John B. and his cousin Ernst Gossler guided the company with a sure hand into a phase of dynamic growth but came into deep conflict with the policies of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. In a Germany now dominated by Prussia, its powerful Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was not going to accept that a decade after the reunification of Germany Hamburg still refused to join the German customs union.
John B. and cousin Ernst were sure that Bismarck would eventually get his way, but wanted to get the best deal out of it for their city. If the German Reich was going to swallow up Hamburg, then Hamburg was going to need a free port in which goods could be transhipped and processed.
But in Hamburg, which had always been an independent city-state, John and his cousin were lambasted as friends of Prussia. The proud and freedom-loving families of the city were viscerally and firmly anti-Prussian in their outlook. John B. felt ostracized, resigned his post as Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and left the institution in rancour. Bismarck was too clever to provoke the Hamburgers. Instead, he used diplomacy, offering a free port if they would join the customs union. But Hamburg remained stubborn.
John B. petitioned the chancellor directly, which did not add to his popularity in the city. Bismarck answered in a personal letter in which he repeated his promise of a duty-free zone. John B. had the exchange published in the local newspaper “Hamburger Nachrichten”. A storm of indignation broke over his head. The “particularists” who wanted to keep Hamburg independent collected over 1700 signatures at the stock exchange, including the leading names of the city – Amsinck, Chapeaurouge, Edye, Hudtwalcker, Lutteroth, Merck, Möring, Münchmeyer, Nottebohm, Pinckernelle, Schröder, Tesdorpf, Warburg, Westphal and Willink. Hapag and Hamburg Süd, joint stock companies in which Berenberg, Gossler & Co. had shares, likewise added their veto. But John B. and his cousin had read the signs of the times right.
The deal was done in secret negotiations, and in 1882 Hamburg joined the German customs union and got a duty-free port in return. It was literally a big deal. The central government agreed to pay for 40 of the 106 million marks estimated as the costs for new port facilities. Customs administration was left in the hands of Hamburg authorities. It was the best deal the city could get.
And then things started to happen. Entire neighbourhoods were demolished and moved to make room for the new port. The sailors’ bars at Kehrwieder and the merchant quarters Am Wandrahm and Holländischer Brook were cleared, homes torn down, and some 24,000 people were relocated to the new neighbourhoods of Eimsbüttel, Barmbek, Rothenburgsort and Hohenfelde, where they live far from their workplaces in hurriedly built apartment buildings. The “Speicherstadt” went up, a unique monument to Hanseatic mercantile spirit, solidly built right on the water, red-brick commercial gothic on oaken piles, today a tourist attraction with a respectable patina and still the largest warehouse complex of its kind in the world.
The new “free port” was finished on 15 October 1888. Fourteen days later it was inaugurated by the young Emperor Wilhelm II in one of his first official acts. The free port became the engine of the city’s economic development as Hamburg entered a boom the likes of which it had never seen. Berlin knew who it had to thank. For his heroic efforts, John B. Gossler was made a member of the Prussian heritable nobility. The Hamburg Senate granted him permission to add “von” to the name Berenberg-Gossler. Without this permission he would not have been able to be a member of the lower house, as Hamburg excluded members of the nobility from participation in government. The city’s old families were contemptuous of his ennoblement.
Johann Heinrich Burchard, who became mayor of Hamburg 1904 (and whose father was a shareholder in the banking house of Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co.), uttered the winged words, “A Hamburg merchant cannot be raised higher than he already is” (although he said it in reference to the “raising” of Schröder, another merchant). John’s sister Susanne Amsinck was horrified at the new title – “But John, what about our good name!” That good name got even longer in 1910 when John B. was made a baron. Baron John von Berenberg-Gossler died in 1913.
His ten year younger brother John Henry survived him by only a year. After the humiliating expulsion from the family company he had made a new start, and with the financial support of his mother became part owner of the company Warnholtz & Gossler. That seems to have been a profitable undertaking, for he purchased a dream lot at the top of the Krähenberg in what is today tony Hamburg-Blankenese. Gossler Park continues to bear his name.
Spring in Hamburg. The Gossler House shines white in the sun, a gem by Danish architect Carl Frederik Hansen, perhaps the most beautiful of his neoclassical buildings in Hamburg parks. Built in 1796 as the Blacker Country House, it received its new name in 1897. Later its ownership passed to the town of Blankenese. Now, following painstaking renovation by a private donor, it is to go to the Claus Schümann Foundation. The new tenants will include the Bucerius Law School and the library of the late local artist Horst Janssen. It will also be available for weddings. A place where family histories can begin – there is scarcely a better place to get married.