About Hamburg History

The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg has a history of trade, autonomy and economic rise to power, but also of hardship and war.

History of Hamburg

Hanseatic League

It all began in 808, when Emperor Charlemagne ordered the construction of a castle on the marshy land between the River Alster and the River Elbe to fend off Slavic tribes. The fort can still be seen in the city’s code of arms. 1189 was a crucial year, as Frederick I Barbarossa allegedly gave Hamburg 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 key trading power in Europe. Simultaneously, the Danes, led by King Valdemar II, took control of Hamburg several times until they were finally defeated in 1227.

A couple of years later, in 1241, the prosperous trading city of Lübeck formed an alliance with Hamburg, which eventually resulted in the League of Hanseatic Cities. Membership of this powerful commercial and defensive alliance between coastal cities in Northern Europe would be crucial to Hamburg’s economic position in the world. The legacy of the League is still reflected in the city’s full name: the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

Alster Swans

In 1264, the senate of Hamburg enacted a law to protect the swans of the city. Anyone who dared to beat to death, insult, shoot or eat a swan would be severely punished. It is said is that Hamburg will be free and Hanseatic as long as there are swans living on the Alster. Still today, the Alster swans are protected and cared for dutifully by the city government.

Fire and Black Death

A terrible fate loomed over Hamburg, as on August 5th in 1284, a great fire destroyed all but one residential house in Hamburg. And in 1350, the Black Death, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, killed more than 6,000 people: roughly half of the city's population. Despite the tragedies and occasional pirate pillaging, i.e by the legendary pirate Klaus Störtebeker, the city of Hamburg continued to grow and expand its trade routes globally.


Lutheranism became the state religion of Hamburg in the 16th century, drawing many religious refugees from the Netherlands and France. However, it also lead to (temporary) loss of citizenship for the Roman Catholics in the city. At the end of the 16th century, the first Sephardi Jews arrived from Portugal and built a Portuguese Jewish community in Altona.

Stock market and the Great Fire

After London and Amsterdam, the Hamburg stock market was founded in 1558. The city's continuous growth and prosperity was arrested briefly when Napoleon's armies invaded the city in 1810, cutting off much trade. Following Napoleon's defeat, the city of Hamburg was liberated. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Hamburg was once again named a 'free city' within the new German Confederation of 38 states, along with Bremen, Frankfurt, and Lübeck. Yet, fate struck again in 1842, went the Great Fire left 20,000 Hamburg citizens homeless and over a third of the city was destroyed, including many old buildings such as St. Petri Church, St. Nikolai Church and the Rathaus (City Hall).

Population boom and cholera epidemic

In 1860, Hamburg adopted a democratic constitution that established the separation of Church and State and which guaranteed freedom of press, assembly and association. Soon after, in 1871, Hamburg became part of the German Empire, but was able to retain its self-ruling status. The Atlantic trade eventually made Hamburg the second biggest port in Europe and the starting point for many settlers of the New World. During these prosperous times the population of Hamburg more than quadrupled to 800,000 inhabitants. Unfortunately, the water supply from the Elbe had not been modernised, which resulted in a major outbreak of cholera in 1892, killing about 8,600 people. The city’s handling of the epidemic was used by the imperial government to greatly reduce the powers of Hamburg’s city authorities.

First World War

At the turn of the century, the population of Hamburg had grown to 1 million. After the outbreak of the First World War, 230,000 inhabitants, mostly young men, would take part in the war as soldiers in Prussian regiments. 35,000 of them would die. With its strong reliance on trade, Hamburg's economy was severely crippled by the disruptions to commerce and trade following the war. The city also lost most of its commercial fleet to war reparations, and many of its trade routes when post-war Germany was stripped of its colonies.

Nazi regime

Before the war, Hamburg had the largest Jewish community in Germany and this community suffered the same fate as elsewhere in Germany under the Nazi regime. The Constitution of Hamburg was suppressed and Hamburg’s large Jewish population was deported and murdered almost entirely. Today, the many Stolpersteine (commemorative cobblestones) around the city are reminders of the victims of the Nazi oppression. Some buildings preserved from the concentration camp that was based at Neuengamme now serve as a memorial.

Operation Gomorrah and peace

Towards the end of the war, British and American bombers had to destroy entire districts of the city in what was known as Operation Gomorrah, until the Nazi regime finally surrendered in May, 1945. In total 39,000 tons of bombs were dropped, killing about 42,000 German civilians. The Second World War resulted in over 50% of domestic property, 40% of industrial areas and 80% of the harbour area utterly destroyed. The remaining tower and ruins of St Nikolai's monument is today a stark reminder of the large-scale devastation. After the post-war British occupation, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg became a state within the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, which today consists of 16 states.

More information

A comprehensive guide to the history of Hamburg's port.
Aviation and aiport-specific history.