The Great and the Small Freedom. A Walk through Altona

It remains difficult to travel to India. Although I am now allowed to re-enter by air with my 2019 visa and a negative Corona test, this does not fully apply to Kerala: as a precautionary measure, I would have to go into home quarantine there for an additional 14 days. So I will postpone these travel plans for a while. Since I am spending the Christmas holidays in Hamburg for family reasons, I will not write about historical strolls in Calicut today, but go on a city walk myself instead, for a change. There is a district here that is interesting in terms of both urban and religious history, which has always interested me more closely and which has perhaps never been as easy to visit as it is in these December days – simply because it is almost deserted and completely quiet there at the moment. I’m referring to the “Freiheit” in today’s St. Pauli, the Hamburg district known on the one hand for the “Kiez”, the local term for the entertainment district, and on the other for the St. Pauli football club. Strictly speaking, the Freiheit is not a district in the true sense of the word, but two parallel but unequal streets: the Great Freedom (“Große Freiheit”) and the Small Freedom (“Kleine Freiheit”).

Asking Hamburgers and others what they associate with the Große Freiheit and the Kleine Freiheit, I get two types of answers: Most of them say, it is a side street of the Reeperbahn, probably one of the best-known entertainment miles of the Kiez. A few can also remember “Große Freiheit Nr. 7”, a German movie of the post-war period in which Hans Albers played the leading role and warbled songs like La Paloma and Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um halb eins… (On the Reeperbahn at half past midnight). Certainly, the street as well as the club in house no. 7 also owe their fame to this film. But these, like other streets along the Reeperbahn – Hans-Albers-Platz or Hamburger Berg – had only become entertainment miles in the 20th century. So this is quite a recent story.

On the History of the “Freiheit”

To understand how this neighbourhood came into being, where the name comes from and what it originally meant, i.e. beyond “pleasure freedoms” and the myth of freedom at sea, one has to go further back into the history of this place. This includes the fact that the two streets were only incorporated into St. Pauli in 1949. Before that, they belonged to Altona, which itself only became part of Hamburg in 1937 – as part of the Greater Hamburg Act. Until then, Altona was an independent town. Originating as a fishermen’s and craftsmen’s settlement with an inn, Altona was elevated to a “Flecken” (small town) in 1604 and then to a town in 1664 under Danish rule. In the context of a settlement policy pursued by the city rulers – first the Counts of Schauenburg, then the Danish kings, who were also Dukes of Holstein at the time – a quarter was created in Altona in 1611/12 in which unrestricted freedom of religion and trade prevailed: the “Freiheit”. The freedoms were thus initially privileges whose validity referred to a clearly defined urban area, namely a quarter in the north of Altona, before they later extended to the entire city territory. Both privileges were by no means a matter of course in the early modern period, which is precisely why they were particularly attractive for migrant workers and religious migrants. For crafts were still strongly dominated by guilds at that time. In most cities of the Holy Roman Empire, one had to be a member of a guild – in Hamburg it was called an “Amt” – in order to practise one’s craft. But the guilds were also responsible for training, quality assurance, wages, prices, and sometimes also for organising funerals and providing for widows. Especially for newcomers, integration into this system was not easy. In matters of religion, many city and state rulers had decided to allow only one (Christian) confession. Christian believers of other faiths as well as Jews were often only “tolerated”, i.e. they were not allowed to practise their religion “freely” and often had only limited civil rights, if any at all.

Against this background and with barely 3,000 inhabitants in the first half of the 17th century, the freedom of religion and trade granted in Altona must be regarded as an almost ingenious strategy. Lutherans and Reformed from the Netherlands, Catholics, Jews and Mennonites settled here from around 1600. Some groups were initially only allowed to celebrate their worship in private houses, others were allowed to build chapels or churches, some built cemeteries; some others also shared the cemeteries or chapels of other groups. In 1682, a first synagogue was even consecrated in Kleine Papagoyenstraße, which no longer exists today. The layout of the area at that time – especially the parallel streets Kleine Freiheit and Große Freiheit, which used to have the same length – can be seen on a manuscript map from 1744:

Manuscript Map, including churches and streets (from: Holmer Stahncke, Altona. Geschichte Einer Stadt, Hamburg 2014, p. 53. )

On the sketched map, which is facing west, we see the two churches of the German and French Reformed at the lower end of Kleine Freiheit. In the Große Freiheit we find the Small Mennonite Church, the Church of the Catholics and the Large Mennonite Church. On a printed city map of Altona (from 1803) the layout is even more precise:

Map of Altona (1803), note the streets Kleine Freyheit and Grosse Freyheit (C. Lorenz B. Mirbeck, Benjamin Baker, Altona, London 1803 (copper plate engraving)

The Small Mennonite Church is referred to here as the Herrnhut Church. (The Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine or Moravian Brethren had been granted religious freedom in Altona in 1765). North of Rosenstraße, now called Paul-Roosen-Straße, the Mennonite cemetery can be seen; and in the lower left corner of the map, between Großer Bergstraße and Königstraße, the two Jewish cemeteries. Hardly anyone, with the exception of a few historians or archivists specialising in the older history of Hamburg and Altona, knows this prehistory and the change in meaning of the Große Freiheit. For today’s residents and visitors to the streets, this is probably not even relevant, because they can (presumably) live well without knowing this history. And even if they did know it, the question would be whether this history could in any way have an identity-forming effect, because the street’s protagonists are primarily landlords, hotel guests and visitors to clubs and bars. People who come and go. I am all the more interested in what these two streets look like nowadays, what historical traces and what has remained of the original meaning and use.

What is left of this?

I take the underground to St. Pauli, walk along the entire Reeperbahn, passing the Davidwache, Hans-Albers-Platz to Beatles-Platz, a square in the shape of an oversized record with sculptures of the band members, which was set up only a few years ago.

The Reeperbahn

The square is at the entrance to Große Freiheit and thus close to the clubs where the Beatles’ career took off in the early 1960s. Then I turn to the street Große Freiheit.

The Große Freiheit, viewed from the Beatles-Platz

How colourful and lively the street looks in non-pandemic times can be seen on the pages of “”. I walk from one end to the other, turn left at the upper end into Paul-Roosen-Straße, then left again into Kleine Freiheit, which, however, ends in a small square in the corner of “Ring 2” intersection, i.e. it is about a third shorter today than before the construction of the big bypass.

Part of St. Pauli, Große and Kleine Freiheit (marked in yellow), Open Street Map:

Accordingly, the small churches of the Reformed have also disappeared. But what at all still reminds us of the original significance of the quarter, of the religious freedom granted, for which Altona was known far beyond the city limits in the 17th and 18th centuries? Basically, there are three elements that can be identified:  

1. The Catholic St. Joseph’s Church is located just halfway up the hill, at Große Freiheit 43. This is not the first Catholic chapel, which was destroyed in a city fire in 1713, but a church built circa 1718-1723, which is significant in that it is the first Catholic church built after the Reformation in the whole of northern Europe. The fact that the Catholic parishioners (still a minority in Hamburg) have an awareness of this history is evidenced by a sign at the entrance gate with a “Chronicle of St. Joseph’s Church”. Next to it, a branch of the Polish Catholic Mission, which was established in the course of the wave of Polish emigration in the 19th century.

St. Joseph’s Church
The History (Chronik) of St. Joseph’s Church
The Polish Catholic Mission

2. In reference to St. Joseph, the secular father of Jesus Christ and a carpenter by profession, and thus in line with the craftsmen who once lived in the neighbourhood, there is a “Hotel St. Joseph” shortly after the entrance to the street, on the right-hand side. The fact that inns are named after saints is certainly part of a medieval tradition; however, the idea that the saint may protect the overnight guests of this particular street is very likely less of Christian origin than a historical borrowing from the patron saint of the Catholic parish of the same street.

The Hotel St. Joseph

3. In the northern connecting street between Großer and Kleiner Freiheit, Paul-Roosen-Straße, I finally find two pubs that allude to the former religious freedom of the neighbourhood in a rather casual way. One pub bears the name “Kosmos Sankt Liederlich”, and underneath it reads: “Nunc est Bibendum”. Right next to it, a wine shop bears the motto: “Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalt’s” (Hops and malt, may the Lord preserve it). These references do not need to be interpreted further, also because they could appear to some believers to border on the blasphemous. But the two pubs are interesting insofar as they are witnesses to the change of meaning – from the quarter of religious freedom to the entertainment quarter – which is incomprehensible to some from today’s perspective.

On the other side of Ring 2, along Königstraße, there is also the old Altona Jewish Cemetery, today a memorial and research site, which keeps alive the memory of Jewish life in Altona and Hamburg.

An Attempt to Explain the Urban Transformation

The fact that freedom today looks so very different from the times of religious and commercial freedom can by no means be explained simply as a process of secularisation; especially since a religious core has survived with St. Joseph’s Church, which has also adapted to its new audience with events such as “St. Joseph By Night”. The urban transformation is also due to destruction and reconstruction phases (the city fire of 1713, the Second World War, the departure and dissolution of parishes, Hamburg’s traffic planning in the second half of the 20th century…), the general abolition of guilds and the founding of chambers of industry and commerce, as well as a change in a culture of sociability.

But this does not mean that major social upheavals or urban planning interventions completely cover up the past and make it irrelevant. Uncovering these earlier spatial layers, in addition to an awareness of history that can give societies stability, is important if only for the fact that it makes us aware of the complexity of society, whose actions are always reflected spatially. The fact that this complexity cannot be fully recognised during a walk alone, but that historical research (as well as surviving archives and old maps) is also necessary, should have become clear from this example.

— Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .

Rau, Susanne. “The Great and the Small Freedom. A Walk through Altona”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 14/01/2021.

Cite this blog post
Susanne Rau (2021, January 14). The Great and the Small Freedom. A Walk through Altona. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from

Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at Erfurt University. Since 2018, she is directing the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (Kollegforschungsgruppe) "Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations" (DFG, FOR 2779).

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