What’s a Hansa Anyway?

If you drive around (mostly) Germany and the Low Countries, you  see a German (D) license plates with HH on them, and a sticker with a white castle on red.

Like this. Or some sport a custom oval (HH).

Third picture row, middle.

If you squint and read the text, it translates “Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.” Free city means that it is a city-state and is not beholden to a larger region (Like the state of Bavaria, or the state of Lower Saxony [Niedersachsen]). And it was not under the control of a noble or monarch. Hamburg was a free trading city from its birth almost, and thus the name Hansestadt. It was a member of the Hanse.

Hanse like rabbit?

No, that’s Hasse (like hassenpfeffer, or peppered rabbit. Does not taste like chicken.) Like the airline: Lufthansa.

Hanse is an old word meaning an association of individuals or cities. They formed a hanse for some reason, usually business related. In this case, it was trade, specifically trade around the North Sea and Baltic, with a few markets inland like Cologne or Bruges, and Novgorod. We English speakers don’t think of hanse on its own. Instead we think of the Hanseatic League if we think of the term at all.

The Hanseatic League was an organization of city-states and merchants that formed in the 1100s and really peaked in terms of power in the late 1300s, although it lasted into the 1500s. The main cities varied over time, but included Lübeck, Cologne, Hamburg, Bremen, Danzig, and others. They had outposts in Bergen, London, Novgorod, Bruges, Tallinn, Riga, Goslar down in the Harz Mountains, and other places. For almost a century they controlled trade in the North Sea and Baltic, and were major players before and after that peak.

Eventually the Dutch and English pushed the Hanseatic League into terminal decline, although Hamburg remained a major port city and is still one of the largest in the world. The word remains in the official name of the city: Hansestadt Hamburg. It is also found in the name of Germany’s airline, which was formed from several smaller lines: Lufthansa.


6 thoughts on “What’s a Hansa Anyway?

    • Yes. If you see HH, HR, HL, or HS, it is a car from the diatrict that looks to one of the hanse cities. The state insignia will be Hamburg or Mechlenberg-Vorpom.

  1. So are these vanity plates by people who are proud Hanse members or are they like Idaho or Wyoming where the first couple letters/numbers are a code identifying where the plate was issued?

    • German plates have your region of registration, then the Land sticker, and you can customize the rest sort of within strict limits.

  2. Interesting . . . The beer producer in Swakopmund, Namibia (formerly South West Africa) was named Hansa Brewery. (It closed in 2005. They made darn good beer, too – not unexpected, since Namibia was a German colony prior to World War I). I wonder if the name denoted some kind of independent merchant status, even in a colony?

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