In League with History; Hanseatic Ports Echo Steps of German Merchants, Emigrants

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

In League with History; Hanseatic Ports Echo Steps of German Merchants, Emigrants


Byline: Corinna Lothar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

HAMBURG, Germany - Wistfulness and envy accompanied the great ships, crowded with emigrants on their way to America, out of the mouth of the Elbe River into the North Sea. "America," the saying went, "is just around the corner."

Only a little imagination is required to see, in the mind's eye, the tearful scenes on the dockside, the weeping relatives saying goodbye, and the ships moving slowly toward the cold horizon. This was the starting point for the great waves of German immigration to the New World.

My great-grandfather set sail from the nearby port of Bremen, the exit, together with Hamburg and the port of Cuxhaven, for millions of Northern Europeans. He was bound for California and the gold rush. I would follow a century later from Lisbon, Portugal, just ahead of the Gestapo, but I could feel a kinship with the ghosts of earlier immigrants.

I returned to Germany many times after my original voyage across the Atlantic but never visited the cities of the north until, in a group of travel writers, I toured several German Hanseatic League cities, including Bremen and Hamburg, and their ports of embarkation for the great century of emigration.

To help anyone interested in tracing the journey of German ancestors, Routes to the Roots is a private project begun in 1993 to offer special-interest tours to German ports of embarkation as well as other regions of Europe.

The northern path through the sea had been well-marked. Earlier, the Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution set sail from Cuxhaven and Bremerhaven by the thousands between 1776 and 1782. After that war, many of them settled in the United States, while others returned to Germany.

The Cuxhaven Steubenhoft terminal, the most modern state-of-the-art passenger facility of its time, was built between 1900 and 1902. The terminal remains the only historically preserved and operational passenger facility in Europe, although the ships no longer take passengers to America, but only across to England.

The excitement and hustle-bustle of departure on the journey to America has been replaced by mementos of that voyage in a usually silent terminal, with only a nostalgic echo of what the elegant first-class waiting room, the customs hall and other aspects of embarkation were like in the heyday of steamship travel. Cuxhaven, now a health resort, remains a fishing port.

The term Hanseatic League suggests power and romance. In fact, the league was an economic mutual-assistance pact in the Middle Ages between independent cities around the Baltic and North seas. The word "hansa" means a company of merchants trading with foreign lands. The league was born among the lovely red-brick towns of northern Germany in the 13th century when a group of independent city-states banded together to form a trade alliance.

The original cities of the league were Lubeck, Wismar and Rostock, with Lubeck as the leader. The league reached its summit of power in 1370, with membership varying from 100 to 160 cities from the Netherlands to Poland.

By the 16th century, internal dissension, curtailment of freedom by the German princes and the growth of centralized foreign states, as well as changes in trade itself, led to a decline in the league, although it was never formally dissolved. Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen, Wismar and Rostock continue proudly to call themselves Hanseatic cities.

It is in Bremen and Hamburg, however, that the Hanseatic spirit continues to exist most strongly. Indeed, highway signs leading to Hamburg add "Hansastadt" (Hansa city) or just the initial "H" before the city's name.

PORTS OF EMBARKATION

We began our tour in Bremen, Germany's smallest city-state and its oldest port. The city was evangelized by Charlemagne in the ninth century but was never governed by the nobility or by the church; it was a merchant city, ruled by money.

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