The Hanse

Together We Are Stronger

The Hanse – Then and Now

In the mid-13th century, Low German merchants united under the Hanseatic League in order to align their economic interests and to trade with their members. The League included up to 225 bigger and smaller cities as well as some of the major trading kontors in the entire North Sea and Baltic Sea region. The Hanse lasted for more than 400 years, shaped economy, trade as well as politics but eventually lost its importance in the mid-17th century.

Today, the Hanse is alive again. Revived in 1980 in Zwolle (Netherlands), the “new” Hanse aims at keeping the spirit of the cultural and civic community alive. Through maintaining traditions as well as a number of lively exchanges between member cities, the vision of the “new” Hanse is to contribute to the economic, cultural, social and unification of Europe. Today, the League represents the biggest voluntary union of towns with 190 cities from 16 Northern European countries.

The Heyday of the Hanse

The Hanse is a unique alliance in German history. It evolved as a union between cities due to the cooperation and federation between merchants for the promotion of their trade in foreign territories. During its heyday, the Hanse comprised up to 200 coastal towns and landlocked cities. These cities were located in an area that today covers seven different European states: from the Dutch Zuidersee in the West to the Baltic Estonia in the East and from the Swedish Visby in the North to the Collogne-Erfurt-Breslau-Krakau line in the South. From within the borders of the territory, the Hanseatic traders developed an economic sphere of influence which reached from Portugal to Russia and from the Scandinavian countries to Italy in the 16th century – stretching an area of 20 European states today. From the 13th to the mid-15th century, the Hanseatic League dominated the exchange between the Northeast and Northwest of Europe by managing to both supply the demand for commodities and food of the West from areas occupied by the German colonisation in the East and in turn providing the East with muchly needed products from Western Europe.

Among the most prominent goods from the East were fur, wax, wheat, fish, as well as flax, hemp, wood and wood construction products such as pitch, tar and pitch ashes. In return, the Hanseatic merchants offered manufactured products of the West and South such as drapery, metal goods – especially firearms, and spices. Central trade centers were Hanseatic kontors in Nowgorod (Northwest Russia), Bergen (Norway), Bruges (Flanders) and London (England). In addition to these sites, the Hanseatic League maintained a number of smaller locations – the so-called Faktoreien (foreign trading posts).

The End of the Hanseatic Leagu

The traders pursued aims for a trading economy. Since the second half of the 14th century, however, the Hanseatic cities, tried to establish a more integrated alliance in order to be able to offer support against aristocratic claims of power. In addition to this, a stabilised confederation wanted to protect itself against the increasing competition of English, Italian and Southern German merchants as well as Dutch freight transporters. Moreover, the confederation wanted to remain powerful against the national strengthening of the target states of the trade. It was thus in particular the pressure from the outside of the League that led to a more stable organisation. Despite the flourishing trading times during the 16th and early 17th century, the decline in influence of the Hanseatic League was unstoppable. The emerging national and local economies left no space for a transregional trading alliances such as Hanse. Ultimately, in 1669 the last Hanseatic Day of the traditional Hanse was held in Lübeck.

The “New Hanse” and the Modern Age

The modern “City League The Hanse” is an active network between those cities that were either historically part of the Hanse or that had a close trade exchange with the Hanseatic cities. Based on the cross-border notion of the Hanse and the historical experience, the spirit of the European Hanseatic Cities shall be revived and the cooperation shall be further developed. It is the aim of the City League to contribute to the economic, cultural, social and national unification of Europe, strengthening the self-confidence of cities and municipalities in order to fulfil their tasks as locations of a lively democracy.

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Photo: Andreas Nielsen, Wismar