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Free trade and the cholera epidemic in Hamburg

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The Speicherstadt across the Zollkanal today

Hamburg’s Speicherstadt across the Zollkanal today

In 1892 Hamburg, Germany, was hit by a deadly epidemic of cholera, the last in a major western city.  Surprisingly, one of the factors playing a role in the epidemic was a free trade agreement.

“Cholera” and “free trade” are not concepts that are normally associated together.  But they are in a particular unusual historical case.  It doesn’t necessarily have lessons for all the CETAs, NAFTAs, and other contemporary, and controversial, trade pacts.  But a bit of historical hindsight is always interesting.

We’re in Germany, mid eighteenth century.  This is a time of sharp contrasts and paradoxes; it is Bismarck’s Germany, authoritarian, revelling in its recent victorious wars over Denmark, Austria and France.  Much hasn’t changed since the middle ages.  The Catholics are harshly repressed, considered a Vatican fifth column.  Peasants toil the fields using much the same tools as a thousand years ago.  There are hungry times; the potato famine was not as harsh as in Ireland, but it still left a toll.

But the new railways are transforming the countryside; prodded by industry, the cities are growing as never before.  Hamburg triples in size between 1830 and 1900, Berlin grows by a factor of eight; industries are drawing families from the impoverished countryside.  City slums are miserable, but Bismarck’s Prussia implements a worker protection program, a world’s first: an early work place safety and public medical insurance program.

Prussia, yes.  Germany, as a single country, won’t exist until 1871.  Before then it was a confusing federation of duchies and principalities, margraviates and free cities, including Hamburg.  It took a fear of the war with France’s Napoleon III to unite the small states into a single country, governed, much to their chagrin, by Bismarck’s Prussia.

Before then, the states were bound in a loose customs union, the Zollverein.  Within the union, which included the states of most of northern Germany, tariffs and tolls were abolished, greatly facilitating commerce.  In 1820, for instance, an English merchant, Thomas Hodgkins, despaired at the frustration of conducting business up the Weser river: ” there are no less than twenty-two tolls betwixt Münden and Bremen [about 200 km], seven of which belong to the sovereign of Hannover…at every toll every vessel is stopped and her whole cargo is examined.”  The Zollverein eliminated these; starting in the 1830s, Berlin used the benefits of the union to draw smaller states in its orbit until the full unification of 1871.

Was was razed for the free port, circa 1880

The neighbourhood that was razed to make room for the free port, circa 1880

And Hamburg, in all that?  The premier port of Germany, it had operated much like an independent country, using its tariff-free port for shipping and trans-shipping, a sort of Singapore on the Elbe.  But to gain entry into the Zollverein (and join Germany), it had to abide by the tariffs of the customs union, something anathema to the free-traders of Hamburg.  Bismarck applied pressure for inclusion, and in 1877 a compromise was reached:  part of the port could continue to operate as a duty-free zone, provided that it was segregated from the rest of the city. This had to be done by 1888, sending the city scrambling to meet the deadline.

An area of Grasbrook Island, was selected for the free port zone.  Separated from downtown by a canal, renamed Zollkanal (“customs canal”), it was one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city, a haunt of dock workers and recent migrants.  The area had been mostly spared by the great fire of 1842, and was a medieval warren of crowded houses, warehouses and shops.  It had to be completely razed to make way for the new free port.

In its place went up what became known as the Speicherstadt, the warehouse district.  Now a Unesco World Heritage, it is a remarkable assemblage of seven- or eight-story buildings, stark in their unadorned facades of brown bricks.  The bulk of the buildings were completed in time to take cargo by the 1888 deadline.  The ability to continue to operate as a free port was key for Hamburg’s councillors; to give an example of the importance of the trans-shipment to the city’s economy, Hamburg was and remains the third largest port in the world for coffee exports (despite there being no coffee grown in Germany, of course).

The free port area outlined in yellow on a map of Hamburg circa 1887

The free port area outlined in yellow on a map of Hamburg circa 1887

But what of the former inhabitants?  Expelled, they had to fend for themselves.  They mostly found lodgings in the downtown Gängeviertel, an already overcrowded part of the old city.  After the epidemic, the sight of the flood-prone warren of dark alleys, with poor water supply and poorer yet sanitation prompted the famous microbiologist Robert Koch to remark “Gentlemen, I forget that I am in Europe.”

Hamburg's Gaengeviertel, around 1900

Hamburg’s Gaengeviertel, around 1900

Because of the effort required to complete the Speicherstadt, all other municipal projects were given a low priority.  This, in part, is why the downtown was in such a sad state.  The new water  and sewer utilities under construction were also worked on at a snail’s pace.

The bulk of the sewers had been completed in the 1850s under the direction of William Lindley, as were the water supply pipes.  The main water source was the Elbe river, with the intake well upstream from the sewer discharge.  But the river water was not treated; the large sand filtration basin on Kaltehofe, planned for 1872, had experienced delays after delays and was on schedule to be completed only by 1893.  Until then, people would complain of finding worms, debris and the odd fish coming out of the taps.

In Hamburg, the Elbe is tidal.  This meant that sewage-tainted water would enter the water supply twice a day.  Under these conditions, it is no surprise that when cholera reappeared, in 1892 – it had first entered Germany in the 1830s – it was bound to spread like wildfire. Over the course of the epidemic,  8605 people died of the disease.

The tragedy could have been avoided; this is shown by what happened in Altona, a neighbourhood of Hamburg that was then a separate municipality.  Despite being downstream from Hamburg’s sewage outfall, there were only a handful of cases in Altona, thanks to a sand filtration system installed in 1859. None of the 359 Hamburg residents on Schulterblatt, a street abutting Altona, contracted the disease because their water supply was connected to Altona’s, instead of to Hamburg’s.

That it could have been avoided is also shown by how quick the reaction was.  The water treatment plant was completed in 1893, as was the garbage incinerator.  The Gängeviertel was sanitized;  wide, paved avenues such as Mönckebergstrasse and Spitalerstrasse were punched through the slums, creating was is now the posh shopping district of downtown Hamburg (the workers and the poor had to once again relocate, this time to neighbourhoods further away such as Hamm and Wandsbek, accessible with streetcars).

The working Speicherstadt (undated)

The working Speicherstadt (undated)

The epidemic highlighted the struggle between two ideologies, that of mercantile, laissez-faire Hamburg and interventionist Berlin.  Until that point vaccination had been voluntary in Hamburg, as opposed to compulsory in the Reich.  If Hamburg’s council delayed the installation of the water filtration beds, it was largely because it could not see how to finance their construction without raising taxes (a dithering that has a contemporary ring to it).  It was in this context that Berlin’s chief medical officer, Robert Koch, made his famous remark.  Koch, one of the founding father of epidemiology, was a strong believer in quarantine as a method to control contagion, a belief that happened to coincide nicely with the protectionism then in vogue in Berlin; as it was, the fear of cholera did enormous damage to Hamburg’s trade.

A predictable consequence was a loss of political autonomy for Hamburg and more centralized control from Berlin.  There were also instances of irrational behaviour: one pastor Albrecht Krause sermonized that “Hamburg has deserved the plague because of its worldliness, religion has almost disappeared from the city, young people were full of self-indulgence and indulgence in worldly pleasures”.  One refugee from Hamburg, fleeing the epidemic, was doused with arsenic on account that it kills vermin on cattle.  Berliners refused to have phone conversations with Hamburg, for fear that the disease could somehow travel through this newfangled invention.

Hamburg has recovered, of course.  Lindley’s sewers now connect with a wastewater treatment that is the envy of the world.  After using the Kaltehofe filtration system for a century (which caused the incidence of other water-borne diseases such as typhoid and infant diarrhea to drop to negligible levels) the city now drinks safe (and tasty) treated groundwater.  But the city is still true to its trade roots; the harbor is the second largest in Europe.  Trade has been good to Hamburg.

But was the original trade agreement the cause of the epidemic?  No, that would be a clear overstatement, distorting the facts of the case. But a large contributor was the laissez-faire ideology, the complete focus on trade to the exclusion of everything else, including, sadly, public health.

In the modern, globalized context, it is clear that trade is good; lowering barriers and tariffs has been good for Germany, and it has been good for Canada.  It has also enabled some emerging economies to lift themselves out of poverty.

But this basic fact should not blind us to its pitfalls. Trade is good, yes; but it has to be carefully integrated to the other priorities of a liveable, sustainable, prosperous society.

z-gaengeviertel-1893z-cremon2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Much of this is a summary of the excellent book by Richard Evans, Death in Hamburg: society and politics in the cholera years 1830-1910.  London: Penguin, 1987.)

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Written by enviropaul

October 30, 2016 at 4:30 pm

One Response

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  1. […] words, pretty much smack downtown.  This used to be a dense, working class neighbourhood (and an actual slum before then), but it is now a sought-after neighbourhood, near downtown, canals, […]


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