When the Kaiser came to visit

The people of Hamburg and the regent of the German Empire enjoyed a work-free “Kaiser Day” on 29 October 1888. Kaiser Wilhelm II himself reached for a trowel and polishing hammer, which of course was made from silver and ivory, to ceremoniously open the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district.

Source: Staatsarchiv Hamburg

The thirty-year reign of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was still in its infancy, but the monarch’s inclination towards pompous appearances was already well-known. The people of Hamburg were happy to indulge this weakness and dedicated 29 October 1988 to him as a work-free “Kaiser Day” with all the chicanery. After all, they had just been given a sizeable grant of 40 million Reichsmark to build the Speicherstadt and had every right to celebrate their new free port.

The highlight of the Kaiser’s seven-hour visit to the Elbe was therefore also the laying down of the keystone for the Brooksbrücke – one of the three new bridges that served as a crossing to the imposing warehouse blocks of the new customs-free zone. The Brooksbrücke had been designed by chief architect Franz Andreas Meyer as a celebratory piece of architecture for this event. Two sculptures by Aloys Denoth stood opposite each other on the north side: Hammonia and Germania. These personifications of Hamburg and the German Empire stretched their arms out towards each other in a conciliatory way.

Hammonia had however previously hesitated for a long time. As a member of the North German Federation, Hamburg did not agree to the customs union in 1867 and also insisted that, when the German Empire was founded in 1871, it would decide itself on whether to join the German customs area. Following protracted negotiations with Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck, the senate finally signed a customs union agreement on 25 May 1881. The German Empire had accommodated Hamburg’s interests. A large part of the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district was built using the aforementioned 40 million Reichsmarks of “subsidies”, and the import, storage and processing of imported goods remained customs-free in the area of the free port.

Magnificent reception in Hamburg

The customs-free zone was implemented on 15 October 1888. The Kaiser came shortly after to perform a formal ceremony to mark the occasion. The people of Hamburg gave him a magnificent reception, even though not everyone was happy about the customs-free zone. For instance, the charging of duties significantly increased the price of coffee and alcohol in the free and hanseatic city, and hanseatic patriots often saw themselves more as Hamburgers than as Germans. But they had reached an agreement and a newly crowned Kaiser could only rarely be seen close up. So they lined the banks of the river in their droves and filled the waters of the Alster with a wide range of boats, where the monarch took his breakfast in the glory of the Alster. He then boarded the “Kaiser boat”, adorned with garlands, gilded and carrying a huge swan at its bow.

Those who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the new German Kaiser “saw a man of average height with restless, radiant eyes and curly light-brown hair. His most striking feature was a bushy moustache with turned-up ends, the creation of a skilful barber, who appeared every morning at the castle with a tin of wax”, explains the historian Robert K. Massie.

The regent was transported through the elaborately decorated city to the formal ceremony at the Brooksbrücke. With great fanfare, the entire senate and its First Mayor Versmann led the Kaiser to the gate of the bridge. The First Chairman of the construction deputation handed the Kaiser a silver trowel with an ivory handle. He took some mortar, with which he laid the keystone. Then the Second Chairman of the construction deputation handed him a polishing hammer made from the same fine materials. The Kaiser struck the stone three times and proclaimed: “For the glory of God, for the benefit of the German Empire and for the good of Hamburg”

All of the dignitaries then struck the stone in turn

It was the same ritual for Chancellor of the German Empire Bismarck, the legendary Chief of Staff Moltke, the President of the Senate, voting members of the Federal Council, the heads of the Reichstag, right the way down to the head technician, everyone had the chance to hit the stone with the silver hammer, in a strictly hierarchical order of course. This was followed by a bible reading by the priest, a blessing and the hymn “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr” – and the Speicherstadt was officially opened.

The silver trowel and hammer are on loan from the Senate for people to see at the Speicherstadt historical warehouse district today. The keystone has survived and has been integrated into the flood protection wall on the city side of the Brooksbrücke. The original architecture of the bridge with its high towers has been lost in the course of modifications and height increases over the years. The symbolic figures are no longer the same either. The venerable Dame Germania has been replaced by the charming princess, Europa.