GaWC Research Bulletin 366

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A shorter version of this Research Bulletin has been published in Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 69 (3), (2011), 139-140, under the title 'A Brief Jacobsean Take on German Cities in Europe through the Last Millennium'.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Contra-Weber: A Jacobsean Take on German Cities in Europe through the Last Millennium

P.J. Taylor *


Using a city-centric approach based on the ideas of Jane Jacobs, I trace the varying importance of German cities in the millennial trajectory of Europe to dominance in the modern world-system. German cities are found to be relatively unimportant until the nineteenth century when they match US cities, both producing rapidly expanding national economies. Thus Germany is the most powerful of all hegemony-challengers within the modern world-system. After defeat of Germany in World War Two, the continuing importance of German cities in Europe is charted through stages of retribution, rehabilitation, repayment and reassertion. The contemporary outcome is a ‘horizontal’ pattern of German cities in the world city network that contrasts markedly with primate France and the UK.

Keywords: Fernand Braudel, German cities, Jane Jacobs, modern world-system

The history of Europe is tied to its cities but written through its nations. As Pirenne (1969) taught us long ago, Europe as a distinctive world region emerged about AD1000 with the ‘revival of towns’ in a European ‘commercial revolution’. Thus the history I am interested in is a city-centric narrative based upon Jane Jacobs’ (1969, 1984) extensions of Pirenne plus some elaborations drawn from Braudel (1982, 1984). This history of Europe does not trace its origins back to the demise of the Roman Empire in the west through creating myths of ‘national’ continuities, but rather starts with Venice and its import replacement of goods from Constantinople (Taylor 2006). This created an economically dynamic city network that began the millennial path to an economically dynamic world region.

Two urban geographies of medieval Europe

My brief is to focus on German cities in this European story. For this subject matter there would appear to be only one point of departure: the great German scholar Max Weber’s (1958) writings on the city in which he entwined theory and history. Writing roughly contemporaneous to Pirenne (the 1920s), he attempted to understand cities in a more comprehensive manner than Pirenne’s focus on commerce, and this produced a very different urban geography. Pirenne (1969) identified two key centres in the development of commerce in Europe: initially northern Italy and subsequently the Low Countries. Braudel (1982) elaborated on this bi-polar urban geography as ‘two poles of development’ at the heart of European commerce. But this is not what Weber (1958) tells us. Locating European urban development in a wider global context, he creates two concepts of city forms that he calls ‘occidental’ and ‘oriental’. Their key difference is that the latter is lacking in ‘freedom’. Whereas in Europe ‘city air makes man free’ (p. 94) this was not the case for eastern cities. He contrasted cities that lacked ‘autonomy, community organizations, and a privileged citizen estate’ (p. 84) in Asia with ‘politically autonomous cities and a burgher stratum of Occidental type’ (p. 85). It is from this archetypal Eurocentrism of the times (the 1920s) that Weber derives his urban geography of Europe.He argued that within medieval Europe this autonomous citizenry was to be found in its purest form north of the Alps (p. 91) so that ‘the southern European city forms a transition stage between Asiatic and North European cities.’ (p. 95). Obviously he is thinking largely of the German imperial, free and territorial cities with their privileges within the Holy Roman Empire. Thus Weber’s more political conceptualization of cities generates a very different European urban geography.

It is not at all surprising that different ways of conceptualizing cities will produce different urban geographies. In this sense it is not a matter of which geography is ‘correct’. However, there is the related question of which geography is most useful for contemporary understanding of German cities and for this Weber’s ideas feed into a traditional political agenda of a superior Europe, which could hardly be less suited to twenty first century circumstances. Pirenne and Braudel’s emphasis on relating cities to commerce does chime with our times where the success of cities in economic terms is a central theme of globalization studies. This is the materialist approach that I take and it means that I evaluate the importance of Weber’s institutional freedom in terms of creating vibrant city economies: it is how the opportunities afforded by institutional freedom are harnessed to urban development that matters. This can be simply measured through city population estimates: for Jacobs, city success is measured in economic expansion that is reflected in urban population growth. At the end of Europe’s first great commercial revolution, this world region had been converted into a network of many cities and these are listed in Table 1 for both northern Italy and the vaster German lands north of the Alps. Cities with populations above 20,000 are shown for 1300. The contrast is stark: there are more and bigger cities in northern Italy despite their supposed half-way stage to being oriental cities. Thus my title; I have started briefly with Weber for reasons of respect and courtesy only for my guides are elsewhere.

Table 1: Northern Italian and German cities in 1300

Leading northern Italian

Pop (k)

Leading German

Pop (k)





Source: derived from Chandler (1987, 17)

The varying importance of German cities in the modern world-system, 1500-1900

There is a further, theoretical reason to focus on the Pirenne/Braudel urban geography: it is implicated in the rise of the modern world-system as developed first by Wallerstein (1979) and subsequently elaborated by Arrighi (1994). Both scholars draw directly on Braudel’s sequence of European cities as financial centres that transmutes into a sequence of world hegemonies in the capitalist world-economy. In the rise of the latter through the ‘long sixteenth century’ (c.1450-c.1650) Venice, Bruges and Antwerp become pivots of European finance – Braudel calls them ‘world-cities’ – that charts the economic movement from Braudel’s ‘southern pole’ to the ‘northern pole’ that was consolidated by the rise of Amsterdam and the United Provinces from the 1590s. Thus it is with the coming of the modern world-system that northern Europe becomes economically predominant over southern Europe. This is reflected in success of its cities but not always with German cities.

To monitor the success of German cities in the modern world-system I draw upon research reported in Taylor et al (2010). In this research project we produced an inventory of what Jacobs (1969) calls ‘explosive city growths’ in cities across the modern world-system in 50-year intervals from 1500. The growth threshold was an average demographic growth rate of 1% over the 50 years. Cities where the population growth was largely due to political factors (usually the rise of capital cities) were eliminated to leave an inventory of 184 economic city spurts (for further details see Taylor et al (2010)). In Table 2 I focus upon the 110 such spurts from 1500 to 1900.1 The key point from the table is the unevenness of German city presences. Following on from their relative unimportance in medieval Europe, German cities make little impact on the growth of the modern world-system until the nineteenth century.2 In the first 50-year period before the spatial structure of the new system had been drawn by the Dutch, there are three successful German cities but, being spread across German lands in the south, east and north, they do not define a city-cluster region such as found in the Low Countries. After this first cross-section there is a great void: for 250 years there are no recorded economic spurts in German lands. But it is all change from 1800: German cities are very much part of the economic success story that is the industrialization of core-zones in the modern world-system. This warrants further investigation.

Table 2: Successful German cities in the modern world-system, 1500-1900

50-year Intervals

Number of economic spurts

Economic spurts of German cities



Augsburg, Magdeburg, Hamburg


















Munich, Leipzig, Hamburg, Dresden



Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Munich, Ruhr

Source: derived from Taylor et al (2010)

German cities in a failed hegemonic-challenger state

According to Wallerstein (1984) the modern world-system has developed through three hegemonic cycles: the Dutch in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the British in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the USA in the twentieth century. With their prime financial centres – Amsterdam, London and New York – they continue the city sequence of Braudel but now within a territorial state context. From my perspective, however, the key context is the concentration of multiple vibrant cities within each state territory. When studied in this way, it appears that the cycles overlap somewhat as evidence for cities stirring within future hegemonic states occurs earlier than expected (Taylor et al 2010). We have interpreted this as evidence that hegemonic creation occurs in the newly vibrant cities of the hegemon-to-be (p. 881). This has important implications for studying the hegemonic-challenger states.

In Wallerstein’s model each hegemon is challenged by a strong territorial-based state that is defeated in a ‘world war’. German lands feature twice here, first as part of the Hapsburg challenge to the Dutch, and later as the modern German state’s challenge to the USA.  In between there is the Napoleonic French challenge to the British. Focusing on the French and German challenges to Britain and the USA, the city-based analyses show very profound differences. In Table 3 the economic spurts of cities in both hegemonic and challenger states are listed during the initial rising of hegemonic cycles (1700-50) for the British and for the USA (1800-50). The most stark result from this table is that there was no French challenge in terms of dynamic economic cities. There had been economic spurts by French cities before 1700 but after the domestic victory of ‘continental France’ over ‘Atlantic France’ (Fox 1971), France’s economic rivalry with Britain effectively disappeared. Thus France’s challenge was a political challenge that failed. This was not the case with the German challenge: as the USA hegemonic cycle was beginning, German cities vied with US cities in their importance as economic spurts. Germany’s challenge was clearly a political-economy challenge with their great cities to the fore. In fact this is the first time German cities figure prominently in the making of the European world-region. We might say that Germany would have been the ‘natural successor’ to Britain if world-system hegemony had remained in Europe but by the nineteenth century the system was reaching its global limits and the core-zone had expanded into North America where the cities of the ‘Manufacturing Belt’ launch the third hegemon, the USA.

Table 3: Comparing French and German challenges

Rising British hegemony

Rising American hegemony


Explosive City Growths


Explosive City Growths





New York

Source: derived from Taylor et al (2010)

Retribution (Morgenthau) to rehabilitation (Marshall) to repayment (Jacobs) to reassertion (Merkel)

In political economy terms Germany may have been the best-equipped hegemony-challenger but it still lost in the twentieth century world wars. The question then arises of what to do with such a formidable political-economy challenger. The obvious answer was to impose a severe economic penalty plus early political reintegration, a policy enacted after 1918 but which subsequently failed on many levels. Therefore when the challenge was finally defeated in 1944-5, the question of what to do had to be thought through again. I will trace this briefly from a city-centric perspective continuing to be informed by Jacobs.

Initial thinking during hostilities was, perhaps inevitably, focused once again on retribution. But if massive reparations did not work in 1918, why should they work later? Clearly something more drastic was required. Enter Henry Morgenthau, US Secretary of the Treasury, with his plan for the ‘pastorization of Germany’, in particular the de-industrialization of the Ruhr and surrounding regions. The proposal was to prevent Germany waging war in the future and to this end its great industrial cities would have to be eliminated. The argument is partially Jacobsean in its recognition of cities as the power-houses of successful states. But it is essentially anti-Jacobsean in the way future economic development is being planned by the relocation of industrial infrastructure without understanding the complex processes that make cities.

Although informing early post-war planning to some degree, Morgenthau’s ideas were controversial: former President Herbert Hoover asked what the 25 million people of the greater Rhine-Ruhr were supposed to do? There certainly was not a demand for this many farmers! In fact removing cities from the world-economy does not just affect the region of the cities. Inter-city relations are built upon mutualities and dependencies that are networked in complex ways to induce vibrant economic expansion. Cut these ties and expansion is lessened: in 1945 and 1946 Morgenthau thinking seemed to be holding back economic recovery, not unlike the post-1918 economic travails. Enter George Marshall, US Secretary of State in 1947, who understood the need for rehabilitation to boost economic recovery, not hold it back. The Marshall Plan from 1947-51 was designed to provide capital for European economic recovery and was instrumental in the reindustrialization of Germany. Although a defeated country, Germany ranked third in receipt of this capital (behind only France and the UK), which provided a boost for the incipient private sector to take off and create Europe’s most successful national economy based upon vibrant cities throughout West Germany.3

Some restrictions on German economic development remained but were basically eliminated as West Germany joined the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which transmuted into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. The latter common market area was at the heart of Europe’s ‘post-war boom’ in the 1950s and 1960s and there was no doubt that West German cities were the prime movers in this economic transformation. With the economic downturn and expansion of the EEC in the 1970s, German cities continued to be the economic core of Europe. Jacobs (1984, 202) provides an interesting contemporaneous comment on this situation:
“The wrangles of the EEC are to a considerable extent the jockeying of two played-out empires, France and Britain, over which one can more successfully milk the cities of Europe to temporize with its own decline”
German cities were the main providers; this can be interpreted as Germany’s authentic war repayment via the EEC, mainly to France: as Jacobs saw it, it was ‘rural France’ that was subsidized ‘on a scale that France’s own cities couldn’t possibly manage, particularly as they themselves are mostly stagnant’ (pp. 201-2).

With the recent economic downturn and the crisis of the euro-zone the process appears to have finally come to a halt. Chancellor Merkel’s refusal to bail out countries with cities less vibrant than Germany’s has caused a rift with France: it means the repayment is finally done.

German cities in globalization

This recent history is now reflected in contemporary globalization. I will end with some results from GaWC studies of the world city network. This is defined by the advanced producer service firms that are enabling the global economy to run reasonably smoothly. Using the worldwide office networks of such firms it is possible to measure the world city network (Taylor 2004) and, in particular, the network connectivity of individual cities. This measures the degree of integration of a city into the world city network. It can be used as a surrogate for measuring Jacobs’ vibrant cities under conditions of contemporary globalization.

When the world city network was first measured in 2000, it was immediately clear that Germany’s cities were different from those of other European countries. They exhibited a ‘horizontal’ pattern of connectivities. For instance, there were seven German cities ranked in the top 100 worldwide (Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart) compared to the UK with only London so-ranked (albeit 1st) (Beaverstock et al 2001). Table 4 shows the results for the 2008 project to contrast German cities with the primate patterns of France and the UK. Clearly the latter two are much more ‘vertical’ meaning that links to the wider world city network in these two countries are largely concentrated on their respective capital cities. In Germany, there are several cities with relatively good links, a diversity that should be advantageous in difficult times ahead for the global economy.

Table 4: French, German and UK cities in the top 100, 2008




























Source: derived from Taylor et al (2010)


Arrighi, G. (1994): The Long Twentieth Century. London.

Beaverstock, J.V.; Hoyler, M.: Pain, K; Taylor, P.J. (2001): Comparing London and Frankfurt as World Cities: a Relational Study of Contemporary Urban Change. London and Berlin.

Bontje, M (2004): Facing the challenge of shrinking cities in East Germany: the case of Leipzig. In Geojournal 61, 1, 13-21.

Braudel, F. (1982): The Wheels of Commerce. London.

Braudel, F (1984): The Perspective of the World. London.

Chandler, T. (1987): Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: an Historical Census. Lewiston, NY.

Fox, E. W. (1971): History in Geographic Perspective: the Other France. New York.

Jacobs, J. (1969): The Economies of Cities. New York.

Jacobs, J. (1984): Cities and the Wealth of Nations. New York.

Pirenne, H. (1969): Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Princeton, NJ.

Taylor, P. J. 2004): World City Network: a Global Urban Analysis. London

Taylor. P. J. (2006): Prologue: a lineage for contemporary inter-city studies. In: Taylor, P.J.; Derudder, B.; Saey, P.; Witlox, F. (Hrsg) Cities in Globalization. London, 1-12.

Taylor, P. J.; Firth, A.; Hoyler, M.; Smith, D. (2010): Explosive city growth in the modern world-system: an initial inventory derived from urban demographic changes. In: Urban Geography 31, 7, 865-884.

Wallerstein, I. (1979): The Capitalist World-Economy. Cambridge.

Wallerstein, I. (1984): Politics of the World-Economy. Cambridge.

Weber, M. (1958) The City. New York.



* Peter J. Taylor, School of the Built and Natural Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK; Email:

1. I stop at this date because in the twentieth century the demographic-economic growth link becomes somewhat problematic.

2. Of course, Augsburg was an early modern financial centre (home of the Fugger banking family) but this did not translate into it becoming a major city.

3. The success of the Marshall Plan has encouraged emulation where ‘Marshall Plans’ as large infusions of capital have become a common way to provide aid where economic circumstances are dire. But for Jacobs (1984) capital alone is not enough: ‘Development cannot be given. It has to be done. It is a process, not a collection of capital goods’ (p.119). A process requires agents – entrepreneurs – who can make use of the capital; these were there in West German cities in 1947-51. However this was not the case with reunification of Germany and the large infusions of capital transferred to East German cities; this has become a famous region of ‘shrinking cities’ (Bontje 2004). In Jacobs’ terms, these are stagnant cities.


Edited and posted on the web on 23rd November 2010

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Raumforschung und Raumordnung, 69 (3), (2011), 139-140