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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. Prominent individuals were brought down, and the old liberal mercantile order was undermined. The Social Democrats seized the opportunity to take their place as a powerful political force.

Evans then takes the story beyond the crisis year and shows how the city was to change up to and beyond 1914. He has interesting reflections on why Hamburg became a centre of the NSDAP related to the city's unique political development.

There is little that Richard Evans does not cover. I was, for example, fascinated by his idea that the "miasma" theory of cholera partly reflected the economic doctrine of Adam Smith's hidden hand. There is much else here. It is a "serious" study, but absolutely fascinating.
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Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910
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