The Hamburg in All of Us

How have the 9/11 attacks affected the relationship between Hamburg and the United States?

December 24, 2002

How have the 9/11 attacks affected the relationship between Hamburg and the United States?

After the September 11 attacks, to which Hamburg was unwitting midwife, another president named George saw still more molestation and trouble brewing. He promptly ordered security fences and armed guards to surround this consulate.

The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, scrambled to insist on its solidarity with the United States by taking out several full-page advertisements in the New York Times to emphasize its "dismay" at the September 11 attacks and to insist to New York that Hamburg still "stands by you."

Why? Why should Hamburg's businesses feel any more responsible for the attacks than, say, the Comfort Inn — where two of the hijackers spent the night before the attacks?

After a month in that windy northern city speaking with a wide range of the city's elite, I discovered that the attacks have exposed the fault line between Hamburg's self-image as an important, worldly city — and the reality of a wealthy town run by a cliquish elite.

Noisy grief has been accompanied by quiet admissions that the city's patrician past did not prepare it well for the world's multicultural present.

In Hamburg, the September 11 attacks have become a reference point for a broad malaise. Conversations quickly turn to the sagging economy — and the general fear of further terror attacks.

But I found an even deeper pain in a city that has seen its proud reputation as an international city grow stale. Hamburg's port, which was once the gateway to Europe, has been pushed toward irrelevance.

The media sector, which has been the big hope for economic growth, has been hit hard by the advertising slump. In this context, any damage to Hamburg's relationship with America, a cornerstone of the city's internationalism for centuries, was bound to be hit particularly hard.

Former Mayor Klaus von Dohnanyi was concerned that these trends cause a growing unwillingness of his fellow Hamburgers to get to know other cultures. "I'm afraid that the city will sink into admiring provincial beauty," he said, "rather than continuing to develop its international character."

Living in a port city, Hamburg's leaders understand that their city's wealth is based on contact with the outside world. But that contact kept strict office hours.

For many centuries, the city's elite has spent evenings nurturing a well-groomed sense of superiority in clubs that only admit members with a long Hamburg lineage.

Even for Germans from other cities, Hamburg society has always had a reputation for being particularly insular. It can afford to be — the Hanseatic League, the trading partnership that Hamburg co-founded, made Hamburg extremely wealthy. It still has one of the richest city centers in continental Europe.

The Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, where the leaders of the September 11 attacks studied, carried on that internationalist tradition. The university was founded to encourage overseas students to discover Germany.

But the point was to train those students in Hamburg — and then send them home again, in the hope that they would become valuable trading partners. Just because we paid for your seat at the party, the feeling went, doesn't mean we want you sitting next to us.

For some, Germany's painful past has a strong local resonance. Like Republican Senators from the American South, those who champion Hamburg traditions have to tread a fine line between embracing their past — and distancing themselves from the racist elements.

Some of Hamburg's most respected family dynasties were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler, whose message of self-reliance and Nordic superiority resonated with their Hanse traditions.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the city elected Ronald Schill, a politician who had campaigned on a platform of cracking down on crime — by which he largely meant foreigners.

The ombudsman office that helped immigrants navigate the complicated immigration laws was closed. Instead of speeding processing of asylum seekers, the administration proudly reported how many planeloads of them they had deported.

Of course, shock and grief was the immediate and over-riding reaction to the attacks on New York and Washington. Axel Springer, the German publishing company founded in Hamburg in 1946, went so far as to add a principle to its corporate charter stating its "solidarity with the values of the United States of America."

But in the midst of the flurry of memorial services and interfaith dialogue meetings, many sought more traditional refuge from the newly painful world. In the wake of September 11, private clubs such as Hamburg's Harmony Society of 1789 enjoyed a surge in membership.

"The September 11th tragedy was a shock that made you aware of the world, but made you look for friendship and diversion," said Martin Sillem, president of the Harmony, one of the city's most exclusive clubs and one which bills itself as the oldest men's club on the continent.

Rules are no longer as restrictive as they once were, but outsiders still need not apply. "We don't have any foreigners in our club," Sillem said, who traces his Hamburg roots back at least as far as 1560.

"We do have some Bavarians," he added.

For Hamburg, the post-9/11 mantra of "Nothing will be the same" has become an unspoken "Nothing has changed." The wounded pride and hopeful clinging to past ways that I found in Hamburg underscored the drift of a city used to worldly power.

But the story does not really end there. After all, regardless of where we live, all of us are watching U.S. President Bush fight an enemy whose power is that it is stateless — by preparing war against the state of Iraq.

And we are all watching in amazement as U.S. energy policy places ever-higher priorities on the oil resources that funded the enemy in the first place. I find myself wondering: Isn't there a little Hamburg in all of us?