Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review 366: Death in Hamburg

DEATH IN HAMBURG: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1892, by Richard J. Evans. 673 pages, illustrated. Penguin paperback

In the 19th century, Hamburg was called “the most English city in Germany,” meaning that it was run by a merchant clique on the lines of Gladstonian liberalism: what today we would call rightwing conservatism with libertarian aspects. Free trade uber alles. It was a disaster.

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.)

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