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.