Since its founding, citizens of Hamburg have been filling marshes. Until a dam was constructed around , the ground was always wet.
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Source: Sandurus Antiquariaat. The plain is marked by a hodgepodge of marshes, bogs, and slow-moving rivers. These are the littoral features on which Hamburg has built its physical and economic foundations. And yet, the same landscape makes Hamburg a constant flood risk. The danger of flooding returns again and again. With sea levels continuing to rise from climate change, the city has pledged over half a billion dollars US over the next 30 years to reinforce coastal defenses, raising existing river walls and building additional ones farther inland.
But if carbon emissions continue along current trends, these levees will not be enough to save Hamburg from the sea. The flood appears fated.
Largely due to its strategic position along the Elbe, Hamburg has been a major hub of international commerce for centuries. With its Hanseatic pedigree, the city was — and still is — able to retain its local trade monopoly and its status as a global marketplace. Source: The Long and Short. But Hamburg is built on a marshland. The more it grows the more it sinks down into its peaty grounds. These grounds are geophysical but they are also geopolitical. With the return of the flood comes the return of history. Hamburg cannot escape its Hanseatic past. It is mired in it. It is the land itself that puts this drama on display.
The Hanseatic League had reconvened but in different form. It had undergone a metamorphosis. For Hanseatic cities like Hamburg international summits are not new. Similar to the G20 summit, delegates would come to discuss commercial problems and consider new policies for securing trade and achieving economic prosperity for its members. A century later, in May , economic and political uncertainty led to the temporary reconvening of the Hanseatic Diet, this time in Hamburg. There, representatives met to discuss the vulnerability of international trade and Hanseatic sovereignty in light of recent unrest in Europe.
Hanseatic Days. Source: hanse. The outcome of the meeting was a declaration of common neutrality, not unlike the Hamburg Action Plan proposed by the G It was argued that unrestricted Hanseatic trade, banking, and transportation served the interests of all peoples. And yet, in the end, the declaration of neutrality was unsuccessful. In July , after declaring war on France, Great Britain formed a blockade at the mouth of the Elbe, hoping to cut off supplies to French troops occupying parts of Lower Saxony.
This effectively closed off Hamburg from international commerce and shipping.
Over two centuries later, the appeal to neutrality was made once again in the same city and on the same grounds. For progress in the marshlands is a losing game. It is a never-ending battle to reclaim a territory prone to erosion. This is something the Hamburg Port Authority knows all too well.
To keep the waterways open to trade, the Port spends million euros each year on dredging efforts. With competition from shipping ports around the world, there is a pressing need to deepen and widen the Elbe ever more so it can accommodate a new generation of super tankers. In this way the G20 protests can be seen beyond their historical moment, in almost geologic terms, as mud flowing back into the channels of empire. There is a long-standing connection between blockades and shame. After the port blockade in Hamburg, the disruptive tactics of the demonstrators were immediately condemned by politicians and the media as unnecessary, violent, and deeply humiliating.
Some residents voiced similar feelings of embarrassment for their city and nation.
Source: Hamburg. Its material is dredged up from the past, from a Hanseatic lineage that is selectively picked over and reassembled within the present urban landscape. This often takes on the form of theatrical reenactment.
The city becomes a stage set, a colorful space of actors, props, and movements. A merchant drama is performed over and over without end. Historically, the event was a chance for government officials to discuss economic issues with invited guests. The contemporary rendition looks something like a low-budget period drama. At the ring of a bell, officials parade stiffly into the room dressed in bright red gowns , black berets, and shiny medallion necklaces.
On stage, Hanseatic insignia is visible everywhere, along with other medieval looking props. Gaudy candelabras block the view of the audience. Everything is red. Source: Hamburger Morgenpost.
Such pageantry carries over into public space. Each year, the city hosts major festivals celebrating its merchant legacy. But cosmopolitanism in Hamburg, as elsewhere, is a masquerade. It covers up something rotten.
These are reserved for capital, and those who possess it. It has, next to Munich, the highest concentration of the super-rich. And yet, under the historical banner of the Hanseatic League, such ideals fold easily into more liberal ones of personal freedom and tolerance. This masquerade is nothing new. It turns out that Hamburg was hardly so tolerant or open to begin with. Source: MoMA.
Submerged in its murkier past, Hamburg quickly loses its cosmopolitan enchantment. Its gateway to the world is revealed for what it truly is: a gate.
ORB --Hanseatic Index
More specifically, it is a sluice gate controlling the flow of what comes in and out. The term sluice comes from the Latin excludere meaning to exclude. Its foundations are muddy, violent, and inherently unstable. During the G20 demonstrations, this exclusionary landscape took center stage. At the port and in the streets, this critique was turned into direct action.
Rhythms of free trade and openness were arrested in the phlegm of the blockade. Something rotten took its place. Meanwhile, the cross-border flows of capital and goods, including luxury goods, have made an already rich global elite even richer. The latter cannot stomach the decay off of which they themselves profit. It becomes an embarrassment that must be kept out of sight, rather than thrown back on stage. The G20 protests might be thought of as a counter-performance, one in which rotting steals the limelight.
As in Hamlet , rotting is a sign that the time of empire has been thrown out of joint, or, to go back to the Old High German word hamma , bent. As imperial gateway fantasies are bent shut, the sluice gates of history are revealed and thrown wide open. The past pours in; its ghosts return. On the Wednesday before the summit, Hamburg looked like it was filled with actual ghosts.
Clay-covered figures trudged the streets in protest of the G They went from representing the ghoulish world of capitalism to bringing that world to a brief standstill—phlegmatically blocking the networks of exchange that made it possible.
A Crowd Flowed Over. Source: Gestalten. For the political stakes of the protests were hardly different from what they would have been many centuries earlier. During the Hanseatic era, what were not tolerated, above all, were civil riots. Towns themselves would become barred from the common privileges of the Hanseatic League if they experienced any public unrest.
They are still a source of shame to those actors in power, one that needs to be forcefully repressed. Hamburg police soon called in reinforcements and a no-fly zone was soon established in parts of the city, granting movement only to what and to who supported the phlegm-free circulation of goods and G20 strategy. Meanwhile, Merkel assured the media of a return to business as usual.
Everything else might well have never happened.
King's Lynn set to celebrate Hanseatic links
The show must go on. Reopening Hamburg to the global market, branding the city to reflect a glamorized Hanseatic past—these are projects of reclamation. In the environmental industry, reclamation usually refers to the process of creating new land from oceans, riverbeds, or some other watery region. This might be done by draining a submerged wetlands so that it become more inhabitable or more agriculturally productive.
Reclamation can also be accomplished by filling an area with surplus material, by dredging sediments and debris from the bottom of a water source, for instance, and depositing them somewhere else to form a new land mass. Reclamation often serves the ends of empire.