“Realism; fatalism; phlegm.”– Graham Swift, Waterland

On the Marshes of a Dying Empire


n the early summer morning of the first day of the 2017 G20 summit, thousands of red-clad protestors descended on the Port of Hamburg. For six hours, they blocked all major road and rail routes out of the port, bringing the monotonous flow of shipping containers to a standstill. Elsewhere on that July day, pickets plugged up the streets around Hamburg’s airport, disrupting the otherwise smooth passage of delegates as they arrived from around the world. Blockades were also set up in the center of Hamburg as part of a City Strike aimed at disrupting critical infrastructure. At one point, a few of the demonstrators broke into a closed train station by bending open its iron gates. Others forced their way into the “blue zone,” an off-limits area around the summit venue. “We were where we weren’t supposed to be,” said one of the protestors.

“Shut Down the Logistics of Capital”

Meanwhile, inside the glass-armored Hamburg Messe, G20 summit leaders looked towards the future. They were exactly where they were supposed to be. A final communiqué from the meeting applauded the summit’s success and detailed the mission of the G20 going forward, highlighting its commitment to “shaping an interconnected world.” Such a world was to be won through “reciprocal and mutually advantageous trade.” In achieving economic growth through these means, the G20 meant to promote “greater inclusiveness, fairness and equality.” For summit leaders, this was a “resilient” and “sustainable” new horizon. Only by progressing towards it would current global “challenges” be overcome, including “displacement,” “climate change,” and “inequality.”

Despite the G20’s rhetoric, the world is rushing in the other direction. Global wealth and income inequality levels have risen sharply since the 1980s. A recent Oxfam study found that 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest. Meanwhile, the number of displaced persons continues to grow, now totaling more than 65 million. Add climate change to this picture, whose prospects look darker each day: the seas are rising and soon many cities will face serious flooding. This future is also the violent return of the past, of its destruction of lives and lands, coming back to inundate the present. Summits erode at their base. Climbing down from the top of the mast, we look out on a drowned world.

Flooding around the Hamburg Fish Market following Storm Herwart, Sunday Morning, October 29, 2017. Source: Norway Today.

The 2017 G20 put this drowning on public display. Hamburg is an amphibious city. Built on a swamp, it is the site of a constant struggle between land and water, solidity and erosion. The city’s name is a mashup of “Ham,” an old Saxon term for marshland, and “Burg,” referring to a castle that was built there in AD 808.[1] The castle sat on the banks of the sluggish River Alster, where it dumps into the River Elbe, which runs another 68 miles west until it flows into the North Sea. Since its founding, citizens of Hamburg have been filling marshes. Until a dam was constructed around 1250, the ground was always wet.

Map of Hamburg, Johannes Mejer and Caspar Danckwerth, 1651. Source: Sandurus Antiquariaat

Hamburg’s amphibian landscape was created around 10,000 years ago, when a retreating ice sheet left piles of debris in its wake and carved out a number of basins in the earth, which would gradually fill up with silt.[2] This led to the formation of what is known as the North European Plain, a flat lowland region stretching from France to Poland. The plain is marked by a hodgepodge of marshes, bogs, and slow-moving rivers. These are the littoral features on which Hamburg has built its physical and economic foundations. And yet, the same landscape makes Hamburg a constant flood risk. This came to a head in 1962 when the Elbe unexpectedly broke through the city’s dyke system, submerging one-fifth of municipal areas, destroying 6,000 homes, and killing 315 residents.

The danger of flooding returns again and again. In 2017, sections of Hamburg were inundated by Storm Axel and Storm Herwart. With sea levels continuing to rise from climate change, the city has pledged over half a billion dollars (US) over the next 30 years to reinforce coastal defenses, raising existing river walls and building additional ones farther inland. But if carbon emissions continue along current trends, these levees will not be enough to save Hamburg from the sea. The flood appears fated. It’s only a matter of time.

North Sea Flood of 1962

The inevitability of flooding is a constant reminder of Hamburg’s waterlogged history. From its origins, both the city’s prosperity and its precarity have been closely tied to its marshland geography. Largely due to its strategic position along the Elbe, Hamburg has been a major hub of international commerce for centuries. This began in 1189, when the Holy Roman Emperor issued a charter granting freedom from customs duties for ships sailing between Hamburg and the North Sea.[3] In the next century, the city’s trade alliance with Lübeck in 1230 (expanded in 1241) would lay much of the groundwork for the Hanseatic League, a confederation of northern European towns that dominated Baltic maritime trade from the 13th to the late-15th century.[4] Although the League declined over time, and officially collapsed in 1862, it created the foundations for Hamburg’s continued economic success. With its Hanseatic pedigree, the city was – and still is – able to retain its local trade monopoly and its status as a global marketplace.[5] Deep-seated merchant connections have helped solidify Hamburg as Germany’s wealthiest city by most accounts, with the second-busiest container port in Europe, with ships from all over the world traveling on the Elbe between Hamburg and the North Sea.

Hanseatic League—Major Cities and Trade Routes. Source: The Long and Short.

But Hamburg is built on a marshland. The more it grows the more it sinks down into its peaty grounds. These grounds are geophysical but they are also geopolitical. With the return of the flood comes the return of history. Hamburg cannot escape its Hanseatic past. It is mired in it. Today, the city continues to brandish its official name: “The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.” In moments of danger, like the 2017 G20, this past seems to come to the surface and to play out again, with a new cast of actors.

It is the land itself that puts this drama on display. When viewed from the marshland, all that is “new” turns out, in the end, to be muddy, old, and hollow.[6] This includes the structures that are imagined and built on top of it. While summit leaders cloistered away in Hamburg Messe, drawing up the blueprints for a new “interconnected world,” they were retracing the lines of a much older transnational network. The Hanseatic League had reconvened but in different form. It had undergone a metamorphosis. But it’s mission was much the same: to defend the commercial interests of the elite.

For Hanseatic cities like Hamburg international summits are not new. Between 1356 and 1669, officials from member towns met regularly in Lübeck, “the Queen of the Hanse,” for what was known as the Hansetag or Hanseatic Diet. Similar to the 2017 G20 summit, delegates would come to discuss commercial problems and consider new policies for securing trade and achieving economic prosperity for its members.[7] Between the 15th and 17th centuries, however, this pool of wealth began to dry up. After the final Hansetag in 1669, only Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg remained members. A century later, in May 1795, economic and political uncertainty led to the temporary reconvening of the Hanseatic Diet, this time in Hamburg. There, representatives met to discuss the vulnerability of international trade and Hanseatic sovereignty in light of recent unrest in Europe.

Hanseatic Days. Source: hanse.org

The outcome of the meeting was a declaration of common neutrality, not unlike the Hamburg Action Plan proposed by the G20. It was argued that unrestricted Hanseatic trade, banking, and transportation served the interests of all peoples. And yet, in the end, the declaration of neutrality was unsuccessful. In July 1803, after declaring war on France, Great Britain formed a blockade at the mouth of the Elbe, hoping to cut off supplies to French troops occupying parts of Lower Saxony. This effectively closed off Hamburg from international commerce and shipping.[8] Summer turned to winter; the city was left to wallow on its marsh.

Over two centuries later, the appeal to neutrality was made once again in the same city and on the same grounds. Looking to the future, G20 pledged fealty to “inclusive growth” and “mutually advantageous trade.” Similar oaths have been made in the marshland. Rather than signs of the G20’s professed “strength,” they are the briny murmurs of a drowning empire. For progress in the marshlands is a losing game. It is a never-ending battle to reclaim a territory prone to erosion. This is something the Hamburg Port Authority knows all too well. “There is sediment coming in on every river tide,” explains CEO Jens Meier. To keep the waterways open to trade, the Port spends 100 million euros each year on dredging efforts. But it’s never enough. With competition from shipping ports around the world, there is a pressing need to deepen and widen the Elbe ever more so it can accommodate a new generation of super tankers.[9] As trading hubs like Hamburg fight to stay afloat in a global market, literally scooping out their own silt, blockades threaten to take them under completely. In this way the G20 protests can be seen beyond their historical moment, in almost geologic terms, as mud flowing back into the channels of empire.

Winter Sunrise over Wittmoor Bog, Northern Hamburg. Source: Michael Franzén Photography.

Something Rotten

There is a long-standing connection between blockades and shame. The English word “embarrassment” comes from the French embarrasser (16th century) meaning literally “to block.” During the G20 protests in Hamburg, this original sense of embarrassment seemed to come back. After the port blockade in Hamburg, the disruptive tactics of the demonstrators were immediately condemned by politicians and the media as unnecessary, violent, and deeply humiliating. The city’s mayor, Olaf Scholz, said he felt ashamed (schäme) after the protests. Some residents voiced similar feelings of embarrassment for their city and nation.

What was at stake during the protests was the reputation of Germany as a “leader of the free world.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel complained that “Germany’s image in the international community has been severely damaged due to the incidents in Hamburg.” Hamburg’s reputation was in danger as well. Hamburg has long promoted itself as a champion of “cosmopolitanism, tolerance and hospitality.” Pointing to a long legacy of Hanseatic openness and free trade, it celebrates itself as a “Gateway to the World.” [10] The gateway narrative continues to attract capital investment, tourism, and trading opportunities to the city. In this way, as an urban marketing strategy, Hamburg’s Gateway reaffirms itself.

The Arrival Parade at Hamburg’s 2017 Hafengeburtstag. Source: Hamburg.de.

Hamburg’s Gateway to the World is built on the grounds of history. Its material is dredged up from the past, from a Hanseatic lineage that is selectively picked over and reassembled within the present urban landscape. This often takes on the form of theatrical reenactment. In order to shore up Hamburg’s cosmopolitan status, the past must be acted out in certain ways, in scenes that affirm investor friendly narratives of open commerce. The city becomes a stage set, a colorful space of actors, props, and movements. A merchant drama is performed over and over without end.

In 2005, for instance, the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce revived the old Hanseatic tradition of the “Morgensprache” gathering. Historically, the event was a chance for government officials to discuss economic issues with invited guests. The contemporary rendition looks something like a low-budget period drama. At the ring of a bell, officials parade stiffly into the room dressed in bright red gowns, black berets, and shiny medallion necklaces. On stage, Hanseatic insignia is visible everywhere, along with other medieval looking props. Gaudy candelabras block the view of the audience. Everything is red.

500th Gathering of the Honorable Merchants, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, October 12th, 2017

Such pageantry carries over into public space. Each year, the city hosts major festivals celebrating its merchant legacy. Since 1977, for example, the city has commemorated the founding of its harbor each May during Hafengeburtstag (‘Port Birthday’), which attracts over one million visitors from across Germany and beyond. There is also the annual Versammlung Eines Ehrbaren Kaufmanns (‘Gathering of the Honorable Merchants’) which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2017 with a gala at the Elbphilharmonie concert hall.[11] That night, 2,000 of Hamburg’s elites came together in a sea of black suits and champagne bubbles. They were there, as Mayor Scholz put it in his welcome speech, to honor the organization’s longstanding “commitment to internationality and free trade as well as the responsibility for a cosmopolitan and respectability-oriented economic order.”[12]

500th Gathering of the Honorable Merchants, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg, October 12th, 2017

But cosmopolitanism in Hamburg, as elsewhere, is a masquerade. It covers up something rotten. Hamburg’s Gateway image only creates the illusion of freedom and openness. These are reserved for capital, and those who possess it. The celebration of Hamburg’s merchant legacy has recast the city as a magnet for foreign trade and investment in ways that benefit a very select urban elite while excluding the poor and racialized (as I discuss in the next section). The influx of capital has made Hamburg one of the Germany’s most expensive cities. It has, next to Munich, the highest concentration of the super-rich. The latter include the Hanseaten (or First Families) who trace their ancestry back to the city’s medieval ruling class. Other elites in Hamburg identify with the tradition of the Hanseatischer Kaufmann (“Hanseatic merchant”) which continues to form the mythic basis for aristocratic ideals of virtue and honor. And yet, under the historical banner of the Hanseatic League, such ideals fold easily into more liberal ones of personal freedom and tolerance.

This masquerade is nothing new. It turns out that Hamburg was hardly so tolerant or open to begin with. While the city affirms a legacy of Hanseatic tolerance as ‘the gateway to the world’, historians have pointed out how this has been a tolerance with limits, accepting others only ‘partially and when it furthered trade or commerce.’[13] In 1649, for instance, Ashkenai Jews were expelled from the city, while wealthy and better-connected Sephardic Jews were allowed to stay. [14]  Up until 1860, a nightly gate closure locked out religious minorities, including poorer Jews.[15] In the following century, the Nazis in Hamburg would try to keep the Jews locked in, within urban ghettos and camps, including the Neuengamme concentration camp in the city’s Bergedorf district.[16]

“Germany’s Door to the World,” 1930. Source: MoMA.

Submerged in its murkier past, Hamburg quickly loses its cosmopolitan enchantment. Its gateway to the world is revealed for what it truly is: a gate. More specifically, it is a sluice gate controlling the flow of what comes in and out. The term sluice comes from the Latin excludere meaning to exclude. This is how Hamburg’s Gateway to the World narrative functions: it has been constructed over the centuries on and through the bodies of those who have been denied entry. Its foundations are muddy, violent, and inherently unstable.

During the G20 demonstrations, this exclusionary landscape took center stage. “We’re here protesting against inequality, against the few leaders who make decisions for the entire world,” said a member of Interventionistische Linke, a group that organized some of weekend’s actions. At the port and in the streets, this critique was turned into direct action. The demonstrations threatened, quite literally, to close off Hamburg’s Gateway to the World. Rhythms of free trade and openness were arrested in the phlegm of the blockade. Something rotten took its place.[17]

When bodies get in the way, when they are out of place, they expose the rancid reality of what one G20 spokesperson hailed as “inclusive globalization.” This is a globalization in which massive surpluses of edible food are left to rot in fields or landfills while millions die of malnutrition each day. Meanwhile, the cross-border flows of capital and goods, including luxury goods, have made an already rich global elite even richer. The latter cannot stomach the decay off of which they themselves profit. It becomes an embarrassment that must be kept out of sight, rather than thrown back on stage.

The G20 protests might be thought of as a counter-performance, one in which rotting steals the limelight. As in Hamlet, rotting is a sign that the time of empire has been thrown out of joint, or, to go back to the Old High German word hamma, bent. As imperial gateway fantasies are bent shut, the sluice gates of history are revealed and thrown wide open. The past pours in; its ghosts return.

On the Wednesday before the summit, Hamburg looked like it was filled with actual ghosts. Clay-covered figures trudged the streets in protest of the G20. They were part of a performance called 1000 Gestalten (“1000 shapes”). According to organizers they were meant to “represent a society that has lost its belief in solidarity and in which everyone fights for their own progress only.” The weekend’s blockade tactics took this performance one step further. They went from representing the ghoulish world of capitalism to bringing that world to a brief standstill—phlegmatically blocking the networks of exchange that made it possible. When bent during the City Strike, Hamburg’s gateway no longer appeared as a gateway to the world but as a gateway to the same: a dreary procession.

A Crowd Flowed Over. Source: 1000 Gestalten.

As shipping zones, airports, roads, and train stations became congested, liberal progress was unmasked as the city’s imperial history on repeat. For the political stakes of the protests were hardly different from what they would have been many centuries earlier. During the Hanseatic era, what were not tolerated, above all, were civil riots. The 1418 “Statute of the Hanseatic Towns” made it clear that all those who conspired against their town council would be subject to execution. Towns themselves would become barred from the common privileges of the Hanseatic League if they experienced any public unrest. Today, protests continue to pose a grave threat to Hamburg’s cosmopolitan image and access to international wealth. They are still a source of shame to those actors in power, one that needs to be forcefully repressed.

Once the G20 protests were underway, the state moved quickly to reopen the city’s Gateway and reclaim a sense of progress, continuity, and place. Hamburg police soon called in reinforcements and a no-fly zone was soon established in parts of the city, granting movement only to what and to who supported the phlegm-free circulation of goods and G20 strategy. Meanwhile, Merkel assured the media of a return to business as usual. Afterwards, her synopsis of the event was matter-of-fact: “the summit took place.” Despite the street riots that broke out during the weekend, with protestors looting stores and setting fire to cars, Merkel felt that the conference accomplished what it set out to do: “I am satisfied that we managed to say clearly that markets need to remain open.” For Merkel, what really “took place” was the reenactment of a global capitalist order. Everything else might well have never happened. The show must go on.


Reopening Hamburg to the global market, branding the city to reflect a glamorized Hanseatic past—these are projects of reclamation. In the environmental industry, reclamation usually refers to the process of creating new land from oceans, riverbeds, or some other watery region. This might be done by draining a submerged wetlands so that it become more inhabitable or more agriculturally productive. Reclamation can also be accomplished by filling an area with surplus material, by dredging sediments and debris from the bottom of a water source, for instance, and depositing them somewhere else to form a new land mass.

Reclamation often serves the ends of empire. In a place like Hamburg, power is shored up through the construction, enclosure, and maintenance of certain landscapes. These become garrisons for exclusive groups, facilitating practices of social and biological reproduction. This is what happened in 1935 when the Nazis reclaimed over 3,000 acres of land from the North Sea, just 60 miles west of Hamburg along the Elbe. Now called Dieksanderkoog, the marshy area was originally known as Adolf-Hitler-Koog and was seized from the ocean as part of the larger project of securing a “living space” (Lebensraum) for the Aryan race. There, the Nazis founded a community of workers and artisans who were handpicked for their racial purity.

Building Adolf-Hitler-Koog. Source: Die GSHG.

While no longer overtly eugenic, the reclamation of land in northern Germany continues to serve the interests of an elite group. Reclamation became especially important following the global recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s and the kind of “flood damage” they wreaked on urban economies such as Hamburg’s. Facing stagnancy in the market, governments and businesses began stirring the sediments of global labor via outsourcing and importing, leading to new flexible forms of capital accumulation. This had a significant impact on the Hamburg’s harbor. Several factories closed their doors including the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) shipyard, the largest in Hamburg and located just across the river from St. Pauli, which had many of its residents. Since the 1980s, the city has gone about “reclaiming” the abandoned wastelands of the harbor area, pouring massive amounts of investment into glitzy urban regeneration projects. This has provided new housing, jobs, and leisure activities—but mostly for the wealthy.[18]

Building HafenCity

Most notable here is the multi-billion euro HafenCity project, which broke ground in 2001. The plan, as its been in so many cities, is to win over the so-called creative class by presenting them with a flashy, green, multifaceted urban aesthetic—one rooted in Hamburg’s seafaring past. This aesthetic is encapsulated in the glassy architecture of the Elbphilharmonie, its undulating roof an exaggeration of the river below. Open since January 2017, the concert hall is often depicted through mixed metaphors, as “a cloud on a cliff, a sail, a wave, a ship, an iceberg, a tent.” What’s described is a kind of architectural alchemy, but one that is fully modern. As “Elphi” takes on new shapes, it creates the illusion of an infinite potential for transformation. Because of this, some consider the building to have revived the “entrepreneurial spirit” of Hamburg. For it reflects the very “creativity” through which projects like HafenCity hope to attract new audiences, visitors, and sources of capital. Here, reclamation not only involves the endless maintenance of landscapes (so they don’t slide back into the sea) but also casting them under the spell of endless value creation.

Blending In: Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Source: Hamburg Marketing.

In the 2000s urban planners gave the city’s reclamation strategy an official title: “Hamburg: City of Talent.” As investment poured in, neighborhoods near the harbor like St. Pauli have been violently reclaimed for the “creative” elite, with skyrocketing rents forcing out the poorest and creating massive income disparities among those left behind.[19] The terrain is rising as well: all buildings and roads in HafenCity have been built 8–9 meters above sea level in an effort to stave off future floods.

As the land around Hamburg’s harbor is reclaimed so too are parts of the past. This is highlighted on HafenCity’s official website, which stresses the ways in which the port’s “stirring history will still be omnipresent in the new district.” The facades of old shipping buildings are left in place but now house “multimedia agencies, creative and culture-related businesses.” In this way Hamburg’s maritime lineage is kept intact but gutted of its working-class silt. Reclaimed selectively, history becomes part of the material for constructing an attractive urban experience.

But reclamation has also long been a tactic of struggle. In contrast to the reclamations of empire, which seek to bury and dispose of excess sediments and unwanted bodies, radical reclamation transfers all power to the dregs of society. Hamburg’s recent history is filled with many instances of this practice. In addition to the G20 blockades, which temporarily reclaimed spaces of transportation and logistics, another site of reclamation has been the squat. In squatting, abandoned buildings or land are reclaimed housing, often by those who cannot otherwise afford rent in the city. Since the 1980s, squatters in Hamburg have successfully fended off waves of neoliberal urban development.[20] An example is the Hafenstraße in St. Pauli, which runs right along the Elbe. For years, the Hafenstraße squat stood as an autonomous stronghold against the rising tide of housing costs, gentrification, and forced eviction in Hamburg. It also played an important role in broader anti-nuclear, anti-war, and anti-imperialist movements.[21]

Hafenstraße squat, c. 1990. Source.

Struggles over the reclamation of urban space are struggles over the right to the city. As David Harvey and many others have argued, the right to the city has the potential to anchor a wide array of anti-capitalist struggles.[22] Over the past decade this has been demonstrated in Hamburg by the city’s Recht auf Stadt (Right to the City) coalition. Comprised of neighborhood initiatives, artist collectives, and leftist groups, the coalition has provided a bulwark against the ongoing privatization of public space and the explosion of rent prices that has occurred Hamburg since the late 2000s. In 2009, around 200 artists and demonstrators occupied the last remaining buildings in the historic Gängeviertel, once a working class neighborhood near the city center. The dilapidated buildings had been bought by a Dutch investor, who planned to demolish them to make way for new, glass-clad offices and luxury condos. The occupiers demanded, and eventually convinced the city, that the neighborhood should be conserved as an historic site but also as an “Alternative Urban Space” with affordable studios and housing.

The Right to the City coalition has also acted in solidarity with the struggle for refugee rights in Hamburg. In particular it has supported Lampedusa in Hamburg, a group of 300 Libyan asylum-seekers who arrived in Hamburg in 2013 after the Italian government closed refugee camps on the island of Lampedusa. Members of the group had originally come ashore on Lampedusa in 2011, having crossed the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats. Many died along the way. For those who lived, the danger of the open ocean seemed to travel with them. Now in Hamburg, there is a sense that Lampedusa refugees have never been allowed to fully disembark.  The city has continually denied them the housing and work permits needed to access to social benefits. In addition, the refugees face the constant threat of deportation since under the European Union’s Dublin Regulation asylum claims are only valid in the first EU country of entry. Lack of refugee status in Germany makes it difficult to reclaim any sense of security.[23]

Lampedusa tent near Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (central rail station). Source: Hamburger Morgenpost.

In response to the state’s negligence, other groups moved quickly to create safe harbor. Along with squats and leftist cultural centers, churches and mosques opened their doors, providing refugees with shelter, aid, and basic services. This reflects a larger trend in Europe of religious institutions becoming sites of sanctuary for refugees. On the one hand, these practices are reclamations of space. Asyl in der Kirche (Church Asylum) delineates a zone that, because sacred, is inaccessible to police and deportation agencies.[24] But this is also a reclamation of history. In Hamburg and elsewhere, churches justify Asyl in der Kirche by citing centuries-old traditions of sanctuary. These range from biblical passages to medieval laws to the Underground Railroad in the US.[25] In this way, “geosocial solidarity” today must be thought of as a solidarity with the past. Present struggles find their footing in historical landscapes, those that remain partially sealed off from the legal and political frameworks of the state.

From the squatting tactics of the 1980s to religious sanctuary in the middle ages, the residues of past struggles are reclaimed in Hamburg today for the protection of the poor and displaced. Because their currents run counter to the existing global order, such residues never fully dissolve in its flows. They are what the late geographer Allan Pred called “erosion-resistant sediments”—the muddy silt of struggle that accretes beneath the surface of the present, releasing sulfurous swamp bubbles.[26] In the marshland, the ground is always in danger of going under.

Welcome to Hell

The “Welcome to Hell” demonstration took place on the Thursday before the G20 summit, starting out at the Hamburg Fish Market in St. Pauli. Organizers described it as an “autonomous and anti-capitalist alliance” that would use “various and unpredictable mass resistance” to “disrupt the smooth proceedings of the summit’s performance.” Brought to a standstill, the capitalist world of the G20 could be revealed for what it is: a marshy hell where nothing ever changes, even if it appears to. What was once a summit, turns out to be an infernal pit.

Welcome 2 Hell

“Mobilizing internationally,” the Welcome to Hell demonstration could be seen as a kind of inverse Hanseatic League. For it was envisioned as a coalition of political struggles—from Colombian coal mine to the Hamburg harbor—unified by their “unconciliatory antagonism towards the prevailing conditions and the summit spectacle.” In this vein, the Hell demonstration sought to rip the ground from under the summit’s “success-oriented resumes” and “fireside chats.” Despite its triumphalist displays, the G20 defended a sinking world marked by unending “crises and wars” and by “rising nationalism and hate towards minorities.” What was called for was not any kind of reform, not a better hell, but a complete break: “we are not going to suggest alternatives in order to keep the capitalist system alive.” With the space of alternatives left empty, the past flooded in. Rather than looking for utopian futures, the G20 demonstrations instead reached backwards in time—“connecting the terrain of resistance” across space but also history. The idea, as expressed by the Welcome to Hell organizers, was to “turn Hamburg into a location and an exclamation mark of resistance against old and new authorities of capitalism.” This spanned from today’s G20, to urban developers in the 1980s, to the proto-capitalist policies of the Hanseatic League.

Historical fault lines of struggle became apparent in the visual features of the G20 protests, including what people were wearing. Media images tended to focus on one group of demonstrators in particular: those dressed in uniform black clothing, their faces covered with black scarves, ski masks, or some other garb. This aesthetic—known as the Black Bloc (Schwarzer Block)—first emerged in West Germany’s Autonome scene in the 1980s. It has been used since as a tactic for concealing identity, blocking state surveillance, thus helping militants avoid later criminal prosecution.

Black bloc during a demo for the Hafenstraße squat, 1980s. Source: Enough is Enough.

Some of the earliest blocs were formed in Hamburg during the 1980s in the defense of the Hafenstraße squat.[27] The tactic returned home during the Welcome to Hell demo. That Thursday evening, around 1,000 protestors in black bloc, out of a crowd of 12,000, set out on a march to the Hafenstraße, before being blocked by police. After a long standoff, the police fired a volley of tear gas into the crowd and charged, injuring many and making over 50 arrests.

Afterwards, to justify their use of violence, police blamed the black bloc for disobeying orders to remove masks. Since the 1985, it has been illegal in Germany to cover your face during any public meeting or demonstration. During the Welcome to Hell demo, concealment of identity served as a rationale for preemptive state aggression. As one protestor recalled, the police “charged us, because some people were wearing masks.” Meanwhile, government officials, the media, and even some leftists were quick to shun the black bloc, dismissing their actions at the G20 as violence for violence’s sake. This follows a larger trend in the US and Europe of demonizing “masked rioters,” seeing them as thugs, devils, or evil incarnate.[28] This demonization is not surprising. The aesthetics of monochromatic anonymity poses a threat to the current order of visibility. It undercuts the power of the state to control who and what is allowed to appear within and flow through space. For without knowledge of identity, the state has no way of applying laws to individuals, no rationale for exclusion. The imperial order of space-time begins to slip away. Sealed off from the vision of the state, the city becomes a site of experiment, of mingling currents.

In shrouding demonstrators from police scrutiny, black bloc attire carves out an autonomous zone, or rather, a space of sanctuary. During the G20 protests in Hamburg, spaces of sanctuary opened up across the city. The night after the Welcome to Hell march, Hamburg locals and other demonstrators were able to carve out a police-free zone in the Schanze district. For several hours, the area was defended with barricades, until a heavily armed police force broke through. While only temporary, the Schanze sanctuary pointed away from the Hell of the G20 to more hallow grounds. It offered a glimpse into another world—not a future utopia so much as a submerged marshland, one whose silt runs deep beneath Hamburg, flowing from its distant past.

The G20 demonstrations do not “point to a new type of protest.” They marks the resurgence of a much older tradition of occupation, blockade, and concealment. Anti-G20 protestors reclaimed space in Hamburg in ways that echo some of the tactics used to combat the Hanseatic League in the late middle ages. Much like today’s “post-recession” era, the late medieval period in Western Europe was marked by economic downturn, urban crises, and social unrest. After two centuries of prosperity and unprecedented population growth, Europe’s movement came to an abrupt halt around 1300. This ushered in a long cycle of popular uprisings in rural and urban areas, within Germany and elsewhere.[29]

In certain places, tensions were exacerbated by the Hanseatic League. By the late 15th century, the League’s financial policies had led to extreme class inequality in cities like Hamburg.[30] Trading restrictions had led to increased starvation during what was already a period of famine, while merchants on the city council reaped the benefits of the high prices. In 1481, a rebellion broke out. Members of the lower crafts, particularly brewers and butchers, demanded political representation and rose up to challenge the Hanseatic-controlled City Council.[31] By 1482, the conflict centered on the Cistercian Monastery of Harvestehude, located just outside the city. In what might be seen as a proto-capitalist “structural adjustment,” the Council was attempting to impose a set of reforms on the monastery. Although the specific reasons are obscured in the historical record, it is likely that the reform was largely motivated by political and economic, and not just religious, factors. Other reforms during the period often took issue with monasteries’ lack of enclosure and the nuns’ personal property.[32] Those who wanted to reform the monastery at Harvestehude probably had similar goals in mind, seeking to better fold the institution into the dominion of the City Council and ecclesiastical authorities. But the nuns fought back. During a “riot” at the monastery, a Hamburg resident named Catharina Arndes, whose nieces lived in the monastery as nuns, lifted up her skirts in front the archbishop’s chaplain. The chaplain had just arrived at the monastery with a group of Council reformers. He retreated when Arndes exposed herself, presumably out of embarrassment. The monastery was left unreformed and, for the time being, autonomous.[33]

Medieval Cistercian Nuns. Source: Medievalists.net.

The events of the 1480s haunted the G20 protests, returning in new forms. Instead of nuns there was the black bloc. Instead of the Harvestehude monastery there was Schanze police-free zone. Once again, the ruling urban order was put on trial as the “rioting masses” sought to reclaim their right to the city, and to their bodies. In this way both struggles were struggles over social reproduction, over the ability of the individual and of the collective to create life on their own terms, outside Hell’s gate.

The blockade of Hamburg’s port demonstrates how struggles over social reproduction obstruct, not only the gaze of the state, but also the dominant flows of people and goods. During Hanseatic times, this obstruction became a stopgap measure against the injustices of the world market, a way of inverting it in the service of the poor and displaced. This is what happened during the wave of food riots that rippled across German towns in the late 1840s, including Hamburg.[34] The riots included marketplace raids, shop looting, and the blockade of shipments. Sometimes foodstuff was seized and brought to townhall, where it was sold at lower prices, or no price at all.[35] In this way, the circulation of staple goods—those needed to live—could be rerouted to fortify those most in need.

The blockaders at the G20 summit opened up a similar countercurrent. As they descended on the port from multiple locations, many chanted Alles Allen!—“Everything for Everyone!” When situating the protests within Hamburg’s history, this “everyone” extends across space but also across time. It includes the dead. Their lives become the buoys for struggle today, bobbing up and down in the current. The dykes break and the past floods back in.

Everything for Everyone

Commitment to the dead is a key feature of the marshland. Life there breeds a kind of fatalism – a militant resignation that in time all will return to the sea. G20 leaders, the prophets of globalization, fight against this. They call for increased investment and development, seizing new lands for the global community of capital, placing all their faith in the free will of entrepreneurs and in a “rules-based international order.” Clothed in the language of inclusivity, this is really a gated community, founded on oaths of blood and class. Those outside the “community” are left to face the dangers of the open sea and the rising tides.

With the coming flood, a different collectivity surfaces, one held together by what geographer Phil Neel calls “oaths of water.”[36] Such a collectivity is radically open, without any sluice gates. It is based on a fidelity to the real flood – to the shared political project of widening the breaches, bogs, and countercurrents already carved into the global capitalist order. When inundated, that order is short-circuited: its shipping crates of goods and luxuries come to a standstill, can be seized for all.

Oaths of water are not unlike the ones early modern pirates would make to uphold the equal sharing of plunder.[37] At that time, pirates posed a serious threat to Hanseatic trade. [38] Piracy, including online piracy, continues to plague international commerce today. But unlike the pirate oath, fidelity to the flood means something more than just plunder. It extends beyond the living. The task is to reshape time and space on behalf of the drowned and drowning, transforming life from its watery depths below. As the world is turned to marshland, the water and silt from the past surges back in, saturating the ground with antediluvian excess, with reality. Suddenly it becomes clear that the sea, to echo Joseph Conrad, is “the only world that counted.”[39] Underwater the spell of the G20 is broken. Hell loses its foundations. Its gates fall into rivers, are carried downstream, out into the open ocean.

[1] John Lorinc, Cities (Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2008).
[2] David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).
[3] Marichela Sepa, “Urban history and cultural resources in urban regeneration: a case of creative waterfront renewal,” Planning Perspectives 28, 4 (2013): 595–613.
[4] Wolfgang Michalski, Capitalising on Change in a Globalising World: A View from Hamburg (Hamburg: Murmann Verlag, 2011).
[5] Erik Lindberg, “The Rise of Hamburg as a Global Marketplace in the Seventeenth Century: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 50, 3 (2008), 641–662.
[6] In his 1983 novel Waterland, Graham Swift arrives at a similar point when reflecting on the Fens in England: “That’s the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here” (p. 61).
[7] Natascha Mehler, “Hanse Archaeology,” in Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed. Claire Smith (New York: Springer, 2014), 3209–3219.
[8] Michael North, “The Hanseatic League in the Early Modern Period,” in Companion to the Hanseatic League, ed. Donald J. Harreld (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 101–126.
[9] Deeping channels allow ocean tides to flow further down the Elbe, turning the waters around Hamburg more brackish. This poses a major danger for freshwater wildlife there.
[10] Massey D (2005) For Space. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
[11] Hamburg’s “Honorable Merchants” provided 70 million Euro in startup capital for the new Elbphilharmonie.
[12] Hamburg’s merchant heritage also saturates the everyday. The state flag of Hamburg, seen throughout the city, maintains the red-and-white color scheme of Hanseatic heraldry. On cars (some of which were set on fire during the G20 riots) registration plates begin with the letters “HH” denoting Hansestadt Hamburg, “Hanseatic city of Hamburg.” Placing its stamp on a more modern form of transportation, underneath chrome Audi logos, Hanseatic membership now circulates within urban space as spectacle, moving from the sea to the streets. As it does so it creates the illusion that not much has changed, that Hamburg remains encased in a water globe of merchant trade, a miniature capitalist utopia.
[13] Rainer Liedtke, “Germany’s Door to the World: A Haven for Jews? Hamburg, 1590–1933,” in Port Jews: Jewish Communities in Cosmopolitan Maritime Trading Centres, 1550–1950, ed. David Cesarani D (London: Routledge, 2013), 79.
[14] Henning Albrecht, Alfred Beit: The Hamburg Diamond King (Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2012).
[15] Liedtke, “Germany’s Door to the World.”
[16] For more on Hamburg’s histories of exclusion and how they are part and parcel of its cosmopolitan image see Key MacFarlane and Katharyne Mitchell, “Hamburg’s Spaces of Danger: Race, Violence and Memory in a Contemporary Global City,International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (forthcoming).
[17] The Hanseatic League used the tactic of the blockade as well. From 1358 to 1360, for instance, the League established a blockade of Flanders, eventually forcing the Flemish counts to capitulate to their demands. See: David Nicholas, The Later Medieval City: 1300–1500 (London: Routledge, 1997).
[18] Peter Birke, “Right to the City—and Beyond: The Topographies of Urban Social Movements in Hamburg,” in Urban Uprisings: Challenging Neoliberal Urbanism in Europe, ed. Margit Mayer, Catharina Thörn, and Håkan Thörn (London: Palgrave, 2016).
[19] Peter Birke, “Right to the City—and Beyond.”
[20] Johannes Novy and Claire Colomb, “Struggling for the Right to the (Creative) City in Berlin and Hamburg: New Urban Social Movements, New ‘Spaces of Hope’?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37, 5 (2013): 1816–38.
[21] Alexander Vasudevan, The Autonomous City: A history of urban squatting (London: Verso, 2017).
[22] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012).
[23] See: Matthew Sparke and Katharyne Mitchell, “Lampedusa in Hamburg and the ‘Throwntogetherness’ of Global City Citizenship,” In Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues, ed. Marion Werner, Jamie Peck, Rebecca Lave, and Brett Christophers (New York: Agenda Publishing, 2018).
[24] But sometimes the state violates sacred space. In 2016, police in Iceland literally dragged two refugees from a church altar.
[25] See: Katharyne Mitchell and Key MacFarlane, “The Sanctuary Network: Transnational Church Activism and Refugee Protection in Europe,” in Handbook on Critical Geographies of Migration, ed. Katharyne Mitchell, Reese Jones, and Jennifer Fluri (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2019).
[26] Alan Pred, The Past Is Not Dead: Facts, Fictions, and Enduring Racial Stereotypes. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004): xi.
[27] Francis Dupuis-Déri, Who’s Afraid of the Black Blocs: Anarchy in Action Around the World (Oakland: PM Press, 2014), 28.
[28] The demonization of masks has a long history in the Hanseatic towns of northern Germany. During the late medieval period, carnival celebrations often involved a masked “wildman” figure known as the schoduvel, who’s function was to shock and frighten. The second part of the word schoduvel is Low German for devil; the first part is probably related to the High German verb scheuen meaning “to fear, to shun.” For more see: Anu Mänd, Urban Carnival: Festive Culture in the Hanseatic Cities of the Eastern Baltic, 1350-1550 (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2005).
[29] Robert W. Shaffern, Law and Justice from Antiquity to Enlightenment. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).
[30] Lübeck felt these tensions earlier on. At the beginning of the 15th century, the Hansa-led town council had tried to impose higher taxes on certain staples in an effort to offset its growing debt. Townspeople accused the council of attending to the business of the Hanseatic league at the expense of local affairs. During an uprising in 1408, the council was overthrown, its members forced to flee town. For more see: Rhiman A. Rotz, “The Lübeck Uprising of 1408 and the Decline of the Hanseatic League,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 121, 1 (1977): 1–45.
[31] Cordelia Heß, “Nigra crux mala crux: a comparative perspective on urban conflict in Gdansk in 1411 and 1416,” Urban History 41, no. 4 (2014): 565–581.
[32] In the case of Harvestehude, it’s at least clear that the reforms sought to strip the monastery of its ownership of the nearby village Wellingsbüttel.
[33] Cordelia Heß, “Skirts and Politics: The Cistercian Monastery of Harvestehude and the Hamburg City Council,” Medieval Feminist Forum 47, no. 2 (2011): 57–92.
[34] See: Manfred Gailus, “Food Riots in Germany in the Late 1840s,” Past & Present 145 (1994): 157–193.
[35] Similar tactics were used in late medieval Europe. For example, during the 1347 food riots at the Hanseatic League ports of Boston, Bristol, and Bishop’s Lynn in England, rioters stopped the transport of grain and sold what they had taken at their own price.
[36] Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict (London: Reaktion, 2018).
[37] John Esquemeling, The Buccaneers of America (New York: Cosimo, 2007 [1678]).
[38] Natascha Mehler, “The Perception and Interpretation of Hanseatic Material Culture in the North Atlantic: Problems and Suggestions,” Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Vol. 1 (2009): 89–108.
[39] Joseph Conrad, The Shadow Line: A Confession (Garden City: Doubleday, 1917), 59.