Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Pleasure, and a timely lesson, from the Hamburgers

There are more bridges in Hamburg than there are in the whole of Venice and Amsterdam. Taken together.

How do I know that? I was told by a taxi driver. And the word of a taxi driver is not to be doubted, is it? Like the word of a US President. So I haven’t checked. I have to admit, though, that if I havent looked, it’s partly just because I wouldn’t want to find out that it wasn’t true.
The Elbe in Hamburg
In any case, it’s highly plausible. The city has water everywhere. It’s a great port, after all, at the mouth of the river Elbe, and with many channels of its tributary, the Alster, flowing through parts of the city centre. Water, hills and parks make a city, in my view, and Hamburg has the first and last of these.
Water, water, everywhere
Many of the waterways are lined with old warehouses, a reminder that the city was once one of the chief centres of a great trading association of northern Europe, the Hanseatic League. Most German cities like to have their car number plates identified by a single letter – B for Berlin or F for Frankfurt, for instance – because a short abbreviation indicates a great city. Hamburg insists on two – HH for Hansestadt Hamburg, recalling its long commercial traditions.

Hamburg warehouses. And more water, of course.
‘England is a nation of shopkeepers,’ Napoleon once said. I realised just what he meant, and just why he said it, when I was recently reading some material on Britain in the eighteenth-century. In the Napoleonic wars, Britain tried for as long as possible to avoid getting involved in fighting on land in Europe, preferring to limit its military commitments to the sea (trade needed the sealanes kept open, after all). Instead, it offered subsidies to its allies to do the actual fighting. It could offer those subsidies because it was a powerful trading nation, though as I argued here recently, even Britain suffered as embargoes and counter-embargoes were imposed.

Hamburg, like Britain, prospered by trade. A message Brexiters and Trumpistas would do well to remember. Erecting barriers makes nations poorer. Knocking them down makes them richer – all of them: this isn’t a zero-sum game, both sides gain from trade. And war damages them.

Alongside parks and waterways, spires help a city too. My eye was caught by a tall church tower as I was walking between meetings, but I couldn’t get to it just then – I was in the city for work, after all. However, later, having seen a colleague off at the station, I found that my route back to the hotel took me close to it. “I could take a look,” I thought.
The ruined church of St Nikolai in Hamburg
It turned out to be the tower of the St Nikolai church. Only the tower and the chancel survive. The main part of the nave was destroyed in 1943 when the Allies bombed the city, in the aptly – and vengefully – named ‘Operation Gomorrah’. The Royal Air Force bombed at night, the US Air Force by day; the RAF carpeted the city indiscriminately, the USAF targeted military works (such as a submarine factory); a fire storm engulfed the city, leaving a number of dead that has never been precisely determined, some of the corpses having been completely incinerated in the flames.
Picasso evoked the terror of the Nazi bombing of Guernica
The museum in the crypt of the ruined church makes it clear that the chief blame for the horror belongs to Hitler and Nazism, that none of this would have happened had they not set Germany on a vain road to world power, and that the Nazis indeed had pioneered the use of mass bombing of civilians before the Allies did: the museum mentions Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, Warsaw, Coventry and, indeed, London, all bombed long before 1943.

That’s generous of the German historians.

However, it hardly lessens the guilt of the Allied strategists. The exhibition quotes Air Chief Marshall Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris saying ‘There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried… and we shall see.’

Let’s be clear: the bombing of civilian targets has only one aim. In World War 2, the Allies called it ‘breaking the morale of the population’. Today we call such attempts by a single and simple word: terrorism. The destruction of Hamburg by fire was absolutely clearly an act of state terrorism, something we would do well to remember whenever we throw up our hands in horror at state terrorism practised by our enemies today.
Hamburg ablaze during Operation Gomorrah
St Nikolai has been left ruined, like the Memorial Church in Berlin or Coventry Cathedral in England. There is a quiet, stately mournfulness about these monuments to those moments when we get things wrong and build walls instead of bridges. 

Salutary in this city of so many bridges and which has suffered so much.

Are you listening, Trumpistas and Brexiters?

I suppose it would have been appropriate to have had a hamburger
among the Hamburgers. But I resisted the temptation

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