"By their nature cities along coasts and rivers developed so they could be open to trade with each other. From the middle of the 13th century, and for some 300 years after, many settlements dotted along this route formed the prosperous Hanseatic League, a European trading confederation of market towns, before the rise of the nation state led to its dissolution.
The Hanseatic League is not well known, and today it lives on most prominently in the name of the German national airline Lufthansa, literally the 'Hansa of the skies', whose planes you can look out of – and down towards the Hanseatic cities – on the short journeys between mainland Europe and Britain. The letters HH on the number plates of cars in Hamburg stand for Hansestadt Hamburg: another proud little memory of this hidden history.
The League is most easily understood as a loose federation of cities that acted together in self-interest to promote trade. The Hanseatic cities developed their own legal system, and their armies came to one another's aid. Merchants who wanted to buy and sell and travel were taking the lead at a time when nation states were not fit for purpose: in the case of England or Denmark, leadership was too centralised and authoritarian, while in German-speaking lands a nation had yet to be formed.
We think of nations today as elemental almost, immovable. Yet look at any city of Mitteleuropa and you'll see the many different names it has had as borders and regimes have shifted with the sands of time. Nations come and go. Cities endure.
"It is often said that great cities survived great empires," says Cristina Ampatzidou, editor-in-chief of the Rotterdam-based online publishing platform Amateur Cities. "So it is not unrealistic to think of cities as discrete entities that compete and collaborate with each other, independently from the states to which they belong."
The cities involved in the Hanseatic League are found along the Baltic and North Sea coasts, and slightly inland too. The League stretched from Novgorod in the east – in what is now Russia – to London in the west. Tallinn, Riga, Gdańsk, Visby, Berlin, Cologne, Antwerp, Stockholm, Bergen, Kiel, Rostock, Dinant, Bruges, Turku, Groningen, Hanover, Wroclaw, Kaliningrad: all were involved at different stages in the Hanse's history, which ran on into the 1500s.
The League covered lands that today find themselves a part of the modern nations of Finland, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Norway, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. It was a huge – and hugely ambitious – undertaking in the days when communications consisted of ink and paper and the only viable method of travel was by ship. Wood, fur, wool, silver, herring, cod and salt were the main items traded. But what was also exchanged was knowledge. In some ways it was an exercise in what we today call 'soft diplomacy'. There was no maniacal ruler overseeing things – merchants met and talked. They raised armies and waged war against kings who threatened their businesses and their freedoms and their peace.
There was a kind of proto-democracy at work. Professor Rainer Postel, of the Bundeswehr Universität (Germany's equivalent of Sandhurst military academy), has described the Hanse as "a community of interests without power politics". As David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge points out, "The lack of an elaborate superstructure was one of the things that made the Hanse work. Having said that, one should recognise that Lübeck in particular dominated the League for long periods."
Lübeck was where the merchants most often met; and where renewed recent interest in the Hanse eventually led to Angela Merkel cutting the ribbon at the brand new European Hansemuseum in the city last year." (http://thelongandshort.org/cities/the-resurgence-of-the-city-state)