Hamburg - a port of pirates and merchants

Hamburg is Germany's second largest city with nearly 1.8 million inhabitants and is an autonomous city-state. Situated at the mouth of the Elbe estuary, 110 km from the sea, it is Europe's third busiest port after Rotterdam and Antwerp. A settlement and an ancient port were already established on the site in the 9th century. Over the centuries, it has become an important trading centre, hence the name 'Gateway to the World'.

With its extensive network of canals and nearly 2,500 bridges, Hamburg is a real city on the water; the sea literally and figuratively runs right through it. In 1892, the Vasárnapi Ujság (Sunday Newspaper) captured the image of the city centre, which has been preserved to this day, although its function has been significantly altered:

hamburg_kepeslap_502165.jpg"(...) a significant part of the city looks almost like Venice, in so far as some of the houses open onto canals. This is a very interesting sight for the stranger who, walking along the streets, comes at every step to a bridge from which the canals stretch out to infinity in both directions. There are no banks or even footpaths beside the canals, but these canals are full of dinghies, and goods and parcels are constantly being lowered into these dinghies from three or four-storey houses by cranes, pulleys or other machinery."

hanza_kikoto_755415.jpgIn the 9th century, the Frankish rulers Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious had already built a church, a bishopric and a fortress on the site of present-day Hamburg. The predecessor of the present harbour already existed at that time in the form of a 120-metre-long wooden pier. The settlement began to develop, while the landlords of the area constantly attacked it. At the end of the 12th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa granted the town a charter of freedom and privileges, making it independent from landlords and exempting ships sailing on the Elbe to the North Sea from customs duties.

From the middle of the 13th century onwards, the merchant class grew in strength and prosperity. Soon after, decrees facilitated trade with the central Hanseatic city of Lübeck. In 1321, Hamburg itself joined the alliance of trading cities. Maritime trade was hampered by piracy, such as the pirate alliance known as the Vital Brothers and its leader, Klaus Störtebeker. The pirate was eventually caught with his companions on the island of Heligoland and beheaded in Hamburg. The life and death of Störtebeker have been the subject of many wonderful stories ever since, and his statue can be found in the city centre today.

emlekerme_741358.jpgThe golden age of the Hanseatic cities ended in the 15th century, when new sea routes opened up to India and America. The city suffered from the Napoleonic Wars, and the French invaders had to be fed by the bourgeoisie. A fire that lasted four days in 1842 destroyed much of the city centre. Despite all these, the industrial revolution brought about a period of prosperity:

“Its fortunate location on a part of the coast which is the natural gateway to much of Central Europe saved it from sinking, and although the fires of 1842 caused much destruction, the rise of the age of steamships and railways enabled the once mighty city to recover.” - Sunday Newspaper, 1892

hamburg_kepeslap_502152.jpgIn the second half of the 19th century, with the establishment of German unity, a period of prosperity dawned; the city's population soared and its boundaries expanded with the annexation of new districts. Most of the increased population found employment in industry, the port and the shipyards. The port was a meeting point for emigrants seeking their fortunes in America. However, the workers' tensions, caused by unworthy living conditions, social problems and cholera epidemics, erupted in the form of frequent strikes.

The already quoted article in the Vasárnapi Ujság in 1892 was also about cholera in Hamburg. The epidemic, which lasted from August to October, claimed the lives of 8,600 people. After that, the city paid more attention to improving its health infrastructure.

hamburg_kepeslap_502163.jpg"(...) In 1890, no less than 17,000 seagoing vessels called at its port, and 99,328, that is to say almost 100,000 emigrants, went from here to America, and its trade in the same year was five billion marks, half of which was almost entirely with America, to where a large steamer goes almost every day, carrying goods and emigrants." - Sunday Newspaper, 1892

The tunnel under the Elbe (now known as the old Elbe Tunnel) was completed in 1911 and was considered a technical feat at the time. The Vasárnapi Ujság newspaper reported on the event in the same year:

"The double tunnel, opened last month, has made invisible the enormous traffic between Hamburg's city centre and its suburbs, which had been almost entirely carried by steamships crossing the Elbe so far. Thousands upon thousands of people, who cross the river, travel twenty-one metres under the Elbe from Steinwärder to St. Pauli and back. It is a true masterpiece of modern architecture and one of the most beautiful sights in Hamburg and Germany (...)."

The First World War weakened the city's economy and many of its inhabitants did not return home from the battlefields. World War II brought even greater devastation: in 1943, the Allies almost destroyed Hamburg, an industrial and transport hub, during Operation Gomorrah. The number of civilians killed in the firestorm caused by the most infamous density bombing of the operation is estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000. The towering spire of St Nicholas Church - one of the tallest buildings in the world for a short time in the 1870s -, which served as a landmark for British pilots during air raids, stands stripped of its nave as a memento of the devastation nowadays.
Newspaper Magyar Nemzet reported on Hamburg's post-war condition in September 1946:
"The opinion of Hamburg today is: a ruined city. Indeed, if you look out of the window of the dashing S-Bahn, there are parts of the city where the carriage can run for a quarter of an hour and all you see is ruins and ruins. (...) There is no talk of rebuilding. Experts say 20 years will not be enough time to clear the rubble."

However, the article says there are many foreign immigrants, the ticket system is being replaced by free trade and the black market is booming, and overall "life is bustling".

hamburgi_utcakep_790772.jpgHamburg was a British-occupied city after the war, and in 1949, it was part of the newly formed FRG, its most populous city. Since the 1950s, the economy has been revived. In 1962, the city was hit by a storm surge caused by a hurricane that struck the coast. The population was caught unawares by the night floods, and people took shelter on the roofs of their houses; hundreds died in the disaster and due to the cold February weather.

The transformation of the port of Hamburg began in the 1980s, with an increasing number of container terminals. The magazine Világgazdaság wrote in 1989 that it was the 10th largest transhipment port in the world in terms of container traffic and the second largest in Western Europe. Containerisation solved the question of on-site storage and warehousing simply, making Hamburg an important European distribution centre for incoming goods. Containerisation is the second most important turning point in freight shipping since the advent of steamships. The Hamburg container terminal is one of the most modern and efficient such facilities in the world.


The redbrick warehouses of the Speicherstadt, a warehouse city on the banks of the Elbe with its many canals and cranes and winches, lost their function in the mid-20th century as containers became more common. The listed quarter, which still resembles the former warehouse district from the outside, is now mainly home to offices, modern apartments and exhibition spaces. Together with the neighbouring HafenCity, it is a unique blend of old and new; home to the editorial offices of Der Spiegel and the world's largest exhibition of model railways; it is also the site of the Elbe Philharmonic's concert hall on the roof of an old warehouse. The harbour is also home to a number of ships that are now museums, such as the traditional cargo ship Cap San Diego, the sailing ship Rickmer Rickmers and the submarine U 434.


Translated by Zita Aknai


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Port of Hamburg

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