Germany Holidays: Wismar, Germany’s little Sweden

When the great empires of European history are discussed, the Swedish Empire is rarely mentioned. However in the mid 17th century an empire which controlled parts of Norway, Finland, Estonia and Latvia also counted Wismar and the Baltic coast, in what is now Germany, as part of its territory.

The Thirty Years War of the early 17th century dragged Sweden into a Central European conflict in defence of the Protestant religion. Swedish armies, under the direction of the King Gustavus Adolphus, marched deep into German lands (although ‘Germany’ itself wasn’t to come into existence for another 250 years) but eventually retreated to the Baltic coast.

At the end of the conflict in 1648, under the Peace of Westphalia, Sweden gained ownership of much of this coastal area, including the towns of Wismar and Stralsund. This coastal strip remained Swedish for a further 150 years, until the Napoleonic Wars in the first decade of the 19th century. A little like Calais remained part of the English empire long after the rest of mainland France ceased to be, so Wismar was ruled by Sweden.

However the relentless expansion of Prussia meant that Sweden’s control of the Baltic coast would never be permanent. Sweden essentially sold Wismar in 1803 and after their century long option to reassert control expired, its future as part of the second German Empire was assured.

Visibly Swedish

Swedish architectural influence can be seen on the buildings in Wismar’s vast Markt, one of the largest and most picturesque in northern Germany. The sheer length of time the town remained part of the Swedish empire ensured a lasting legacy. In common with many northern German ports it was part of the Hanseatic League in the later Middle Ages, so Wismar’s architecture boasts a unique mix of Swedish and Hanseatic influence.

However the town was badly bombed during World War II because of its coastal location and because it was the site of the aircraft manufacturer Dornier. Although only 30 miles east of Lübeck (and captured by the British army in 1945) the town ended up in the Soviet Zone after the war, so it became part of the German Democratic Republic. Despite promises to restore the square to its former splendour, the work was never carried out.  It wasn’t until after Reunification in 1990 that extensive renovations were undertaken and the square became once more a place of architectural beauty and significance.

The most prominent building is the red brick Alter Schwede (Old Swede) which dates from 1380 and features a striking stepped buttress gabled façade. This is now one of several restaurants serving local specialities. The square also features the remarkable Wasserkunst, an ornate 12 sided well that provided the town’s drinking water until the late 19th century. Fittingly in 2002 the square was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, as a reflection of its unique character.

The town and square, now fully restored to its former glory, are well worth a visit, in any itinerary that features time on the beautiful Baltic coast of the former East Germany. – Mark Arrol

Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany

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