1945 was no “zero hour” for Bremen: It had a foundation it wanted to build upon and a great wrongdoing it wished to forget. The Hanseatic trading tradition remained and the region now had a mayor, Wilhelm Kaisen (SPD), who was the Senator for Social Issues until 1933 and said: “First the port, then the city”. Bremen’s biggest stroke of luck was its status as an American-occupied enclave. Bremen and Bremerhaven acted as supply ports for American troops, and so they had a vested interest in repairing the bombed docklands and salvaging the sunken ships. Furthermore, the Americans restored Bremen’s independence after holding talks with the British.
The ports were cleared of mines between May and August 1945, and the first merchant ship unloaded its cargo in September of the same year. Bremen’s citizens were helped by the Americans to clear the rubble, blow up the ruins and fill in bomb craters. Painstaking efforts were made to repair depots, storehouses, cranes and railway tracks with spare parts. The first scheduled voyage to the USA entered service in July 1946. In addition to the military supplies, transhipments were now also made for food, coal, metal ore and wool. Just two years after the end of the war, revenue was already half of what it had been in 1938. Considering the smaller economic area behind Bremen and the almost total destruction of local and national infrastructure, this was a great success. Nevertheless, this had been achieved without German ship owners: The ships that hadn’t been sunk had been commandeered, and economic operations were not encouraged by the maximum limit of 7,200 gross registered tonnes and 12 knots, introduced in 1949.
The first stage of the port redevelopment project was completed in the early 1950s. The capacity utilisation of general and bulk cargo was so good that more storehouses, cranes and quays continued to be built.
The Senator for Port Matters, Hermann Apelt, initiated an investment programme in 1953 that would inject 20 million Mark into each port for the next ten years. Nevertheless, the Europahafen and international seaport had reached their natural capacity limits by the end of the 1950s. Some ships had to wait days. The construction of Neustadt’s port on the left of the river Weser provided the necessary relief and more modern facilities. The Senator’s statement that there was a natural limit for the potential size of ships, meaning ports in the City of Bremen would remain at the heart of the economy for a long time, turned out not to be true. Containerisation would bring an end to the lure of the Europahafen and international seaport.
One of Europe’s first ever container facilities started its operations at Neustadt’s port in 1968, thus cutting down layover time enormously. In the years that followed, ships’ capacities and draughts continued to grow until they simply got too big for the Weser and the 19th-century basin. In spite of this, the ports were able to stay attractive through constant modernisation, such as with the construction of roll-on roll-off terminals at the international seaport (1967) and Europahafen (1972). The combination of modern requirements and the cramped conditions of general cargo freight ultimately caused revenue to sink from the 1980s. When the international seaport’s structural condition was examined in 1991, it was immediately closed down. The basin was filled with 3.5 million cubic metres of sand in 1998. Until that moment, millions of goods had still been transhipped there, and most types of product had reached their destination at least once via the Hanseatic City: cotton, wine, cocoa and coffee, tobacco, wood, metal ore, coal, cars and many more goods including entire locomotives. This had been the heart of Bremen’s economy for over a century, ships had left and entered, and cranes had gone up and down.