History of Hamburg

Mother Earth Travel > Germany > Hamburg > History

There is no firm evidence of settlement in Hamburg before the 4th century. Most city history´s use 810 as their starting point, when Karl the Great built a fortress called the Hammaburg, which was meant to serve as a focus point for Christian missionaries. This was built where the Alster flows into the Elbe. Despite numerous attacks by the Vikings, the settlement managed to establish itself. It was the battle against the Slavic Obriots in 832 that led to the demise of the archbishopric. The ascendancy of the Schauenburg Counts, who reigned until the 13th century enabled Hamburg to once again flourish and expand to the south of the Elbe.

May 7th 1189 is a very important date: Legend has it that this is the date that Frederick Barbarossa declared that merchants in Hamburg could trade freely. Although "Barbarossa´s Charter" was not formally drawn up until 1265, this declaration led to the founding of many merchants´ guilds and foreign trading houses. Every year this event is remembered and the Landungsbrücken are the venue for big celebrations, which celebrate the birthday of harbour.

1190 is the year in which the citizens of Hamburg actively attempted to release themselves from their aristocratic stranglehold. Unfortunately, everything they gained was lost eleven years later when the Danes conquered the city. They ruled until defeated by a militia, composed of citizens and various counts. The following years saw Hamburg become an important trade and merchant city, thanks to virtual autonomy.

In 1235 the damming of the Alster was carried out, giving the city one of its features that so many people admire today. When Hamburg joined the League of Hanseatic Cities in 1300, the city´s fortunes took a turn for the better. More extensive trade relations and the annexation of surrounding towns meant that there were ever more opportunities to exploit. At the end of the 14th century, over 7,500 people lived in the area known as Hamburg.

Around 1400, the piracy on the North Sea became ever more threatening for Hamburg. The city founded its own navy, which finally defeated the threat of priracy in 1525. Despite the second occupation by the Danes, the Hanseatic city was able to maintain its privileges and trade freely both within Germany and with other nations.

In 1510, the Emperor Maximillian I made Hamburg an Imperial City. This meant that the city was directly subordinate to his person and therefore formed an important step in gaining emancipation from the Danes.

During the religious disputes of the 16th century, many Protestants and Jews sought refuge in Hamburg, thus adding a new dimension to the city. The resulting increase in population provided an economic and cultural stimulus.

The discoveries of the 15th century provided new opportunities for trade. In the span of a few years, the Hafen became one of the most important in the world and the city became one of Europe´s biggest trading venues. The fort of Wallanlagen, erected in 1616, is an indicator of this rise in significance. The city´s internal disputes, between the citizens and the city council almost laid the city lame. These disputes continued to dog the political scene, until intervention from the Kaiser in 1712, finally brought them to an end.

In the 18th century, the economy of Hamburg continued to grow steadily and at the turn of the century, the population totalled 130,000. The end of the old German Empire meant that the city could finally become fully autonomous. From this time on, Hamburg has been known as the Free Hanseatic Town. In 1810, Napoleon invaded Hamburg and this led to a significant downturn in fortune until the French left the city again in 1814. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 guaranteed the freedom of the city and it subsequently joined the German Federation.

The year 1842 marks one of the darkest periods in the city´s history. Nearly 20,000 people lost their homes when fire reduced nearly a third of the city centre to ashes. The building of railway lines to Kiel and Berlin and the development of steam ship routes led to an economic upswing that financed the systematic rebuilding of the city.

In 1867, Hamburg joined the North German League and in 1888, it joined the German Customs League, both of which proved to be crucial events in its historical development: Hamburg became known as Germany´s Gateway to the world. By 1912, Hamburg's harbour was the thrid most imporant port in the world, after London and New York.

The new stock exchange was opened in the middle of the 1800s. The end of the 19th century also saw the construction of two of the city´s most popular attractions: the Speicherstadt and the neo-Renaissance Rathaus (Town Hall). The latter´s extravagant style reflects the city´s perception of its own importance and today, as then, it is seen by citizens as a symbol of the free, hanseatic spirit of confidence.

40,000 men died in the First World War (1914-1918) and the trade blockade meant that the city was cut off from world trade. Despite this, the city made a relatively quick recovery in the post-war period, which resulted in economic growth. Many shipping companies and other business began to move to the Speicherstadt. Reminders of this are the statuesque Kontorhäuser, built in red brick and buildings such as the Chilehaus, Sprinkenhof and the HAPAG-Lloyd office. The University of Hamburg was also founded in 1919.

In the Third Reich, Hamburg was not allowed to maintain the status of a free city and the Council of Citizens was dissolved. As a result of the 1937 the Greater Hamburg decree several surrounding Prussian towns were incorporated into the city and as a consequence, Hamburg could claim to be a city with 1.7 million inhabitants.

The Allied bombing campaigns of World War Two changed the face of Hamburg: Approximately 50% of the city´s living area, 40% of its industrial and 80% of its harbour areas were laid to ruin. 55,000 people lost their lives in the air raids, with another 70,000 men lost their lives in battle. In the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp nearly 70,000 people were killed. The tower of St. Nikolai, blackened with soot, was almost all that remained of this important church. On the April 3, 1945, Hamburg surrendered and was occupied by British troops. In October 1946, a new city counil was elected and in 1952, a new constituion, which is still valid today, was drawn up.

During the night of the February 16th 1962 a storm tide, which came from the North Sea, ruined much of the old part of the city. For days buildings were flooded and more than 300 citizens died. Since the coming down of the iron curtain and the reunification of Germany in 1990, the hanseatic town of Hamburg has once again begun to increase trade with the East, thereby making use of old contacts.

Today, Hamburg is one of Germany´s most important business locations. Many companies have their headquarters here and it is an important city for the media and publishing industries. Architecturally, Hamburg can boast many futuristic pieces of architecture. One need only think of the various modern shopping arcades and the
Gruner & Jahr Pressehaus. The current population of Hamburg totals 1.7 million. Hamburg is a city state and part of the Federal Republic of Germany. There are 94 consulates in the city and the city has contacts thoughout the world. Some of its partner-cities include Shanghai, Chicago, Osaka, Prague, St. Petersburg and Marseilles.

Christian Helge Röfer