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“Now I understand what the Hanse is”

October 2015Photo: Europäisches Hansemuseum / Thomas Radbruch

The European Hanse Museum, the largest museum on the Hanseatic League’s rich history, opened in Lübeck “The Hanse has been a major factor in contributing to European history and added to its sense of identity. The roots on which our European cooperation is based today can be traced back to it”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the inauguration of the European Hanse Museum in Lübeck in May 2015.

When Low German merchants from Soest, Münster, Groningen and Lübeck moored on the banks of the Neva river in 1193, they had no idea that they were among the founders of a powerful association, which came to be known as “Dudesche Hense” from the 14th century on. What was initially a loose alliance of merchants preparing for trade talks in the city of Novgorod evolved into the most influential economic and municipal network in Northern Europe over the following centuries. “The Hanseatic League was Europe’s first large, successful economic association. It existed longer than half a millennium. Not long ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, therefore the European Union still has a long way to go”, Angela Merkel said on the opening day.

The Hanse’s multifaceted history has now been on display in its own museum in Lübeck since the end of May: The European Hanse Museum illustrates the development from a group of merchants at its beginnings to becoming a major northern European power spanning a network of more than 200 affiliated towns and cities. The exhibition examines daring and advancement, a world of wealth and power, failure and struggle as well as mortal dangers and the all-pervasive influence of religion. Visitors are given the opportunity of discovering key events in the history of the Hanse in reconstructed scenes to comprehend just how that meeting at the Neva river could have taken place, while walking past two faithfully recreated cogs.

All the reconstructed scenes are based on the latest state of research and no expense has been spared to make them as historically accurate as possible”, said Dr Lisa Kosok, Managing Director of the Hanse Museum. As they walk through the exhibition, visitors can also see how things may have looked in the kontors, the Hanse’s overseas trading posts: They can wander around a bustling market hall in Bruges, gaze at the splendour of the Steelyard in London and examine an important trading centre for stockfish in Bergen. Lübeck, known as the “Head of the Hanse”, is used to portray the impact of the Black Death in the 14th century or as the stage a Hanse convention with representatives of the Hanseatic cities. The creations of myths and legends introduced after the decline of the Hanse are discussed as well. “600 years of economic history are presented such that the visitors can say ‘Now I understand what the Hanse is!’” said Björn Engholm, former prime minister of Schleswig Holstein and today a member of the museum’s advisory board.

Some specific characteristics of Europe go back to the classical Hanse merchants. Thus, you can see that much of what we expect today from economic life was already practiced at the time of the Hanse”, Engholm emphasized. Björn Engholm summarised the task of the new museum: “The merchants formed something like a European economic community. I think, they were very advanced, compared to today. Actually they are the nucleus of a Europe, such as the one we are hoping for today. To provide positive contributions to this fantastic idea of Europe, will be an important aspect of the European Hanse Museum”. Angela Merkel wants to take up the central idea of the Hanse that “together we are stronger and achieve more for everyone than if each were to act for himself. Therefore, there is also today the endeavour to work for unity in the European Union – time and again and on all current issues”.

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