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Hamburg: The most British city outside of Britain

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Hamburg: The most British city outside of Britain
Friedrich Richter, a Hamburger anglophile, standing beside his Jaguar Mark IV. Photo: Yasmin Samrai
15:21 CEST+02:00
With 4,000 British expats and a rich trading history with the island across the North Sea, Hamburg is Germany’s most anglophile city. Centuries after Hamburger merchants first made contact with their London counterparts, Brits have held a special status in the Hanseatic city. Despite the prospect of losing financially from Brexit, Hamburg clings onto a nostalgic vision of Great Britain.

On a bright Sunday morning in Hamburg, an elderly German donning a tartan bow tie and a Scottish kilt proudly displayed his original 1948 Jaguar to admiring visitors.

Behind him lay the pristine playing fields of the Hamburger Polo Club, where other fans of the British way of life had gathered. Dressed for the occasion in tweed blazers and flat caps, some were shopping for British products inside the cream-coloured tents running down the grounds of the polo club, while others were tucking into fish 'n' chips inside the double decker bus-turned café. On the open air stage, a local dancing school was performing an Irish folk dance.

The sight seemed to come straight out of a village fête in rural Britain rather than the outward-looking, gateway to the world, Hamburg. But for three days each summer, the Hamburger Polo Club transforms into a little Britain, transporting locals across the channel with everything from cricket matches to vintage car parades. The celebration concludes with a "Last Night of the Proms" show.

British Flair

One of dozens of stands at the British Flair offering Hamburger locals a taste of British life. Photo: Yasmin Samrai

The British Flair, originally called British Day, has been around since 1991 and has since become a huge celebration of the Anglo-Hanseatic friendship.

Over 80 exhibitors had set up shop on the grounds of the Polo Club on September 26th, including Friederike Gardener, who was selling luxury fabrics by the British designer Beatrice von Treskow. Half-German and half-English, Gardener describes herself as “anglophile by nature” and sees similarities between Hamburg and Britain.

“The red brick houses, the rain, the sea – it definitely reminds me much more of Britain than Berlin does,” she said.

“I mean some of the people walking around are more British than people in England. The only real British thing here is the fact that we’ve got the Indian place. That’s really hit the nail on the head,” Gardener said, pointing to the Indian tandoori stand on display at the fair.

There is barely a year to go before Britain officially leaves the European Union, but Gardener thinks that Brexit won’t dampen Hamburgers’ enthusiasm for British culture.

“People will dress up because they want to dress up,” she said. “They will still want to celebrate Britishness and will take any excuse to have a good time and some fun.”

Christian Duske. Photo: Yasmin Samrai

Enjoying a cigar, Christian Duske was promoting vintage port wine and rum at the event with his wife Maren Duske. This was their tenth year at the British Flair. Both anglophiles at heart, they sent their two children to an English boarding school.

Listing the aspects of British culture he most admires, Mr Duske noted “the great empire, the glory, the internationality, the mannerisms, and the homeliness”.

While they said Brexit won’t have a hugely detrimental effect on their business, they expect an increase in the price of their goods.

Mrs Duske said she hoped the Anglo-German bond withstands Britain's departure from the EU.

“It depends on how the Brits handle Brexit,” she remarked. “But it would be a shame if Germans in England are labelled as migrants.”

‘Idealized and old-fashioned’

Nevertheless, some British expats find that Hamburg’s celebrations of Britishness – in the form of the British Flair and private clubs – fall back on stereotypes.

John Heaven, a British expat originally from Birmingham, has lived in Hamburg for over 8 years with his German wife. He argues that Hamburg’s representations of British culture tend to perpetuate a caricature of the country that is at odds with modern Britain.

“It reinforces this very idealized, old-fashioned version of Britain,” he said. “Institutions like the Anglo-German club also sell a very quaint, nostalgic version of Britishness. Previously, they didn’t allow women in and given that one of their honorary members is the British Ambassador to Germany, it suggested that to be British is to be sexist.”

The elite club is located in Hamburg's Eimsbüttel district. Photo: Anglo-German Club

The Anglo-German club, founded in 1948 by British occupation officers, describes itself as “the continent’s last British colony.” Established to foster communication, at a time when defusing tension was essential for Germany’s re-entry into diplomatic affairs, it continues to host British politicians and business elites.

Since Heaven and 20 other British expats wrote a letter calling out the Anglo-German Club for its sexist membership policy, the club has allowed women to join as members.

Club President, Claus-Günther Budelmann, who keeps all of Winston Churchill’s speeches on DVD, said that British Flair is indeed a form of “marketing,” but emphasized that it intends to showcase the best of Britain. All proceeds from the event go to charity.

“Hamburgers adore this traditional event because they share a similar mentality to the British,” Budelmann said. “The games, the understated attitude, the humour – the event makes that come to life.”

Heaven said he is hesitant, however, to criticize how Hamburg celebrates British culture because he’s not sure what depiction of Britain should replace it. Beyond the words “multicultural” and “innovative” he found it hard to pinpoint what exactly a modern picture of Britain would like.

Moreover, he admits it’s unfair to expect a German city to accurately represent Britain when the concept of Britishness seems to be under strain.

“Within Britain, Brits can’t define for themselves what Britishness means,” Heaven said, referring to a national identity crisis sparked by Brexit. “I’ve also kind of hit my limit. Why should I promote Britishness when I’m unhappy with the British state at the moment?

“Britain is pursuing a course of action that is just diametrically opposed to my own interests and my own way of life.”

For some, the Britain on display at Hamburg’s British Flair recalled the vision of Britain Brexiters seemed to romanticize when they cast their votes: provincial and imperial, Union-Jack waving and trumpet-blaring.

Historical Friendship

The Hamburg economy has been more closely linked to the UK than other regions of Germany for centuries. Last year, Hamburg’s foreign trade with the UK totaled around €5.6 billion, making Britain its fourth more important economic partner.

This economic alliance stretches back from the earliest mercantile interactions in the 13th Century to the present day startup scene in Hamburg.

By the 17th Century, British merchants held a special status in the Hanseatic city. They were granted religious freedom to practice their Anglican faith in the Lutheran city and, in return, Hamburg merchants were the only Germans to hold a permanent place at the London Stock Exchange.

As trade flourished, the sons of Hamburger merchants travelled to England to take up apprenticeships. They discovered English home life and leisure activities, bringing back with them the sport of rowing. Equestrian sports came cantering across later in the 19th Century, leading to the founding of Hamburg’s Polo Club.

The steel silhouettes of the Beatles in Reeperbahn, Hamburg's Red Light District, where the band performed in the early 1960s. Photo: DPA

These centuries-long trade relations have formed the basis for an unshakably strong relationship between the English Community and anglophile Hamburg, one that survived the 23,000 tons of bombs the British dropped on Hamburg during Second World War and left footprints across the city.

On the Zeughausmarkt, the neoclassical English Church of St. Thomas Becket – Europe’s oldest Anglican church – holds services in English 400 years on. Hamburg’s anglophiles can say their prayers there in the morning, stop for high tea and scones at the charming Lühmanns Teestube in the afternoon, and unleash their devilish side in the Red Light District Reeperbahn when night falls.

In the square leading to its most hedonistic street, Große Freiheit, they will find life-size silhouettes of the Beatles, reminding Hamburgers that the British have a lot to thank them for as well. It was playing at bars in the pulsating nightclubs of Reeperbahn that shot the band to success.

Although Berlin boasts more than twice as many British expats than Hamburg, Londoners will feel at home in the Hanseatic City. As one Hamburger saying goes: “When it starts raining in London, people in Hamburg open their umbrellas.”

In addition to rainy summers, both maritime cities are characterized by the ebb and flow of their rivers. The Elbe winds along docks and red-bricked houses, transporting billions of tons of goods each year, in sync with the Thames. Indeed the glass parallelogram-shaped office on the Elbe which struts out like a futuristic ship was named after the Docklands in London.

Losing out from Brexit

While it is difficult to forecast whether Brexit will have a positive or negative effect on Hamburg’s economy and business because the future of Anglo-German relations remains unclear, many experts are predicting a negative impact.  

“At the moment, concern among companies is that the UK’s exit will initially lead to more bureaucracy, especially in customs clearance,” said Axel Rostalski, a foreign trade expert at the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce.

A total of 70 percent of the Hamburg companies from the Chamber of Commerce surveyed in March 2018 said they anticipated a decline in their business with the UK if a free trade agreement is not concluded by the March 30th deadline.

The aerospace corporation Airbus, which maintains a major branch in Hamburg, warned of severe disruptions to UK production.

“Put simply, a No Deal scenario directly threatens Airbus’ future in the UK,” Airbus’ Chief Operating Officer Tom Williams, commented.

Likewise, the Hamburg-based cosmetics company Beiersdorf has been following Brexit negotiations closely. Their head of customs and foreign trade, Mahmut Kobal, said that Beiersdorf would have to increase its stockpiles in the event of a “hard Brexit” because it doesn’t produce on-site.

“Another problem could arise from the different legal regulation of labeling obligations and product standards in the EU and the UK,” Rostalski says. “Clarifying these questions could be a major problem for small and medium-sized enterprises.”

Potential opportunities

Nicknamed the "Gateway to the World," the Port of Hamburg is Germany's largest sea port. Photo: DPA

Despite the negative financial consequences Hamburg stands to lose, Brexit could open up new opportunities for the city.

For example, Hamburg companies have disclosed to the Chamber of Commerce that their British partners are considering establishing branches in the habour city once Britain pulls up the drawbridge.

Hamburg would gladly become the new gateway to the EU if foreign companies choose it as a substitute port.

“Companies from China and Japan, in particular, have expressed interest in establishing branches in Hamburg for future trade with Great Britain,” the EU Commissioner for Finance, Taxation, and the Customs Union Pierre Moscovici revealed in March.

Whatever Brexit brings, many Hamburgers are confident that the Anglo-Hanseatic bond will endure because of the long-lasting cultural and maritime connection.

Budelmann believes the British will continue to play a significant role in Hamburg’s cultural life.

“99% of the Anglo-German Club’s members supported Remain,” he said. “Still the Anglo-German relationship will continue to be strong, very close, and positive, even if Brexit has negative financial consequences on Hamburg.”

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