The city of Hamburg has a remarkable history of trade, economic power and autonomy, but also of war and hardship.

Hanseatic league

It all start in the year 808 CE, when Emperor Charlemagne ordered the construction of a castle on the marshy land between the River Elbe and the River Alster to fend off Slavic tribes. The fort can still be viewed in the city’s coat of arms. 1189 was an important year, as  Frederick I Barbarossa allegedly gave this city the title of Free imperial City within the Holy Roman Empire. Tax-free access to the lower River Elbe enabled the city to become a big power in Europe.

Several years later in 1241, the rich trading city of Lübeck formed an alliance with Hamburg, which eventually outcome in the League of Hanseatic cities. Membership of this strong business and defensive alliance between coastal cities in Northern Europe would be important to Hamburg economic position in the planet. The legacy of the League is still reflected in the city’s complete name: the Hanseatic and Free city of Hamburg.

Alster swans

In 1664, the senate of Hamburg enacted a law to save the swans of the city. Any person who dared to beat to death, shoot, insult, or eat a swan would be extremely punished. It is said that Hamburg will be free and Hanseatic as long as there are swans living on Alster. Still today, the Alster swans are saved and cared for dutifully by the city administration, so be sure to treat them with the best respect.

Fire and black death

On 5 August, 1284, a serious fate befell Hamburg, as a great fire damaged all but one of the city residential homes. Less than a century later in 1350, the Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemic in human history, killed more than six-thousand people, roughly half of the population of city.  Despite the occasional pirate pillaging and tragedies, the city of Hamburg continued to grow and spread its trade routes internationally.


Lutheranism became the state religion of Hamburg in the sixteen century, drawing many religious refugees from the France and Netherlands. Anyway, it also leads to loss of citizenship for Roman Catholics in the city. At the end of the sixteen century, the first Sephardi Jews arrived from Portugal and built a Portuguese Jewish community in Altona.

Stock market and the great fire

After Amsterdam and London, the Hamburg stock market was founded in 1558. The city’s continuous prosperity and growth were arrested briefly when Napoleon armies invaded the city in 1810, destroy all trade. Following Napoleon defeat, the city of Hamburg was liberated. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, this city was once again named a free city, along with Frankfurt, Bremen and Lübeck, within the new 38 state German confederation. Yet ill fate struck again in 1842 when the Great Fire left 20,000 of Hamburg’s residents homeless and over a third of the city in ruins, including many old buildings such as Nikolai Church, St. Petri Church and the city hall.

First World War

By the turn of the twenty century, the population of Hamburg had grown to one million. After the outbreak of the First World War, 230,000 locals took part in the war – mostly young men as soldiers in Prussian regiments, 35,000 of whom lost their lives. With its powerful reliance on trade, Hamburg economy was harshly crippled by the disruption to trade and commerce following the war. The city also lost most of its business fleet to war reparations, as well as many of its trade routes when post-war Germany was forced to give up its colonies.

Operation Gomorrah and peace

Towards the end of the war, American and UK bombers had to damage full districts of the city in which was called as Operation Gomorrah – until the Nazi regime finally surrendered in 1945. In total, 40,000 tons of bombs were dropped, killing about 43,000 German civilians. The second World War resulted in the destruction of over fifty percent of domestic property, forty percent of industrial areas and eighty percent of the port area. Today, the remaining ruins and towards of St. Nikolai monuments are a stark reminder of the big-scale devastation of war. After the post-war British occupation, the Homeostatic and Free City of Hamburg became a state within the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which today consists of sixteen states.

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