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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Death in Hamburg. Society and Politics in the Cholera Years. Richard . J. Evans. Penguin Books. (1987)


This is a dense, detailed and utterly griping account of the context, causes and consequences of a cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892 that claimed 10,000 lives. This outbreak was a singular event, there were no similar outbreaks in other cities in Germany and Richard J. Evans examines why this should have been the case. What were the specific conditions in Hamburg that supported an outbreak of such magnitude. As the subtitle suggests Richard. J. Evans examines the social, economic and political context in Hamburg in some detail in the years prior to the outbreak and also looks at the consequences for the social, political and economic structures of the outbreak.
The analysis is densely plotted, there is a great deal of statistical analysis included, it is presented in a readily understandable fashion and the accumulated detail is crucial to understanding the context for the outbreak. While Hamburg was part of the Prussian dominated North German Federation and after 1871 the German Empire, it had a very distinctive political and economic tradition that it worked very hard to preserve. Above all Hamburg was a trading city, the power in the city resided with the great merchant families, its lifeblood was trade and everything was shaped by that fact. The political and social structures were designed to support freedom to trade and minimise the cost of doing so. This created a hugely stratified city with a very significant majority of the population earning too little to qualify as tax payers, a very much smaller layer of property owning bourgeoisie and a even smaller layer of seriously wealthy who between them dominated the political process.
Richard J. Evans examines in great depth and scope how this structure created the specific conditions that favoured both an outbreak of cholera and massively amplified the impact the outbreak when it occurred. The intimate relationship between public health and public order with all the implications for individual freedom of action are clearly examined in this book. The contemporary relevance is made clear without being forced. This is a wonderful book that reveals an extraordinary episode in a thoughtful, considered and very effectively structured fashion.
The book was first published in 1987, this edition published in 2005 includes a very informative afterword by the author about the process of researching and writing the book and also replies to a number of criticisms of the book.

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