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Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910 Paperback – October 25, 2005
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"A brilliantly written work of great analytical penetration." —Gordon A. Craig, The New York Review of Books
"A marvelous book, splendidly written, full of wit and anecdote, exuding scholarship and wisdom." —New Scientist
About the Author
Richard J. Evans was born in London and educated at Oxford University. He has taught at Columbia University and Birkbeck, University of London, and since 2014 has been the Regius Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cambridge. His many publications include an acclaimed three-volume history of the Third Reich and a recent collection of essays, The Third Reich in History and Memory. A Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, he is a past winner of the Wolfson History Prize, and was twice a History Honoree at the Los Angeles Times Book Awards. In 2012 he was appointed Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s birthday honors list, for services to scholarship.
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When Richard Evans published his massive analysis in 1987, he explicitly compared it with the AIDS health problem, particularly the blame-the-victim and don’t-do-anything policies associated with Reagan. I don’t find that comparison especially strong, but Hamburg 125 years ago perfectly aligns with the rightwing health disaster in Flint, Michigan, in 2016.
As Hamburg business and population exploded, its government firmly refused to spend money on clean water, pure food, sewage disposal, decent housing, health care or education. It was quick to spend tens of millions on a new port, which required it to make 20,000 poor Hamburgers homeless. Nothing was done to rehouse them.
The prosperity of Hamburg was illusory. 70% of its residents lived in poverty, which meant slow starvation, except for the poorest, who starved quickly. So was its status as a democratic republic. Workers did not have a vote in local elections (although after the Second Reich was created, they did in Reichstag elections, always sending Social Democrats).
Power resided in a Senate whose members were co-opted and served for life. “Most (senators) . . . were incompetent, because incompetent senators were never removed from office.”
It was even worse, because senators ran the government departments: the ideal of common sense amateurism by men who had met a payroll guaranteed that administration failed even in day-to-day operations.
When Asiatic cholera returned in August 1892, the authoritarian but efficient and modern cities of Germany had infrastructure, public services and policies in place that completely suppressed the spread of disease. (Even Moscow and St. Petersburg were able to do this, although cholera raged through the rest of the tsarist empire, as well as the decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire. Evans mentions only in a footnote that 266,000 subjects of the Dual Monarchy died, apparently in the ungoverned rural districts.)
In Hamburg 10,000 died in six weeks, sickened through the city’s unfiltered central water mains. (Active disinfection of city water did not begin anywhere until 1904, but filtration through sand was adequate to kill the cholera vibrio.)
It was worse than that. The merchants who ran the government conspired to fake health clearances so that ships with infected passengers left Hamburg to sicken cities in England and America. Nothing was to be allowed to interfere with trade. In the most devastating indictment of the murderous absence of any moral sense among unfettered capitalists, even after the epidemic was over, after briefly accepting – under the force of international public opinion – a policy of transparency, the Senate returned to its policy of hiding the presence of disease, so that additional thousands and millions of innocent people were to be exposed to fatal disease rather than having trade restricted.
Later, as Evans notes, the merchant elite in Hamburg supported the Nazi extermination of the mentally enfeebled and cooperated cheerfully in the persecution of Jews.
It was not merely that the capitalists were indifferent to the lives of distant people of whom they knew nothing. They were happy to poison themselves to make an easy pfennig, and the Senate refused to interfere, citing personal freedom as its justification.
In the 19th century, Hamburg’s food was adulterated and poisoned to an incredible degree. Not only in Hamburg, of course. Evans quotes an historian of London, John Burnett, who noticed “a moral dimension to food adulteration, for here we have an important section of the middle class accepting fraud and deception as a normal agency of commerce. ‘Business morality,’ concludes Burnett, in words that might equally apply to Hamburg’s merchant and manufacturing community as to London’s, ‘was never lower than at the time when Christian observance was at its most ostentatious.’ “
If it sounds exactly like Michigan under the Republicans, it is because it is exactly like Michigan under the Republicans. And all of the Bible-humping, immigrant-hating, crooked politicians of today’s Republican Party. (Yes, there was an anti-immigrant aspect to Hamburg’s immolation, which was blamed not on the rich murderers who caused it but on the poor Jews who were passing through on their way from tsarist persecution to America.)
The 1892 cholera epidemic was an essentially unique event. No other western European community experienced such a cholera epidemic in that year. Cholera was introduced by Russian emigrants transiting through Hamburg on their way to North America. The failure of quarantine procedures, the tardy identification of the outbreak, and the spread of cholera were due in large part to the nightwatchman nature of Hamburg governance. A major factor in the wide and rapid spread of cholera, for example, was the existence of a central municipal water supply. This was a relatively modern feature but in the years prior to the 1892 cholera outbreak, the municipal government had been reluctant to invest in the safety features that would have retarded the spread of cholera.
Evans has a series of nice and very detailed discussions of the evolution of city government, the social structure of Hamburg, of Imperial politics, of disease theories in the years leading up to the epidemic, and of how all these apparently disparate features relate to each other. There is, for example, a really interesting discussion of how the emerging bacteriology of Koch and others fits in with the increasingly interventionist character of the German state. The description of the epidemic itself and its aftermath is exemplary, a simply first-rate description and analysis of the nature of the epidemic, how it affected the different social strata in Hamburg, how the city changed as a result of the epidemic. Evans does particularly well in comparing events in Hamburg to other 19th century municipal epidemics, and in applying his analysis of events in Hamburg to illuminate larger currents in 19th century social history.