An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Jul 5, 2012, 01:00

THE SEARCH for currency stability in Europe has a very long history. It was a central preoccupation, for example, of the Hanseatic League, which as you’ll remember from your schoolbooks was a commercial association of cities in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages.

Merchants from the league, who depended on secure exchange rates, were known in England as “easterlings”. And it’s a bit of an irony that this word was later shortened to become, in its singular form, the name of the one of the main European currencies now not in the euro.

The Hanseatic League was a forerunner of the European Economic Community, if not of the EU. It was mostly concerned with business and never had a constitution or centralised government. But it did have laws. And as its control of the Baltic Sea was gradually threatened by political entities, chiefly Denmark, it also eventually resorted to raising navies and the taxes required to pay for them.

There were some military victories as a result. Then, from about 1400 onwards, the league went into a long, slow decline. Much of this was down to the competition from other emerging modern states, including England and Prussia. Some was just down to bad luck. As Norman Davies writes in Europe – A History: “the Baltic herring shoals mysteriously relocated to the North Sea in the fifteenth century”. There wasn’t much the merchants could do about that.

Although Germanic in origin, the league was not confined to Germany, or indeed to northern coastal cities. People who visited Poland last month for the football will not be surprised to learn that it also extended as far south as Wroclaw and Cracow.

(Poznan was not a member, surprisingly, even though its modern-day merchants seem to have inherited the Hanseatic talent for trading.) But of course Gdansk, or in its old German name Danzig, was central to the association, benefiting especially from the monopoly that the league once enjoyed on ship-building in Europe. The handsome buildings of the city’s old centre (heavily bombed in the second World War and since restored) recall an era when, together with Lubeck, Danzig ruled the waves.

And even more impressive, arguably, is Torun, the inland city where thousands of Irish fans overnighted en route between the Euro 2012 match venues. That too was a league member, with the consequent commercial benefits. Its beautiful old centre, including the reputed birthplace of Copernicus, is Poland’s finest collection of medieval buildings outside Cracow.

MAYBE SOMETHING of this Hanseatic inheritance contributed to making Poland the country where communism, with its severe restrictions on trade, foundered. Or perhaps that’s stretching the influence of the Middle Ages too far. In any case, it was in the modern shipyards of Gdansk – though they never thrived, under Soviet rule or since – that the USSR met its nemesis.

Most Irish people will be somewhat familiar with the history of 1980s Poland, from the rise and suppression of Solidarity through to its eventual triumph in 1989, which then reverberated across the eastern bloc. But for some of us at least, attendance at Euro 2012 was an education in the extent to which those famous events were just a continuation of earlier protests, both in Gdansk and in Poznan.

The tale is told by two, strikingly similar monuments. In Poznan, a pair of giant crosses commemorate the victims of the “bread riots” of 1956, when 100,000 people protested against rising food prices and soldiers fired on them, killing at least 57 people.

The death-toll is still debated, such was the clampdown that followed. So, like the Gdansk monument, which features a cluster of three crosses, with ships’ anchors attached, the one in Poznan was only erected after the first successes of Solidarity in 1980.

But the Gdansk crosses in their turn mark an earlier protest at the shipyards, in 1970, when upwards of 42 people were shot dead. Those disturbances too had been provoked by rising food prices; a concession of defeat by the authorities after years of unsustainable subsidisation, which itself had been a response to what happened in Poznan.

Although it could hardly have seemed that way at the time, the events of 1956, 1970, and 1980 now all look like a part of a continuum, leading inevitably to the reforms that eventually swept communism away, not just in Poland, but in Europe.

Today the Gdansk shipyards are a rather sad and decrepit reminder of all that turbulent 20th-century history. As for hints of the port’s prosperity in medieval times, you have to look elsewhere, to the 15th-century wooden crane near the old town centre and the stately buildings.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in northern Europe, echoes of the Hanseatic League’s experiment in co-operation for mutual benefit can still to be heard occasionally.

I flew home last month with Lufthansa, whose name includes the same root word, “hansa”, meaning “commercial association”. The flight left on time, offered generous leg-room, and in a throwback to 20th-century luxury, still served dinner to all passengers. Mind you, the dinner consisted a cold German sausage, cold mashed potato, and a gherkin (also cold). So as a symbol of prosperity, even that was pale imitation of former glories.

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