Book Review: Death in Hamburg

Evans, Richard J. Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years (London: Penguin Books, 2005, originally London: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Asiatic cholera reached Europe via trade routes in the 1800s. By 1890 it had become dreadfully familiar, and a topic of medical argument and debate. Was it spread by miasmas, by contagion (person to person) or through contaminated water? Was it evidence of moral laxity as shown by dirty houses, or a disease of foreigners (Russians and Poles), or an act of G-d, or the fault of human authorities? Richard Evans’s magisterial book places the Hamburg cholera outbreak of 1892 in the full political, economic, medical, and environmental context, revealing how Hamburg’s traditional government proved woefully inadequate when the disease exploded in the city.

This is a very thorough book. That is both its great strength and, for the general reader, its dreadful weakness. You will learn far more about the politics and economic policies of the city-state of Hamburg and its fraught internal civil relations than you will about who lived and who died. It takes almost 2/3 of the book to get to cholera and the 1892 outbreak. Politics, economics, class relations, the environment, and medical history take up much of the work, and if you are interested in seeing how historians use statistics and mapping, it is fantastic. If you want an entertaining read about a disease, this is probably not what you are interested in.

Hamburg remained a city-state, independent of the rest of the increasingly centralized German states until the late 1860s, and even then had certain exemptions and exceptions that set it apart. The whole focus of Hamburg, per Evans, was making money. The municipal government was run by members of high merchant families and their lawyers, and as little as could possibly be spent on infrastructure was spent. The port was an exception, and it was expanding the port that started the chain of events that led to the epidemic, because it diverted funds away from constructing a water-treatment facility and forced many more people into slums along the canals, or “fleets.” Evans argues that it was commercial concerns that led the leaders of Hamburg to first ignore and then deliberately obfuscate the first signs of cholera, until all of Europe and the US knew about the disaster, leading to a major economic crisis in the city.

I was somewhat interested in the politics and how unusual Hamburg was. I really wanted to get to the environmental history part and the plague itself. All the historical theories, class relations a la Marx, nods to Foucault, and other academic aspects of the work reminded me why I dislike and grow so impatient with historical theory. Those passages read like a doctoral dissertation.

In general the book is easy to read, and when Evans is doing straight narrative history, the book sings. He is an excellent writer, knows his material inside and out, and can catch the reader very well. Alas, those narrative sections are outnumbered by longer sections on government, statistics, economics, and class-relations. And for academic historians, those theoretical sections are a little dated, which fits the original 1987 publication date.

If you are interested in how city government worked or failed to work in late 19th Century Germany, this is a great book. If you are curious about the politics of Wilhelmine Germany and the Social Democratic impulse in Europe, again, good book. If you are looking for a German setting for John Barry’s The Great Influenza or other gripping medical histories, this is not the book, unless you read only those chapters focusing on the disease outbreak itself.

I’m glad I read it. It is useful in many ways for what I’m interested in and where I’m going this summer. But I confess, at one point, I set it aside and started reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in German just for something lighter and different.

TL;DR: A well-written, dense, political history of the last independent German city-state that uses a cholera epidemic to show the weaknesses of the system. Probably not for the casual or less-than-seriously-interested reader.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Death in Hamburg

  1. Would this be a useful reference work for a fantasy set in a medieval-style city, where guilds ruled the roost and citizens had to take the crumbs that were left over? I know it’s set later than the medieval period, but it sounds as if Hamburg’s city government wasn’t too dissimilar to the guild-dominated governments of earlier centuries.

    • The first chapters might be, but you would do much better looking at French guilds and comparing that setting to something like Hamburg or Nuremberg.

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