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Hamburg is the heartbeat of modern Germany

Aerial view of Hamburg city center and harbour - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A seamy, subversive, self confident city, Hamburg is also a symbol of an outward-looking Germany

Ever since Hamburg dissolved into a blur of water cannon and grandstanding at the G20 summit, the port city on the Elbe has been portrayed as a seething hotbed of left-wing radicalism. Angela Merkel, we are told, should never have chosen this den of vigilantes to host a meeting of the world’s most powerful heads of state.

This depiction is only partly true. Like any twenty-first century metropolis, Hamburg is home to the super-rich and the militant working class in equal measure. Admittedly, the latter is more vocal here than in many other Weltstädte (global cities). Nowhere is this more visible than the football scene, where the teetering giants of Hamburger SV rattle their scuffed silverware at FC St Pauli’s raucous Davids.

While living in Munich as a student, I had an uncomfortably close brush with the men from the over-subscribed Millerntor arena. At a game between Bavarian strivers FC Ingolstadt and their skull-and-cross-bones toting visitors from the Hamburg docks, callow youth coupled with a nascent journalistic instinct led me to take a picture of the ringleader in the away end. Breaking off from beating a tattoo on one of the high fences that are still a feature of German football stadia, he lowered his megaphone and eyeballed me with a ferocity that rendered the subsequent stream of imprecations redundant. The possibility of my being a police informant was enough to expose me to a level of apoplectic scorn usually reserved for bona fide establishment stooges.

Even the team’s brown and white colours are bullishly unfashionable, but St Pauli was thrust into the centre of this month’s media storm by dint of its proximity to the defiantly shabby Schanzenviertel district. The Chancellor’s perceived mistake was to hold the conference in a business centre on the edge of an area which derives much of its identity from a sense of disenfranchisement. One particularly imaginative homeless man spent this winter perched on a junction box near the railway track, hopefully dangling a plastic cup taped to the end of a fishing rod onto the pavement below.

The next stop on the U-Bahn is St Pauli, home of the red lights of the Reeperbahn and the stage on which an unknown band called the Beatles signalled the arrival of counter culture. The boards they trod on that night lie in state in the waxworks museum opposite the casino. Meanwhile, the adjacent district of Altona boasts its own town hall, a throwback to the days before the village was subsumed into the Hanseatic City of Hamburg under the Greater Hamburg Act of 1937.

At the crack of dawn every Sunday, the Altona quayside spawns a vast fish market thronging with crestfallen revellers in the twenty-fifth hour of wakefulness. I once attended a lengthy service in the dauntingly baroque Michaeliskirche in front of which Theresa May mouthed platitudes about positive discussions, armed with a malodorous sea bream plucked straight from the North Sea that morning.

However, the frenzied focus on Hamburg’s seamier side only tells half the story. Even without the HafenCity complex, the largest urban building project in Europe, it is one of the continent’s most prosperous cities. Moreover, it is one that has historically relied on the symbiotic relationship between its businesspeople and its workforce.

The network of canals and warehouses down by the harbour is a testament to this. Though many are now empty, the names spelt out in gold lettering on the outer walls have been left as a resonant reminder of the city’s diminished but enduring importance as a trade hub, as well as its debt to the army of dock hands who would lower goods through the doors under the eaves to the waiting cargo ships below.

It is a measure of how attached locals are to their industrial past that the new opera house, which opened to much fanfare in January, is actually mounted on an old warehouse. At first glance, the rippling glass building designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron is half wave half galleon. Having been painstakingly debated in council meetings spanning over a decade, it was finally destined, with a millennial flourish, for a bend in the river just 60 miles before it meets the open sea at Cuxhaven. The world was opening up, and Hamburg was going to be there to embrace it.

It was ever thus. The Hanseatic League, stretching as far as the banks of the Thames at one end and Finland at the other, had Hamburg at its heart. The genius of the city’s elders had been to make themselves indispensable by coming to an arrangement with their counterparts in Bergen whereby German sailors would provide the salt to preserve the ample Scandinavian fish stocks they then conveyed to mainland Europe. The ‘white gold’ began its journey in the saline heaths around Lüneburg and put out from the Hanseatic capital of Lübeck, but Hamburg was a vital link in a chain that lasted almost half a millennium.

The wealth flowing from membership of this long-running trade confederation was soon channelled into a series of buildings in the Brick Gothic style that came to characterise the League’s northernmost ports. Emblematic of this architectural school is the crow-stepped gable façade found so abundantly in Lüneburg, the self-proclaimed ‘most beautiful town in the world’. Along with the colonnaded 13th century town hall in Lübeck, the chessboard-coloured chamber of commerce at the end of Lüneburg’s exquisitely fragile main street is brother to the guild halls in Antwerp and cousin to the Dutch gables mimicked in certain English country houses.

Not that Hamburg’s interaction with the outside world has always been motivated by profit. From the mid-nineteenth century to the advent of the Nazis, five million Europeans passed through the Veddel peninsula south of the city centre en route to the New World. They were often fleeing persecution in their home country, making Hamburg the last stage of their private passion. Their Jewish saviour, Albert Ballin, invented the cruise liner while still a humble employee of the shipping company later to morph into Hapag-Lloyd. More importantly for the tired and huddled masses that stopped off in Hamburg at the turn of the century, he also comprehensively refurbished the emigration halls on the island in 1901 in his new capacity as director general. The site is now the BallinStadt museum and the immigrant community that has grown up around it in more recent years is here to stay.

There is a reason the anarchists targeted Hamburg – and it is the same one that prompted Merkel to hold the G20 there in the first place. For all that the buccaneering antics of mediaeval pirate Klaus Störtebeker are commemorated on FC St Pauli flags to this day, his last resting place has long been a powerful advert for the modern, self-confident and outward-facing Germany we now expect to take the lead in European affairs.

Jack Arscott is a a freelance journalist and Europhile blogger

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