Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

C7: The Thirty Years' War Kills The League

John Wheeler's diagnosis of the condition of the League was too correct. It is true that an ostensibly official document enumerates fifty towns as forming part of the Hansa League in 1603, but we know that at the same time only fourteen had a seat and voice in the Diet and duly paid their fees. Indeed, the more we examine the internal condition of the League at this period the more we wonder, not that it fell asunder, but that it endured so long. It had become utterly disorganized and was decaying fast.

In 1606, the Emperor Rudolph II. evoked a feeling of alarm among all the towns by suddenly demanding to see their charters, and to know whence they derived their privileges and statutes. Thus the results of appealing to imperial aid, in the English complications, bore their inevitable and unpleasant fruit. The emperor's ulterior aim was of course to extract money from the cities, this time in aid of his Hungarian wars. As in the days of their glory, the cities knew how to protect themselves, and how to escape undesirable inquiries by means of subterfuges and evasive answers. Still the first attempt at supervision had been made, and was to bear fruit later.

While matters were in this uncomfortable state, there broke forth the long, terrible strife known to history as the Thirty Years' War. Its causes are to be sought for in those most unhappy differences of doctrinal opinions, which, being rooted in mutual intolerance, a want of fairness of spirit, and of dramatic insight into the needs of divergent mental constitutions, make one man wish forcibly to impose his point of view upon his neighbour, under the conviction that it is the only point of view, and hence the true one. This intolerant and narrow spirit, which more fatally divides individuals and nations than any other form of human folly, had reached its climax in the century of the Reformation, when not only were Protestant and Catholic opposed to one another, but Protestants were also divided among themselves, Calvinist and Lutheran persecuting each other with an acrimony quite out of proportion to the gravity of the questions at stake.

The details of this most deplorable war fall outside our province, and belong to the history of Germany proper. We can but touch on it as it concerns our League. When hostilities commenced, the Hansa were to realize what even the shadow of a great name implies. Power after power made overtures to the League to make common cause with them. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, was the first. As early as 1621, he sought an alliance with the cities, and he counted the more on an affirmative reply, that his enmity to Denmark was shared by the League. But they refused his offer, saying they wished to enter into no unequal bond, assuring the king however, at the same time, that they desired to remain good friends with him, and to continue their commercial intercourse.

The fact was that, seeing the agitated and disordered condition of affairs in Germany, the Hanseatic League hardly felt it wise to take any definite step at this juncture.

Gustavus Adolphus, however, was the more disappointed at their refusal, since he had been led to expect different treatment from them. Since the time he had ascended the throne, his relations with the League had been friendly. An old chronicler tells us how some time before the king's marriage, the "honourable Hansa towns" sent ambassadors to Sweden to conclude a treaty with Gustavus Adolphus about the Protestant religion, and also to treat with him concerning trade privileges. Indeed, the latter seems to have been their chief aim. But as they wanted to keep it secret, says the writer, they professed that they had been sent to congratulate the king upon his marriage. Gustavus Adolphus received them in solemn audience, standing and with uncovered head; no small honour to pay to a confederation of trading towns. Beside him stood his mighty Chancellor, Oxenstjerna. After the king had accorded them a cordial and formal reception, he gave them the traditional presents, usually only awarded to nobles. Further, he accorded them free board at the cost of the city of Stockholm, as often as they did not eat at his royal table. In order that no mistake might arise regarding quantity, he informed them that in the matter of meat alone, they could count on six oxen, twenty-one fat sheep, one reindeer; and as to drink, on four barrels of good wine, and three hundred and sixty Swedish dollars to cover their other expenses. "This royal treatment mightily pleased the honourable delegates," writes our chronicler, and no wonder, when we remember that the men of the Hansa were famed for the amount they could eat and drink. No wonder, too, that Gustavus Adolphus thought to find in them ready allies, if only in return for his good hospitality.

That the King of Denmark, their old foe, should also have courted their alliance, seems yet stranger. He too, was refused. So was France, who, in 1625, sent delegates to the Hanseatic Diet to sound the members as to her chances of success, in forming an offensive and defensive alliance with these once so powerful merchants.

The most important and strangest offer of all was the wooing of the imperial delegates in the name of Spain, at the Diet held at Lubeck, in 1627. It appears that Spain stood in need of a friendly commercial navy in order to carry on her colonial trade, as well as of a friendly maritime power with which to meet the Netherlands. This idea was in accord with Duke Wallenstein's project to gain empire over the Baltic by means of an imperial navy, thus to surround the imperial crown with a new lustre, and the more surely to hold within bounds the recalcitrant inland princes. It was not from pure ill will or haughtiness that Wallenstein so terrified Stralsund, the town which he besieged so long and mercilessly, nor from pure love of well-sounding titles, that he styled himself "General and Admiral of the Baltic and North Seas."

The two imperial delegates, who appeared before the Hanseatic Diet at Lubeck deigned to speak the quaint formal language that was traditional with the Hansa League. They were begging for a favour, and so deemed it wise to assume no masterful tones. The emperor's word was said to be addressed "to the honourable councillors and other members of the worthy city of Lubeck, regarding it as the head of the most ancient Hansa League." The ambassadors put before the assembled Hanseatic deputies, that the Holy Roman Empire, in its entirety, and the venerable German Hansa towns in particular, had suffered grievously from the restraint on free navigation which had been imposed on them by foreign potentates; and that the German nation had thus the bread taken out of their very mouths. Therefore it was the emperor's earnest and ardent desire to befriend the towns, and to restore the nation to its former reputation and grandeur. A most useful alliance would be proposed to them, and this proposal did not come from a foreign power, but was put forward under the emperor's patronage and protection. The facts were these,—Spain had for some time past declared itself willing to enter into an agreement, that all the merchandise, whether exported from or imported into the Spanish dominions, should only pertain to the natives of the German Empire or to Spanish subjects.

The emperor through his ambassadors admitted that this proposal had at first sight seemed to him somewhat grave, and requiring consideration, but those competent to judge had demonstrated to him, that such direct importation of Spanish and Indian wares into Germany would benefit, not alone the Hansa towns, but the whole of Germany, and would serve to compensate for the privations and sacrifices imposed by the most unhappy war.

The emperor went on to add, that he had ever noted in Lubeck a very true and German frankness and fidelity, and that he did not doubt that Lubeck would carefully consider this proposal, in concert with the sister towns, in order that, after the compact had been duly concluded between the emperor and the King of Spain, it might be openly confirmed with the help and advice of the Hansa towns.

This was the smooth speaking in which the Hansa's imperial masters chose to indulge when it suited their imperial purpose. But decrepit, weakened though the Hansa was, it was not easy to catch it napping. Our wary merchants felt convinced there was some ulterior motive at the bottom of this sudden graciousness, and considered the imperial proposal very carefully and thoroughly. What could it mean, that of a sudden these jealous Spaniards were willing to share the monopoly of their whole colonial trade with the Hansa towns? Our cities feared the Spaniards, even when they came laden with gifts. When we recall, said these traders, the incessant and endless annoyances which our merchants have endured during two centuries while doing business with Spain and Portugal, the arrogant demands, the petty frauds and meanness of the Spanish consuls in the Hanseatic towns, we must confess that this previous knowledge of the character of our would-be allies does not lead us to trust their new, gracious, and friendly offers. They remembered, further, how a certain consul, called De Roy, was never named in their minutes, other than as the "arch enemy of the Hansa towns." They recalled, too, the project of a maritime commercial company (an Amirantazgo), proposed some time back by Spain between the Low Germans and Netherlands, which had revealed to the acute Hanseatics that Spain was deficient in ships and in capital, and that its real purpose was to obtain a fleet for itself on terms as cheap as possible. No, decidedly, the Spanish offers were not to be thought of.

Moreover, the Hanseatics very naturally feared an inevitable breach with their Scandinavian neighbours if they accepted. They foresaw, too, that their adhesion to the plan would give the emperor a sort of right to interfere in their commerce and internal arrangements. They had a wholesome fear, not without cause, of being placed under the most Catholic protectorate of Spain, and, looking ahead, thought they beheld, hidden beneath these velvet offers, the claws of the terrible, abominable Inquisition.

The whole project was therefore allowed to remain a project. To the imperial spokesmen were presented respectively four thousand and two thousand dollars, and the Diet resolved to place the proposal ad referendum. This meant that it was shelved once and for ever.

Nor did the Diet have cause to regret its decision, for soon after the King of Denmark, at that moment trying to ingratiate himself with them, sent for their perusal letters which he had intercepted. These communications were from the emperor, authorizing Count Tilly to secure the cities of Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Stade, etc. So much for the sincerity of this monarch's vaunted friendship.

And now the war storm long brewing broke over Northern Europe. Germany was to pay heavily for her want of religious unity, or at least the want of mutual forbearance among her people. At first the Hansa towns had hoped that as usual their claims for neutrality would be regarded, but Tilly refused to listen to this, probably owing to his secret instructions from the emperor. All the northern towns had to suffer the full horrors of the war-curse, and they suffered hardly less at the hands of their friends than at those of their enemies. Both proved equally merciless. In order to escape having a military occupation within its walls, Rostock had once to pay 100,000 dollars, and another time 150,000 dollars, Wismar was taxed to the sum of 200,000 dollars; and Hamburg a sum yet higher. Magdeburg's fate was even more sad; it was besieged by the imperial army, pillaged, and given to the flames.

Imperial authority had never appeared so redoubtable to these free cities, or so injurious to their religious liberties and their political integrity. Wallenstein and Count Schwarzenberg even went the length of demanding the Hansa's ships, in order to use them for pursuing the foes of their imperial master upon the high seas, and it is easy to understand how, in presence of an armed force of a hundred thousand men, it was vain for the Hanseatic Diet to object that their deputies had received no instructions which could warrant them in acceding to such a proposal.

The ports of Rostock, Warnemunde, and the town of Wismar were all occupied by the Imperialists, who were also engaged in besieging Stralsund.

The history of this siege and the heroism displayed by this city are among the most notable features in the Thirty Years' War. Wallenstein had rightly judged it as most important for his purpose from its geographical position, and had determined it should be his. As Schiller says in his play Wallenstein's Lager, he had sworn—

"Ruhmt sich mit seinem gottlosen Mund

Er musse haben die Stadt Stralsund,

Und wär' sie mit Ketten an den Himmel geschlossen."

This town which, thanks to some succour from outside, succeeded in wearing out the enemy, proved what bravery can do even under the most unfavourable conditions. At the same time the episode throws a fierce light on the low condition into which the League had fallen. In vain did the city of Stralsund appeal to the Diet and to the sister cities for help. It was only after long reflection and many debates that it was decided to advance to this unlucky friend the meagre sum of fifteen thousand dollars, and this at interest of 5 per cent.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


These merchants, once princely and noble, at least in their dealings among themselves, had sunk to shopkeepers even in the domestic circle. The fact is, that defeat and terror had paralysed and prostrated them. Instead of making such a firm resistance as they would have done in the past, they had now recourse only to the feeble weapons of tears and entreaties in order to procure some gentler treatment for those of their members who had fallen into the enemy's hands. Most frequently, too, these humiliating steps proved quite futile, and were answered according to the temperaments of the generals-in-chief—brusquely and rudely by Tilly, politely and cunningly by Duke Wallenstein.

Meanwhile matters went from bad to worse for the Hansa towns and for Germany. Even when the empire achieved victories, the people had grown too impoverished and too enervated to profit by them. The story of this long-confused conflict of thirty years' duration is one of the saddest and most depressing in European history.

When in 1648 the peace of Westphalia was at last concluded, it nominally restored calm to the whole northern world, including the Hansa towns. But the League to all intents and purposes was at an end. The peace could restore neither its power, nor its union, and the confederation which seemed to have sunk in deep sleep during the war, awoke from its long repose only to find itself deprived of nearly all its members, and powerless to continue any longer its enfeebled existence.