German History as Global History: The Case of Coffee in the 20th Century

May 19, 2016, 6:00 - 8:00pm
Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Dorothee Wierling (Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg)

The 2016 Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture was delivered by Dorothee Wierling, Deputy Director of the Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg (FZH) and Professor at the University of Hamburg from 2003 to 2015. A renowned expert for social history and the history of mentalities in the late 19th and 20th century, she has published a wide range of well-known works including Mädchen für Alles. Arbeitsalltag und Lebensgeschichte städtischer Dienstmädchen um die Jahrhundertwende (1987) and Geboren im Jahr Eins. Der Geburtsjahrgang 1949 in der DDR. Versuch einer Kollektivbiographie (2002).

Her current research project, which is the topic of this year’s Gerald D. Feldman Lecture, focuses on the role of Hamburg merchant families in globalizing the coffee trade and its consumption in the late 1800s. In her lecture, Professor Wierling layed out how commodity trade established the city of Hamburg as a global hub for coffee in the late 19th century. At the center of the global coffee trade were “Hanseatic” merchant families who gradually expanded their social web of interaction by marrying their daughters into other merchant families and sending their sons for educational and networking purposes in coffee growing countries and financial centers. Wierling pointed out the central role that personal trust played inside the coffee trade business, which involved a much larger number of disconnected actors and steps than crude commercial trade. This resulted in the stressing of family ties and established business partnerships as essential to the success and survival of the coffee merchants. While in the 19th century, most partnerships outside the transnational family networks were established with other Germans working in or around the coffee business, increasing technology globalized value chains in the 20th century. Expropriations of German businesses during both World Wars, led to further openings in the coffee trade due to broken links between families and companies. While the families that managed to restore their businesses established new global links, shown for example by stronger interaction with local coffee dynasties in South and Central America, Hamburg lost its position as a global coffee center and its influence in coffee trade. This is also reflected in the number of merchant families with a strong presence in the coffee trade. While at its peak, 16 Hamburg merchant families operated successfully in global coffee trade, only one of those families remains dominant today.

The Feldman Memorial Lecture was established by the Friends of the German Historical Institute to honor the memory of historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007) and has been made possible by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung and generous individual donations to the Friends of the German Historical Institute.