long a fiction, had arisen stronger than ever. It was natural, very necessary, that an anomaly should be abolished which placed the great gateway of foreign commerce outside the customs regulations of the rest of the empire. It was natural for the imperial authorities to desire that their two great commercial ports should be at one with the empire in all respects; that as far as their trade is concerned they should not be in the position of foreign countries, jealously watched by imperial officers lest they might seek to injure the financial interests of the country of which they form a part.

It is too early to know what effect this step will have upon the trade of the two cities, whether it will check or increase their prosperity. The gain to Germany is certain. The gain to the two cities, but in especial to Hamburg, is something less than problematical. Meantime the last and only privilege the three once powerful Hanseatic cities retain is that of being entitled, like the greatest States in the empire, to send their own representatives to the Bundesrath and to the Reichstag.