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Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910 [Paperback]

Richard J. Evans
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

2 Feb 2006
'The terrible cholera epidemic of 1892' offers a wealth of insights into the inner life of a great European city at the height of the industrial age. Why were nearly 10,000 people killed in six weeks in Hamburg, whilst most of Europe was left almost unscathed? As Richard J.Evans explains, it was largely because the town was a unique anomaly: a 'free city' within Germany governed by local notables, who believed in the 'English' ideals of laissez-faire. Their failure to supply clean water, fresh air and pure food played a major role in the catastrophe. Their medical theories, influenced by political and economic interest, only made matters worse. The whole story of 'the cholera years' is tragically revealing of the age's social inequalities and administrative incompetence; it also offers some disquieting parallels with today's attitudes to AIDS.

Product details

  • Paperback: 678 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin USA (2 Feb 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014303636X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143036364
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 14.1 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,090,709 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Richard J. Evans is Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. His previous books include In Defence of History, Telling Lies about Hitler and the companions to this title, The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power. He lives outside Cambridge.

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"A brilliantly written work of great analytical penetration." --Gordon A. Craig, The New York Review of Books"A marvelous book, splendidly written, full of wit and anecdote, exuding scholarship and wisdom." --New Scientist

About the Author

Richard J Evans is Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University. His previous books include In Defence of History, Telling Lies about Hitler, The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power. He lives outside Cambridge.

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THE German Empire founded by Bismarck in 1871 has sometimes been described as a 'federation of monarchs', but strictly speaking it was not. Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Social History 17 Mar 2013
In 1892 Hamburg was the last major European city to have a significant epidemic of cholera. 10,000 people died in less than a month. Richard Evans examines this disaster in all its dimensions. It is an academic book - maps, tables and graphs accompany close argument and analysis. A familiarity with 19th century history is presupposed.

Hamburg had boomed in the 19th century. By the time of the epidemic its population exceeded 600,000, many packed into narrow warrens of tenements like the Alley Quarter. It became one of the world's biggest ports. Emigrants to America poured there from all over Europe and beyond. This alone made the city peculiarly susceptible to a disease of this kind. In addition the Elbe, the great river that made Hamburg what it was, was effectively a sewer.

Evans shows how its political structure was ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. An oligarchy of merchant families dominated all aspects of life. An extremely narrow franchise went hand-in-hand with concentrated economic power. Harbour development received a priority never granted to sanitary reform. By 1892 the merchants faced an organised working class locally, and a greater threat to their independence from Berlin, where the new German state wanted to integrate the city into the Empire. Then came the cholera.

The first case was noted on August 11, probably arriving with migrants from Russia. The first death occurred 4 days later. Evans charts in detail the rapidity of spread and the utter collapse of local life. Initial attempts by the merchants to keep the port open were stopped by Robert Koch, on a mission from Berlin, who shut the city down. The author discusses in detail the relationship between Koch's bacteriological discoveries and Imperial centralisation.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Social history at its best 16 July 1997
By A Customer - Published on
This book by an eminent social historian of Germany tells the story of the cholera epidemic in late nineteenth-century Hamburg. Using an excellent mixture of local politics, history of science, traditional political history, and demographics, Evans shows how the attempts of local politicians to resist pressure from Berlin during the years of unification led to thousands of deaths in Hamburg due to an outdated water system, while residents in bordering Altona were spared. The story shows the interaction of politics with the history of science and technology, as rival theories about cholera -- the environmental "miasmic" theory and the infectious disease theory advocated by Robert Koch in the Prussian ministry of health -- were debated. A state-of-the art work of historiography that's also a gripping read, written in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. It's really too bad that the paperback went out of print
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Social History 6 Sep 2010
By R. Albin - Published on
A very thorough and analytically strong book examining the nature of society in Wilhelmine Germany. Evans uses a major outbreak of cholera in Hamburg in 1892 as a tool to examine crucial social and political features of late 19th century Germany. By 1892, Hamburg was the second largest city in Germany, the biggest port and a major industrial center. It also had distinctive social and political traditions. One of the original Hanseatic league cities, Hamburg was governed under a modified early 18th century constitution that allowed the city to be dominated by its mercantile elite. The emerging middle classes had some say in city politics but the enormous and quite impoverished working classes were excluded from local-regional politics. The dominant powers in Hamburg strongly favored a classically liberal ("English-Manchesterite") regime; free trade and a nightwatchman type of government. In addition to maintaining control over local politics, the Hamburg elites were also fighting something of a rearguard action against the centralizing power of the Prussian-Imperial German state.

The 1892 cholera epidemic was an essentially unique event. No other western European community experienced such a cholera epidemic in that year. Cholera was introduced by Russian emigrants transiting through Hamburg on their way to North America. The failure of quarantine procedures, the tardy identification of the outbreak, and the spread of cholera were due in large part to the nightwatchman nature of Hamburg governance. A major factor in the wide and rapid spread of cholera, for example, was the existence of a central municipal water supply. This was a relatively modern feature but in the years prior to the 1892 cholera outbreak, the municipal government had been reluctant to invest in the safety features that would have retarded the spread of cholera.

Evans has a series of nice and very detailed discussions of the evolution of city government, the social structure of Hamburg, of Imperial politics, of disease theories in the years leading up to the epidemic, and of how all these apparently disparate features relate to each other. There is, for example, a really interesting discussion of how the emerging bacteriology of Koch and others fits in with the increasingly interventionist character of the German state. The description of the epidemic itself and its aftermath is exemplary, a simply first-rate description and analysis of the nature of the epidemic, how it affected the different social strata in Hamburg, how the city changed as a result of the epidemic. Evans does particularly well in comparing events in Hamburg to other 19th century municipal epidemics, and in applying his analysis of events in Hamburg to illuminate larger currents in 19th century social history.
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