More than fifty years after its first publication—and now in its sixth (posthumous) edition—The German Hansa, by the French historian Philippe Dollinger, remains a classic. Written in a scholarly yet accessible style, this history of the Hanseatic League combines a deceptively breezy style with meticulous attention to detail: hundreds of years whizz past in the narrative before you realise it. (English-speaking readers will have to rely on the 1970 translation of the first edition, but the newer editions’ changes have been relatively few; the text of the first edition is essentially up to date.)
As Dollinger explains, the twelfth to fourteenth centuries saw a migration of German settlers along the coast of the Baltic Sea—the territory that today comprises north-eastern Germany, northern Poland, the Kaliningrad Oblast and the Baltic states. In some places, this migration was peaceful. In others, it involved a full-fledged crusade against the native pagan population. During this wave of colonisation, many cities were founded or grew enormously. German merchants who settled in these places established links with existing trade routes in western Europe (notably those connecting the Rhine Valley, the Low Countries and England), thus creating a larger trade network that stretched from London in the west to Novgorod in the east. In general, bulk goods like timber and grain moved from east to west over the Baltic and North seas, and the returning ships brought valuables from the west—such as salt, cloth and wine—to the east.
Being a merchant in the Middle Ages was difficult. The lack of a centralised power meant that roads were often unsafe and poorly maintained, and the sea routes also came with dangers, such as pirates and shipwreck. If you reached your destination, you still had to fear the whim of the local rulers, who could impose heavy tariffs, restrict your access to their markets or, worse, confiscate your goods. However, being a merchant was also profitable: the margins could be ten, twenty or forty percent—numbers most entrepreneurs today can only dream of.
To protect their trade, German merchants started to organise themselves into groups—mostly to guard against pirates, but also to negotiate favourable trade agreements with the local authorities and obtain their protection. While an individual merchant could be harmed with impunity, a group could impose collective sanctions by severely restricting the availability of certain goods, thus reducing rulers’ revenues or even disrupting the peace of their realms. This approach proved remarkably effective: the merchants who participated in these groups secured far-reaching privileges that allowed them to outcompete their rivals (who were often local traders). This competitive advantage eventually enabled them to establish monopolies. Through their elected leaders, they strictly controlled their members’ movements and activities to keep them from violating the terms of their group’s negotiated agreements and to ensure that sanctions against local rulers were not undermined by individual members. These groups were known as Hanse (Old German for “group” or “band”) and, as they coalesced, the word Hanse came to refer to the whole Europe-wide network.
Eventually, control of the Hanse was wrested from the merchant organisations by the magistrates of the cities from which they hailed. The Hanse of merchants thus developed into a Hanse of cities, which allowed member merchants to coordinate their lobbying efforts even more effectively. The Hanse pushed for ever more privileges and guarded them zealously. Since all members enjoyed privileges equally—and non-members were at a severe disadvantage—there was a strong incentive to join. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Hanse’s membership and sphere of influence expanded inland from its original bases along the coast. In its heyday, over 200 cities participated in the Hanse, and it dominated northern European trade. It was so powerful that it could simply dictate terms to economically weaker countries—such as Norway, which had become completely dependent on grain imports from the Baltic. And although it preferred to enforce agreements by imposing sanctions, it had enough military power at its disposal to take on stronger countries, such as Denmark and England.
Although the Hanse had become a major European player, it was something of a puzzle: it had no constitution, no shared budget, no seal and no officials—and different members owed fealty to different rulers. In addition, anyone who traded under the aegis of the Hanse could legally be held responsible only for their own actions. After England’s King Edward IV imprisoned some Hanse merchants in the 1460s as punishment for an infraction committed by their peers, Hanse advocates were able to argue that the medieval principle of collective guilt could not legally be applied to these merchants, because the Hanse did not meet the definition of a legal person under applicable law.
The Hanse’s loose structure was arguably key to its success, since it enabled cities to join without compromising their autonomy or their other alliances. The Hanse never tried to declare itself independent. Doing so would have meant defying the dukes, archbishops and others who were the official leaders of the cities (though in practice their hold on those cities was often tenuous or non-existent). Moreover, the Hanse’s proud magistrates would probably not have agreed to be merged into a greater whole. The Hanse was, after all, simply an instrument to facilitate trade—and a very effective one—so there was little incentive to change how it worked
Considering how disunited it was, the Hanse lasted a surprisingly long time. The merchant Hanse had operated for two hundred years before the formation of the city Hanse, which held its first general assembly in 1356 and its last in 1669—thus it endured for about five hundred years. And it wasn’t dissolved by force—it simply came apart slowly as a result of internal and external pressures. The two most important of these were the waning of solidarity among the cities and the rise of new competitors (especially merchants from the Netherlands and southern Germany, who slowly undermined the Hanse’s monopoly). For instance, the eastern Baltic cities resisted Hanse proposals that they bar its Dutch competitors from their ports. Over time, joining the Hanse ceased to be the only way to engage successfully in trade, and an increasing number of members tacitly or explicitly withdrew from participation. Only nine cities sent representatives to the last general assembly, after which it went into an indefinite recess. The Hanse went out with a whimper, not a bang.
Reading the history of the Hanse today, one cannot help but notice some parallels with the European Union—an organisation that may be described as a meta-Hanse—an alliance of nation states rather than cities. Like the Hanse, the EU is at heart an economic rather than a political organisation; its members are essentially independent (although it goes further than the Hanse in that it has taken over some of its members’ sovereign rights and redistributes some of their revenues); and there are tensions between the interests of the EU’s individual members and the common good. (Examples of those tensions include Germany’s fixation on an export-based economy, at the expense of EU members that are less able to compete; Poland and Hungary’s refusal to accept refugees who first enter Europe in Italy or Greece; and—of course—there is Brexit.)
The history of the Hanse may help us understand some current events, such as the recent spate of measures taken by the EU on UK trade, finances and research. Despite a last-minute trade agreement and professions of goodwill, these measures are probably intended to ensure that Brexit hits the UK with proper force. The EU’s long-term goal may be to coax the UK to rejoin. Similarly, the Hanse never took military action against renegade members, but used economic pressure to rein them in. Whenever a city found itself excluded from the common market, sooner or later the resulting loss of income tended to force it to negotiate a resumption of its membership. It is too early to say when—or whether—the UK will do the same, but it is likely to be many years, if not decades, before the political climate will favour it—as EU policymakers must surely know.
Another goal of the recent EU measures may be to warn remaining EU members not to follow the UK’s example. Since an economic alliance remains viable only as long as its members judge that the benefits of membership outweigh the benefits of going it alone, we can expect that the EU will go to great lengths to maintain the impression that it meets this test.
Given these striking similarities—and the extraordinary success of the Hanse—a closer look at their history would be helpful to all involved.