The medieval towns of Wismar and Stralsund, on the Baltic coast of northern Germany, were major trading centres of the Hanseatic League in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the 17th and 18th centuries they became Swedish administrative and defensive centres for the German territories. They contributed to the development of the characteristic building types and techniques of Brick Gothic in the Baltic region, as exemplified in several important brick cathedrals, the Town Hall of Stralsund, and the series of houses for residential, commercial and crafts use, representing its evolution over several centuries.
The historic towns of Wismar and Stralsund are situated in north-eastern Germany on the Baltic Sea coast. The cities were founded as part of the German colonization of the Slav territories in the late 12th or early 13th centuries. Both cities emerged as important trading places in the 14th century as part of the Hanseatic League. After the Thirty Years' War the towns came under Swedish rule from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. Under the subsequent changing political situations there was a period of stagnation, but from the second half of the 19th century a gradual economic improvement began. The historic centres survived the World War II bombardments and were part of the German Democratic Republic until German unification.
Both Wismar and Stralsund were founded in places that were known to be good anchorages. Wismar emerged at the beginning of the 13th century, 5km from Mecklenburg, an old centre of the Slav Obodrites. It was close to a Wendish fishing village on the seacoast, along an old trade route, the Via Regia. In the early 13th century it developed rapidly owing to its favourable location and excellent harbour. The position of Stralsund, further to the east of Wismar, was also chosen for the potential of its harbour, and it gained additional merit from the off-shore island of Strela (later Dänholm). Wismar is first mentioned in 1229 and Stralsund in 1234, already well established in a period when the towns were probably granted corporation statutes. These statutes, known as the Lübeck Law, were aimed at towns in the Baltic region and covered all necessary legal instruments, including common law, commercial law, market law, and building law. Having obtained corporation statutes, both towns also built defence systems, which completed by the end of the 13th or early 14th centuries.
- The Hanseatic period
The Hanseatic League emerged in the 13th century, first as an association of north German merchants who resided in foreign countries. From the end of the 13th century, this association developed into the Hanseatic League of Towns. It soon assumed leadership in the region of the North Sea and the Baltic. In its heyday the League extended to some 200 towns. Centred on Lübeck, the League was organized in four sections: Wendish, Westphalian, Saxon, and Prussian. The most important of these was the Wendish section, which included Wismar and Stralsund. From the 1470s, the power of the Hansa started diminishing, when sea traffic was shifted from the Baltic to the Atlantic with the growing importance of the Netherlands and England. Wismar and Stralsund joined the League in 1293, together with Lübeck, Rostock, and Greifswald.
By the 13th century Wismar and Stralsund had developed commercial activities, involving intermediate trade in cloth from Flanders, wool from England, metal goods from Westphalia, wood, tar, ash, honey, furs, and wax from Latvia and the Rus, salt, at first from Lüneburg, then from the bay of Bourgneuf, wine from the Rhine, France, Spain, and Portugal, and fish from Norway and Schonen. The production of beer became particularly important, especially in Wismar. Beer was a leading product that was used not only as a drink but also as a basic ingredient in food and even in medicine.At the beginning of the 14th century, conflicts between Wismar and Mecklenburg gave rise to a war between the coalition of north German princes and the Danish King and the emerging towns of Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, and Greifswald, which were striving for independence. While Wismar suffered a defeat, Stralsund emerged as a leader in 1316, becoming the most powerful city in Pomerania and the capital of the entire region. From here started the heyday of the Hanseatic League, resulting in important building activities, especially from 1330 to 1380. This building boom brought forth the so-called Sundische Gotik, a particular form of brick architecture and an expression of the economic growth and increasing political power of Stralsund. The treaty of the Peace of Stralsund, on 24 March 1370, resulted from the negotiation between the Cologne Federation (1367), consisting of the Hanseatic and Dutch towns, on the one side and the Imperial Council of the Kingdom of Denmark on the other. This treaty further strengthened the power of Hansa as a significant actor at the European level.
- The Swedish period
From the late 15th century, with the diminishing power of the Hansa, the commercial and political importance of Wismar and Stralsund was considerably weakened. As a result of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), both towns came under Swedish rule, later playing a decisive role as administrative centres in the Swedish power system. As the supreme court for all the German possessions of the Kingdom of Sweden, the Royal Swedish Tribunal was set up in the princely court (Fürstenhof) of Wismar. Under Swedish rule the fortifications of the towns were rebuilt reflecting the new requirements in warfare. Owing to the lack of hinterland, commercial activities were limited, although there was a brief flourishing from 1651 due to exemption from customs duties. With the defeat of the Swedes in the Nordic War of 1700-21, Wismar was occupied by Danish, Prussian, and Hanoverian troops and all its defensive structures were demolished. Wismar remained under Swedish rule after the peace treaty of 1720 but had already lost its importance. Stralsund, however, became the political capital of Swedish Western Pomerania. A number of Baroque gabled houses, as well as a series of factories, survive from this period.
- The 19th and 20th centuries
The Swedish era ended in both cities at the beginning of the 19th century and the political situation changed. Wismar initially returned to the Duchy of Mecklenburg, but its position remained ambiguous and it still retained a Swedish link until 1903. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Stralsund became part of Prussia, but there was little improvement in the economy. In 1848 Wismar acquired a railway link, which led to the building of a new harbour and improved development but left the medieval part untouched. Stralsund had a railway in 1863, which allowed industrial development to begin, and it also became the chief port of the Prussian navy. From the early 19th to the early 20th centuries the populations of the two cities doubled (Stralsund from 15,000 to 32,000 and Wismar from 10,000 to 19,000). Towards the end of World War II the towns suffered air raids but the historic centres remained largely intact. From 1945 both towns were part of the Soviet zone, from which the German Democratic Republic emerged. This period saw important economic development, the establishment of small industrial companies, the construction of shipyards, and the expansion of the seaport activities.