Altona (1750–1800): notions of privacy at the interface between civic ideals and practices

Eighteenth-Century Altona was a German-speaking city belonging to the Danish Monarchy, located on the river Elbe, in the southernmost fringe of the Danish Realm. The town formed an essential part of the economic strategies of the Danish Crown, and already in 1664, the city was granted city privileges, which included extensive commercial and customs privileges and a far-reaching freedom-of-religion aimed explicitly at attracting merchants from all over Europe. Consequently, throughout the eighteenth century, Altona served as a hub for Enlightenment ideas, religious dissent, and commercial interest and offered its inhabitants codified freedoms of trade, tolls, and religion.

The starting point of our period marks the beginning of an intensive regulation of outer and inner borders of an, until then, fairly unregulated city. Our investigation of the city takes a different approach than most Danish and German research, which has predominantly dealt with agents and ideas coming from Altona but has shown scarce interest for the city itself.

The Altona case revolves around the city's police director Johann Peter Willebrand (1719–1786), his many theoretical works about 'good police' in the expanding city, most importantly Abrégé de la Police (1765, Hamburg: Estienne et Fils), and his practical service in Altona as he was writing and reflecting on the ideal urban regulation. Willebrand's writings and his efforts to implement his ideals offer perspectives on cultural history, urban infrastructure and architecture, cameralistic thought, and implementation of police regulation concerning German, Danish, local, and Roman law.

In addition to Willebrand's theoretical works, the case team draws significantly from archival sources preserved in the Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein and the Danish National Archives. These sources include city governance, the midwife school, the religious minorities including two Jewish communities, townsmen's petitions to Copenhagen, and correspondence between the municipal authorities in Altona and the central administration in Copenhagen.

The Altona case team will add new insights into private and public dimensions of Altona's social-religious life, exposure, and protection of private bodies, as well as state intrusion of privacy. 


Jesper Jakobsen, Johannes Ljungberg, Natacha Klein Käfer and Natália da Silva Perez.