The Hanseatic League (the “Hanse”) was a regional alliance of North German cities and towns that operated to control trade along the Baltic and North Seas and thrived during the late Middle Ages. Historians point to the Hanse as an early example of regional integration within Europe. Indeed, the Hanse was the most extensive and powerful of regional economic associations within Europe until the rise of the European Union (EU) in the second half of the 20th century. In a manner similar to the EU, the Hanse evolved over time into a more extensive and integrated union in order to more effectively control the economic, commercial, and political forces that threatened individual cities in the region. And, like the EU, the Hanse experienced strong centrifugal forces that limited the degree of integration achieved.
Ultimately, by the 17thcentury, this divisiveness between the German cities, along with unstoppable global economic and political shifts, doomed the Hanse as a viable economic power in Northern Europe. Economic historians trace the origins of the Hanse to the middle of the 14th century, when the first mention of the existence of such a league appears in commercial documents. The expanding reach and influence of the Hanse was, in fact, not an isolated development, but rather part of a more general penetration of German influence in northern, central, and eastern Europe during the high and late Middle Ages. That the Hanse formed in the region it did is no random development. In other parts of Europe, such as England and France, the rise of the centralized nation-state limited the ability of cities to independently form separate regional alliances. With no central government within the German lands, the commercially important cities in the north virtually ruled themselves.
The economic history of Germany in the 13th and 14th centuries is, in fact, no less than the history of its important cities. Consequently, these cities enjoyed great latitude to do as they pleased, including organizing with one another as they saw fit, especially in regard to protecting their regional commercial interests. The initial impetus for the formation of the “Hanse” was self-protection by merchants participating in commercial trade along the Baltic and North Seas. At that time, the German kings were virtually powerless to uphold laws and regulations of importance to the proper functioning of growing commercial interests. For the most part, this commerce consisted of the carrying by ship of bulky, low-unit-value raw materials obtained from the unindustrialized lands bordering the Baltic. One particular concern of the north German merchants was the disruption in this movement of goods by pirates and brigands.
The Hanse first took shape as an alliance between the cities of Luebeck and Hamburg for the purpose of policing the rivers and roads in that part of Germany. Over time, other north German cities joined the alliance. By the 1350s the number of members reached 50 cities and towns. While the number of towns and cities that were in the Hanse continually fluctuated (since they could enter and withdraw from the league at will), by 1375, the size of the Hanse averaged nearly 100 members. The geographical presence of the Hanse spread as well. At the end of the 13th century, the Hanse’s activities extended from Flanders and England to northern Russia. By the mid-14th century, it established its merchants on Latin Christian territory-Bruges, London, Bergen, Stockholm-and in the pagan lands of eastern Europe and Russia. As the Hanse over time expanded in membership and geographical reach, its functions extended beyond simple policing activities to include wideranging commercial agreements.
The first of these involved reciprocal trading agreements between the member cities, and eventually included mutual arrangements to secure for members a monopoly in the trade of Baltic and North Sea products including herring and naval stores. Through such agreements, the Hanse effectively coordinated the activities of its members for economic ends and thus operated as a de facto cartel within the region.
While commercial interests remained central to the Hanse throughout its existence, it eventually took on the character of a political-military union. It created its own flag, diplomatic agenda and staff, and naval fleet. It also put into place a sort of parliament (or diet) to create and pass laws and executive orders applicable to all the member towns and cities. The most serious political decision faced by the Hanse was entering into a war with Denmark in 1379.
The close interdependence between the Hanse’s political goals and commercial interests is embodied in the terms of peace demanded by the Hanse (Peace of Stralsund, 1379): free trade for the league cities in Danish territory and free passage of north German merchant shipping through Danish waters. In the century that followed, the Hanse selected economic boycott over war as the more effective-and less destructive-means to gain the advantage in geopolitical disagreements. The decline of the Hanseatic League began to take place by the late 15th and into the 16th centuries. Internally, the weakening in the coherence of the Hanse set in with growing dissension and commercial rivalry among the members. Then, too, developments in the world within which the Hanse operated rendered the group’s position untenable. The Hanse could not stand against the rise of capitalism in Europe.
Indeed, the Hanseatic League’s commercial operations were quite rudimentary compared with the more sophisticated capitalistic instruments and mentality that were overtaking other parts of Europe; the strict regulations imposed by the Hanse on its members seriously hindered the acceptance of the more innovative capitalistic methods. As critically, effective support-financial, commercial, and military-from their central governments gave England, France, and Holland the means to break the centuries-old monopoly of the Hanse in the Baltic. In any case, the emergence of the profitable Atlantic trade in the 16th and 17th centuries that signaled the beginning of the early modern period in world history relegated trade activity in the Baltic to secondary importance.