EUROPEAN TRADE BEFORE THE EU
I had never heard of the Hanseatic League, consisting of hundreds of trading cities in Northern Germany and along the Baltic and North Seas, until I visited Norway. While waiting for the mail boat tour to the Norwegian fjords, we had two days to explore the port city of Bergen. One of the historic sites was the preserved complex of what had been a major Hanseatic League trading post.
After an extensive tour of the wooden structures along the harbor front, I learned that the most powerful and wealthy merchants of the 133h to 15th centuries controlled the sea trade around the Baltic and North Seas and the trade routes in central Europe as members of the Hanseatic League. Their control lasted for nearly 400 years and is still identified by the German designation of Hansestadt for several of the larger North Germany cities that made up the League and still identify with that historic name. This is seen on the German automobile license plates from a Hansestadt city which always shows the capital letter H preceding the city ID andnumber.
After the introduction to the Hansa League in Norway, I extended my research to learn more about this historic trading monopoly. My interest culminated in a tour of the North German cities in 1998 with our German friends who provided the tour-guide information at each stop. We visited about 14 Hansestadt cities with an emphasis on the largest one at Hamburg and the most historic one at Lűbeck.
Following are the notes taken from my travel diary of this revealing trip into the past.
The major Hansa League cities were located on the rivers coming from inland provinces out to the North and Baltic Seas for trade with Scandinavia and England. Hamburg, always one of the largest northern ports even today, is at the mouth of the Elbe River, the second largest river in central Europe reaching beyond Prague.
Lűbec, the Hanseatic League headquarters city and one of the wealthiest, is inland from the Baltic on the Trave River; Bremen on the Weser River; and Rostock on the Warne River. Even Lűneburg, a major salt supplier for Scandinavia, used a man-made canal to transport its cargoes to a seaport at Hamburg. Bremen was a major coffee trading center, and also one of the best cups of coffee in Europe. The inventor of decaf, Café Hag, was a major Bremen merchant.
As we crossed the former frontier between West and East Germany there was little indication of an Iron Curtain, only a sign with a coat of arms for the next state in Eastern Germany, now called the East States. It was hard to imagine electric fences, guard towers and lives risked or lost during those 40 years of communist regime. Today the rural farmland and forests are united into one as it was for centuries when the Hansa merchants ruled the area.
The only visual differences today are the occasional abandoned buildings, some old farm houses or town residences and warehouses, some of the proletarian concrete boxes built by the communist regime. As in Russia, the public housing is ill kept, disintegrating and often abandoned.
It might be helpful at this point to explain how Die Hanse became associated with the merchants trade. The word is based on an ancient French and German meaning of a company or a person in business. Long before the Hanseatic League was formed in the 12th century, the word “hanse” had been in common use.
Rostock was the largest port in the former East German state under the communist government by handling heavy traffic in huge ferry ships (the Hanse Line) between East Germany and Scandinavia. Several ships a day steamed through the Warneműnde Narrows up the river to the northern port facility at Stralslundmunde, also a big ferry traffic trade port to the Baltic Sea.
The Germans call this north coast the Ostsee (East Sea) and developed elegant resort hotels in the 19th century. Warneműnde, Rűgen and Usedom are some are examples of the elegance of that era. Wide beaches flanked with landscaped promenades, fountains, and parks give an air of a time without the intrusion of any auto traffic.
The Ostsee spa architecture departs from traditional German brick and concrete with graceful white wooden verandahs featuring decorative fretwork on porches opening onto the sea. It is a style and era comparable to the U.S. Eastern Shore resort development of the 19th century. The East German government maintained this resort area for the pleasure of the Communist leaders, although the buildings did show some lack of maintenance and a few were abandoned.
Particularly noticeable was the condition of the country roads in the European style are called “allees.” Most of the country roads in prewar Germany were of this type, two-lane with large trees on either side creating what looks like an alley. Very few of these exist today outside of the Eastern states due to post-war road rebuilding.
Another difference seen in the Eastern States was the appearance of many young people with orange and green streaked hair, skin piercing and young skin-head men. Apparently the young generation found the freedom of expression that was not available until the wall came tumbling down.
With so many abandoned and unkempt buildings in these Baltic cities, there was a great deal of graffiti. Much of the artwork expresses political and social beliefs. Presumably most of this graffiti has been removed with the renovation of the older buildings since my visit there in 1998. At that time there was still a distinct environment of the former communist regime compared to West Germany which I’m sure melts together by this time.
Trade has been a significant business in the Hansa domain for centuries. The wealthy German merchants took it to a new level as a monopoly in central and north Germany. There was a steady supply of apprentice candidates as German families knew their sons would acquire wealth if they could endure the rigors of the monastic lifestyle as an apprentice. Training to be a Hansa merchant was comparable to the most challenging military boot camp of modern times.
In a recent edition of The Economist an article describes how the ghost of the Hanseatic League is returning to the old trade areas. The concept of mutual tariffs among trading partners and shelter from custom tariffs reflects what the Hansa was doing five centuries ago. With new trade procedures to evolving since England has withdrawn from the European Union and the new U.S. president wanting to renegotiate existing trade treaties, many of the historic trade partner procedures will be under consideration.