Richard Nisley

City of Water and Fire
History - World Released - Oct 13, 2013

Hamburg is a city that just won’t quit. It’s been flooded, burned, bombed, seen half its population decimated by the plague and, like the phoenix, keeps rising from the ashes.

Such a place produces remarkable people, such as Angela Merkel, the first woman to be elected Chancellor of Germany, and de facto head of the European Union. Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was also born in Hamburg. Two of the world’s greatest composers were born there: Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn. George Frederick Handel honed his musical skills in Hamburg prior to achieving immortality in London, and the Beatles perfected their performing style in Hamburg while en route to pop superstardom. As Germany’s “gateway to the world,” Hamburg has been shaped by those who passed through as much as by those who stayed.

Hamburg owes its very existence to water. Like Venice and Amsterdam, Hamburg is an amphibious city, built around two lakes and situated at the confluence of three rivers. It boasts more canals and more bridges than Venice and Amsterdam combined. And like those port cities, Hamburg looked to the sea for its livelihood, perfected the art of shipbuilding, and developed into a world-class trade center.

Hamburg did not start out as a maritime trader. It began as a military outpost. The city takes its name from the first permanent building on the site, a castle whose construction was ordered by Charlemagne in AD 808. The castle was built on a rock outcrop in a marsh between the River Alster and the River Elbe as a defense against Slavic invaders. The castle was named Hammaburg -- “Hamma” meaning watery meadow or marsh and “burg” meaning castle or fortification.

Hamburg’s biggest threat was from Danish and Norwegian Vikings. In 845, a fleet of 600 Viking ships sailed up the River Elbe and leveled what by then was a town of 500 souls. In 880 they returned again to destroy the town.

Hamburg and other port cities on the coast of Flanders were constant targets. In 1030, Hamburg was invaded again, this time by Slavs who burned the place to the ground. It was yet another generation of Danes who arrived to pillage the town, in 1201 and again in 1214. Something had to be done, and that something was the Hanseatic League, a union of towns along Europe’s northern rim that joined forces and subdued the Viking menace.

The Hanseatic League began as a trade association between Hamburg and Lubeck. The two towns were ideally situated on either side of the Jutland peninsula that separated the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. Rather than sail around the peninsula and risk further attacks from the Scandinavians, an overland road was built linking the two towns. The road--all of 20 miles long--linked the two seas and greatly increased trade between east and west. A number of maritime towns joined the alliance, including Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges, Cologne and London in the West, and Breslau, Gdansk, Krakow, Novgorod and Riga in the East. In time, the Scandinavians became traders themselves and joined the League. At its height in the 14th century, the Hanseatic League counted 52 towns as members.

Trade along Europe’s northern rim did more than open up new markets--it proved a civilizing force. It helped with the spread of Christianity, brought unity and peace among warring peoples, and jumped-started a number of the business practices still used today--bills of credit, grain speculation, insurance, and banking. Towns such as Hamburg became rich and powerful and broke free from traditional forms of government--kings, princes, and clergyman--to become self-governed and function as independent city-states. Hamburg evolved into a republic and became known as the “Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.” It remained a sovereign state until the Unification of Germany in 1871.

Hamburg has suffered more than its share of calamities. In 1350, the Black Death killed at least 60% of the population. Then there were the fires, the most notable ones in 1284 and 1842. In 1842, about a quarter of the inner city was destroyed in the “Great Fire,” leaving 20,000 homeless. Reconstruction took more than 40 years. During World War II, Hamburg suffered a series of Allied air raids that produced firestorms that destroyed entire boroughs, much of the harbor, and killed at least 43,000 people.


Hamburg surrendered without a fight to British Forces on May 3, 1945. Because Hamburg was heavily dependent on shipping, the harbor was rebuilt very quickly, while the city itself recovered nearly as fast. In 1962, yet another disaster struck. The River Elbe rose to an all-time high and inundated one-fifth of the city, killing 300 people.

Today, Hamburg boasts the highest per-capita GDP in Germany. Yet it is a city that shuns ostentatious displays of wealth. When the poet Heine remarked that in Hamburg “the customs are English” he was referring to its long association with London and the no-nonsense mercantile ethos the two cities share.

Unlike many European cities, Hamburg is a city without palaces, castles, or gothic cathedrals, or a quaint medieval town center, due to the many fires. With so many canals Hamburg is sometimes called “The Venice of the North.” Two large lakes and a number of parks enhance the city’s charms. City planners have taken charge in recent years, making Hamburg clean, brightly lit, and among the most livable cities in the world.

Finally, the people of Hamburg are called Hamburgers, just as the people of London are called Londoners, only the name is pronounced with an “ah” sound, as in “Hahmburger.”

Which brings us to the sandwich of the same name. It was not created in Hamburg. According to the Library of Congress a fry cook named Louis Lassen of Louis’ Lunch Wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, created the world’s first hamburger, in 1900. A customer ordered a quick hot meal and Louis was out of steaks. Taking ground beef trimmings, Louis made a patty, grilled it, and placed it between two halves of a bun and the hamburger was born. The name, however, does owe its name to the German city. According to New York magazine, “The dish actually had no name until some rowdy sailors from Hamburg named the meat on a bun after themselves years later.” The magazine admits the story is apocryphal but one thing is certain: the sandwich has become Hamburg’s delectable goodwill ambassador to the world.

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