The privilege of holding trade fairs was granted to Hamburg by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV on 29 January 1365. That makes Hamburg one of the oldest trade fair cities in Germany.


A charter granting the privilege of holding trade fairs was issued to the City of Hamburg by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV on 29 January 1365. It permitted the city to hold a trade fair from two weeks before Whitsun until eight days after Whitsun. The Emperor’s motivation for this was that he planned to establish new trading routes in his realm – starting from the central point of Prague, the seat of his rule, and spreading out in four principal directions on all points of the compass. Hamburg was to be the end of this route in the North. Trading goods from the whole of the Empire were brought together in Prague and shipped from there down the Elbe to Hamburg, and then distributed onwards to the West, North and East. Imports from Bruges and England, fish from the North, and exports from the Peterhof trading outpost in Novgorod were to be collected in Hamburg, shipped up the Elbe to Prague, and from there carried onwards to the East and South. The Hamburg Trade Fair was thus to be one of the central trading points in Europe. At the same time, the trade fair privilege granted special protection to the traders. The privilege meant that goods carried between Hamburg and Prague did not have to be offered for sale along the route. In 1383, five years after the death of Charles IV, the Council of the City of Hamburg discontinued the Whitsun Fair because it felt that trade could be conducted in the other markets of the city. It is no longer possible to establish exactly where the first trade fair was held in Hamburg. The most likely location was in front of the old City Hall, at Alsterhafen next to Trostbrücke.

* On loan from the Hamburg State Archives: STAHH 710-1 I Threse I C 6 a 2 “Emperor Charles IV grants charter for holding a three-week trade fair at Whitsun, 29/01/1365”

Around the high point of the Enlightenment, the “Patriotische Gesellschaft von 1765” [Patriotic Society of 1765] was set up as the “Hamburg Society for Promotion of the Arts and Useful Crafts”. “Patriot” was a frequently used description of men who showed altruistic commitment to the community and improvement of the conditions of life in the city. In 1790 the Patriotic Society in Hamburg, following the example of similar organisations in England, held a series of exhibitions in the Great Hall of the City Hall Cellars of the time. The “Hamburg Crafts Exhibition” was intended not only to bring manufacturers together with potential customers, but also to bring the producers together and eliminate the motivation of competition, in line with thinking at the time of the Enlightenment – the joint presentation was aimed not at promoting the good of the individual, but the good of the city as a whole. The “Hamburg Craft Exhibition” was to be a platform enabling exchange of ideas between the individual crafts and manufacturers. However, interest on the part of the craftsmen was not excessive, because they had to produce the goods before making a sale. That is why the first exhibitions were mainly used by artists such as painters, draughtsmen and architects, who were accustomed to the risk of up-front provision of their services. Thus in the course of the years there was a predominance of artistic exhibits, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Hamburg Art Society in 1817. In this early phase of more artistic exhibitions, Hamburg was a trail blazer in this field despite all the difficulties, and thus became a starting point for general and commercial exhibitions in the whole of Germany.

From the beginning of the 19th century, commercial fairs also began to develop with a new character. Increasingly, they presented reproducible samples rather than sophisticated one-off items – simple tables rather than surfaces with delicate inlay surfaces; simply assembled cupboards rather than artistically carved writing desks. This development from a fair selling goods to a fair exhibiting samples led more and more manufacturers to take part as exhibitors, alongside the craft workers, who were still present in large numbers. The new exhibition venue was the Concert Hall of the City Theatre at the time, located on the site where the Hamburg State Opera was built after the destruction of the Second World War. Three commercial exhibitions of “Hamburg Craft and Industry Production” were held there in 1832, 1834 and 1838, with great success, and all of them earned substantial profit thanks to the great interest of the people of Hamburg. But further development was prevented at that time by disputes about future trade fair organisation and by the Hamburg Fire of 1842. It was not until 1863 that things moved forward again with a major exhibition in Hamburg, the “International Agricultural Exhibition” at Heiligengeistfeld. It was initiated by the Hamburg merchant Ernst Freiherr von Merck, whose trading house had made a name for itself in cloth and cereals trading and as a bank, and also had financial support from the Hamburg Senate. The exhibition site was also made available by the City of Hamburg. The ten-day fair was a major event with some 200,000 visitors and exhibitors from a total of 14 countries. The writer Theodor Fontane, reporting for the Neue Preussische Zeitung, praised the wide variety of exhibits, animal shows and presentation of steam driven tractors, including opportunities for test drives on site. Some big garden shows were held in the neighbouring Wallanlagen up to the turn of the century.

Ernst Freiherr von Merck, who is still commemorated by a relief portrait in Hall B4, laid the foundations for modern fairs in Hamburg. In 1863 he succeeded in getting the support of 800 shareholders to start the construction of Hamburg’s first Zoological Garden at the site which is now Planten un Blomen park. The first Zoo Director was Alfred Brehm, who wrote parts of his famous standard work “Brehms Tierleben” here. The Zoological Garden and the adjacent Botanical Garden are not only linked by their architecture, but also share an extensive programme of events with open-air concerts and garden show, such as the “Rose and Flower Show” in 1886 by the Garden Association of Hamburg, Altona and Surroundings”.

When Carl Hagenbeck’s zoo opened in Stellingen in 1907, this led to increasing economic difficulties for the Hamburg Zoological Garden. It therefore decided to widen its range of cultural events to include trade fairs, since they had proven to be commercially successful. The first of these trade fairs was a great start to the success story which continues today – in 1921 Albert Lubisch, the editor of the hospitality magazine “Deutsche Gastwirtzeitung”, organised the “North-West German Spring Fair for Hotels, Restaurants, Cafés and Institutional Kitchens” in the Ernst-Merck-Halle of the Zoological Garden, that is to say the first INTERNORGA. The 90th INTERNORGA will be held in 2016. The show at the beginning of the 1920s showcased “technical and culinary innovations”. That met with a good response in the climate of the time, when the Weimar Republic was struggling with economic and political crises. The response was so great that a follow-up event was planned as early as autumn of the same year. The number of exhibitors increased so much that parts of the fair had to be moved out to pavilions in the Zoological Garden and to nearby restaurants. In 1923 Albert Lubisch was appointed Director of the newly established “Zoo Exhibition Halls AG”, and thus the first Trade Fair Director in Hamburg. He was dismissed by the National Socialists when they came to power, but was reappointed as Director in August 1948, when the Trade Fair was called “Exhibition Park of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg”. He continued in that role until his retirement in 1967.

The 1930s were marked by drastic changes, which also affected trade fairs in Hamburg – organisation of the events was centralised and nationalised, so that the arrangements at the trade fairs took on a political character. Trade fairs and exhibitions came under the supervision of the “Advertising Board of the German Economy”, an institution of the “Reich Ministry of Public Information and Propaganda”. That changed the contents of the trade fairs. They were no longer freely organised commercial exhibitions, but rather state organised “Cultural and Educational Shows with Economic Impact”, embedded in Nazi propaganda and technically progressive in their implementation. An example of that is the use of modern media such as film and radio, for example in the “Nordmark Radio Exhibition” in 1934, with exclusively “Aryan” companies presenting technical innovations not only for the experts, but also for the mass of the population. The exhibition on “Blessings of the Sea” in 1939 was embedded in the Nazi propaganda of “Autarky Policy”. That was intended to make the German Reich independent of imports from abroad, and this was reflected among other things in a “Reich Show” presented in various cities including Hamburg. The subjects included not only ocean and coastal fishing, but also fish processing and whaling, which was given extensive support at the time. The propaganda exhibition on “Army and Victory” in 1941 showed weapons and trophies of war. And the “Soviet Paradise” exhibition in 1942 was designed to suggest catastrophic conditions in the Soviet Union. A parade ground was created in Jungiusstrasse in 1938. And from July 1941 a total of 24 huts were set up there for more than 900 forced labourers.

After the years of war and hunger, there was tremendous demand in the population for consumer and investment goods – from their own car to household appliances, and even their own television set. In 1950 the first special exhibition “Women’s World” was held as part of the “Food Trade Show”, presenting the new ways of using technology in the household. Five years later, that was to become the consumer show “Du und Deine Welt”, one of the best known Hamburg exhibitions. There was as real boom in trade fairs in the early 60s. Many of the exhibition concepts developed at that time turned into real crowd pullers in the decades that followed. In 1963 the exhibition of the “Hamburg Society of Marine Engineers” (VSIH) was presented for the first time in Hall B of Planten un Blomen in 1963. 35 German exhibitors showed innovations in all aspects of shipbuilding. That was later to become SMM, the leading international maritime trade fair Hamburg, which featured more than 2,100 exhibitors from 67 nations in 2014, attracting some 50,000 trade visitors. Two years before the start of SMM, the premiere was held in 1961 of the “First German Trade Show – Sport and Utility Boats”, with 65 exhibitors presenting the latest in boat building and watersports to 5,000 visitors. The show was in line with the spirit of Germany’s “economic miracle”, which included the quest for the romantic, and possession of status symbols. In 1985 the name of the show was changed to “hanseboot”.

Following the destruction of the Second World War, construction work started on the urgently needed modern exhibition halls. The most important one was the Ernst-Merck-Halle, opened in 1951, with a ground area of 6,400 square metres and capacity for 6,000 spectators. That made it the largest and most modern event hall in North Germany. Alongside trade fairs and exhibitions, it was also used for major sporting events such as boxing and wrestling, and for legendary concerts such as those of Bill Haley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, where the furniture regularly got broken up in the 50s. A notice was frequently printed on the back of the admission tickets at the time, warning that the seats were to be used only for sitting on, and that visitors would be held liable for any damage caused by “use for other purposes”. Before long the Ernst-Merck-Halle and the adjacent areas were no longer sufficient for the new fairs after the Second World War – they needed more space. So new exhibition halls were continuously built at the trade fair site in Jungiusstrasse. By 1971 the exhibition space had increased to 52,500 square metres. in the 1980s, the space was expanded to 64,000 square metres in 12 exhibition halls.

The Congress Center Hamburg was opened by German President Gustav Heinemann on the morning of 14 April 1973. The five-storey Congress Center with a two-floor underground car park, designed by architect Jost Schramm, was completed after just three years of construction work, at a cost of DM 146 million, an incredible amount for the time. More than 260 contractors, construction workers and more than 50 engineers worked on the project, using 38,000 cubic metres of concrete and 4,800 tonnes of steel. For the telecommunications cables alone, 100,000 connection points had to be soldered by hand – with a total cable length that would stretch from Hamburg to Madrid. The CCH provided a stage for international stars and heads of state, for world conferences and for major companies. Since the opening, more than 17 million people have attended a total of some 15,000 events at CCH.

The foundation stone was laid on 3 June 2004 for the New Hamburg Fair, designed by Düsseldorf architect Christoph Ingenhoven. The existing site was substantially extended with the “leap” over Karolinenstrasse. More space was needed for major shows such as INTERNORGA and SMM – the leading international maritime trade fair. Eight of the twelve halls on the old site were demolished and replaced by three larger, modern halls. Four new halls were built on the new site under the Television Tower. The indoor exhibition space was increased from 64,000 square metres to 87,000 square metres. At the same time, CCH – Congress Center Hamburg was expanded with a new conference area and a 7,000 square metre exhibition hall. A total of EUR 420 million were invested in the construction work. Following the expansion of CCH in 2007, the New Hamburg Fair site was ready for full use at the end of 2008.

More than 40 trade fairs and a good 250 conferences and cultural events are held each year, attracting over one million visitors and boosting accommodation figures in Hamburg by almost as many bed-nights. Leading international fairs for the maritime industry, aviation, renewable energies and media make Hamburg an international meeting point for these industries, and strengthen the business clusters defined by the city. This year HMC has added two new trade fairs to the programme, with WindEnergy Hamburg 2014 and the retail fair Nordstil. CCH – Congress Center Hamburg has been the venue for major international medical conferences since its opening in 1973, and for decades it has been one of the top German venues for Annual General Meetings of stock-exchange listed companies. According to a survey by the AGM magazine HV-Magazin für Hauptversammlungen, CCH took first place in this category again in 2013. That also has an impact on Hamburg’s economy. As shown in calculations by the ifo Institute from Munich, for every euro that HMC exhibitors and visitors spend on the trade fairs, they spend another EUR 7.60 in the city. In 2014 that is around EUR 700 million, spent on accommodation, services, taxis and on shopping. Hamburg Messe und Congress also acted as a partner for the city in conduct of some major one-off events such as the 96th Lions Club International Convention Hamburg in 2013 and for regularly held festivities such as the HAMBURG PORT ANNIVERSARY, which it has organised since 1994 on behalf of the Hamburg Ministry of Economics, Transport and Innovation. In addition, HMC organises a number of German joint presentations at trade fairs abroad, on its own initiative and under contract with various Federal Ministries. In 2013 HMC organised 16 official joint presentations, accompanying 640 German exhibitors to trade fairs around the globe. HMC has a network of 26 foreign representations in Europe, America and Asia, ensuring that foreign exhibitors can also get advice and support in their own countries.

The anniversary year was launched with a series of public lectures at the University of Hamburg, which started in October 2014. The speakers were historians and trade fair experts from the whole of Germany, giving what were sometimes surprising insights into the development and significance of exhibitions and trade fairs in Hamburg and in Germany, which is the biggest and most successful trade fair country in the world.

Videos in the lecture series “650 years of trade fairs in Hamburg”

You can see previous lectures from the series here as videos, in their complete length. (ALL LECTURES PRESENTED IN GERMAN)