The history of Bremen
The strive for independence is a recurrent theme in Bremen’s history. In AD 787, Charlemagne elevated Bremen to the status of diocese. Almost two hundred years later, Emperor Karl Otto I bestowed on Bremen the market privilege, which paved the way for urban trade to develop and saw the town grow into a city.
Even in the heyday of the Hanseatic League, the once powerful union linking cities from Flanders all the way to today’s Baltic states, Bremen had to protect its independence. By the end of the 13th century, this city on the Weser river already enjoyed some Hanseatic League privileges without actually belonging to the union. Bremen didn’t officially join the organisation until 1358. For almost three hundred years, the city benefited from its membership of the Hanseatic League. The union came to an end with the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). In 1629, however, the three most powerful cities, Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck, were called on to trade in the interests of all Hanseatic cities. They forged their own alliance, which was renewed time and time again and continued in a formal capacity up until the beginning of the 20th century.
As Bremen developed economically, the merchant class gained influence over the archbishop. There is no better illustration of the struggle for independence than the Roland, Bremen’s traditional emblem. Bremen’s council had this stone statue built in 1404 – within view of the archiepiscopal cathedral. It was designed as a symbol of vryheit (freedom) and sent a powerful message that Bremen’s patricians wanted control over the city.
This quest for independence reached a successful conclusion with the Linz Diploma of 1646 that declared Bremen a free imperial city. When the old German Empire was dissolved in 1806, Bremen finally became an independent, sovereign state and added Free Hanseatic City to its name. Bremen united with the sovereign princes and other free cities to form the German Confederation in 1815. As a Free Hanseatic City, Bremen was made an independent state of the new German Empire in 1871.
From 1918 onwards, there were continuous attempts to redraw the map of Germany. In every proposal, however, the cities of Bremen and Hamburg were accepted as independent states. It was only under Nazi rule that Bremen lost its independence. But in 1947, Bremen, together with its port Bremerhaven, was once again made an independent state.
Just as Bremen battled for several centuries to achieve independence, so too has it spent centuries battling with the very basis of its economic success – namely, water deep enough for seafaring ships. The build-up of silt in the Weser was the main obstacle, and by the 16th century the first Bremen port had become inaccessible for the ships, which were getting larger and larger. They had to down anchors further up the river to unload, or even use ports in other towns. It wasn’t until the 19th century that this unfortunate situation was resolved. Following negotiations with the Kingdom of Hanover, work began in 1827 to build a new port at the mouth of the Weser. In the years that followed, this became a modern sea port that we now know as Bremerhaven (literally ‘port of Bremen’).
Today, the two sister cities make up the smallest of Germany’s 16 federal states. The official title is the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. Alongside the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg and the Free States of Bavaria and Saxony, it is one of only four of today’s federal states that were in existence before 1933.
The people of Bremen have always been extremely proud of their city’s history and its independence. And today, Bremen has grown into a destination where different aspects of history, tradition, cutting-edge technology, science and space travel come together to form a fascinating whole.
Besides all the new attractions such as Universum Bremen and the botanika gardens, Bremen’s enduring landmarks include the ornate Weser Renaissance town hall (UNESCO World Heritage as of July 2004), the Schnoor (Bremen’s oldest quarter), the expressionist buildings of Böttcherstrasse, the cathedral and the grand old statue of Roland on the historical market square. And, of course, the Bremen Town Musicians from the Brothers Grimm fairytale can be found here, most famously in the form of a bronze statue. In June 2004, the Roland statue celebrated its 600th anniversary with a ten-day ‘birthday party’ themed on freedom.