The Anglo-German Relationship and Heligoland

I attended a very interesting seminar on 28th June, 2017, at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London, organised to mark the publication of a new and excellent book by Jan Ruger entitled BritainGermanyand the Struggle for the North Sea (OUP, 2016), which I recently reviewed for the IHR.

The discussion was led by a group of highly eminent historians, including David Blackbourn, Celia Applegate and Frank Trentmann, with a response by Jan Ruger himself, and chaired by Lucy Riall. Rather than being, as advertised, a reflection upon Anglo-German relations more widely, the event was focused instead on Jan Ruger’s book on Heligoland. While I regretted not having listened to this wider discussion, it is probably fair to say that it could not have been fitted sensibly into the time available. And, in any case, the discussion of Ruger’s book was itself highly valuable, focused, and revealing of the dynamics of the British-German relationship.


Heligoland, for clarity, was an island (or, more precisely, two islands) acquired by Britain in 1807 from Denmark, when that state joined the French side during the Napoleonic Wars. The island (which is sometimes also known as Helgoland) sits at the mouth of major rivers leading into Germany – particularly the Elbe and Weser – and thus has significant value strategically and commercially.

Britain retained control until 1890, when it was agreed that the island should be given to Imperial Germany in return for British acquisition of Zanzibar on the east African coast. Heligoland remained in German hands until the end of the Second World War, when it was occupied by the British. It was returned once more to (West) Germany in the 1950s as part of the process of alliance-building between Britain and Germany.

Heligoland book cover

Ruger’s book looks at the interaction of administering powers with the islanders. He discusses the efforts of these powers to integrate the islanders into their own systems, and the latters’ position on this process (often one of recalcitrance or opportunist lobbying). In particular, his book casts light on the process of nation-building in Germany, and the important position of Heligoland within German nationalism. He also, however, provides a wealth of detail on the Anglo-German relationship in terms of diplomacy, commerce and culture. There is fascinating discussion of Heligoland’s role within German culture, as well as its function within tourism.

Not least, Ruger provides an account of Heligoland’s role in warfare: its creation as an island fortress by Imperial and then Nazi Germany, its consequent catastrophic destruction in 1946 in probably the greatest non-nuclear explosions of all time, and its re-emergence in the post-war world as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

David Blackbourn, based at Vanderbilt University, and one of the foremost and most well-known historians of Germany, commended Ruger’s book for its subtle intelligence and memorable content. He pointed out that the book made a significant contribution to studies of nation-building, the culture of consumption, while it also expertly conducted a ‘microhistory’ that combined events on the island with wider Anglo-German affairs. Prof. Blackbourn provided a succinct overview of the microhistorical approach and its engagement with traditionally structuralist approaches after the 1960s. He also noted that microhistory’s power had at first been underestimated and labelled ‘local history’.

There was also in Ruger’s book an illustration of the power of contingency in history, particularly in the lead up to the First World War. Heligoland provided an insight into the way – while European countries were scrambling to contruct national identities – the people of the island remained an ‘inbetween’ group. On the other hand, with respect to sovereignty and law in particular, he noted how Heligoland’s assimilation into the German Empire after 1890 was quicker that that of, for example, Hamburg.

Prof. Blackbourn suggested comparing the experience of Heligoland to that of other islands administered by the British – including the Ionian islands and the Falklands – and negotiations on transferring sovereign control to other states. He also asked whether there had ever been consideration of rule by ‘condominium’, such as had been the case regarding Prussian rule of Krakow in the early 19th century, or between Germany, the British and the U.S. in Samoa in 1889. He noted the importance of islands in British imperial history and pointed to their special significance in a maritime empire.

Heligoland map

Celia Applegate, also of Vanderbilt University, discussed the issues of insularity and accessibility of islands. She noted that Jan Ruger made an important contribution to the way we write about such topics. There was, she noted, a continued interest among historians in high culture – which she explained could be presented as art culture, and that Ruger’s book followed in this tradition. By using the example of the composer Bruckner, she demonstrated how artistic discourse could often be highly complex, but also how its significance at the time could be lost today (Bruckner’s Heligoland was part of a stridently German nationalist artistic bent that today is dismissed or discarded).

Prof. Applegate pointed out that in Ruger’s account the islanders themselves, as agents of history, come and go. Sometimes they were irritants, sometimes active, sometimes acquiescent. The question was raised whether the Heligolanders were ever a people in their own right. Did they make their own culture? It would be interesting, she reflected, to find out more about the indigenous culture on the islands.

Frank Trentmann, of Birkbeck College, London, pointed out the strengths of the book and spoke about the issue of contingency in history, particularly respecting the First World War. An interesting feature of the book, Prof. Trentmann argued, was how it demonstrated the parochial way in which histories of the British Empire had been written hitherto: the European dimensions of the British Empire and the way the British Empire’s history was impacted on by European states and cultures was well conveyed by the book. Moreover, there were, Prof Trentmann pointed out, many aspects of Jan Ruger’s book which pertained to, or have direct relevance to, ‘Brexit’: were these in the author’s mind as he was writing it, and would he make any amendments now in the light of the Brexit results? To what extent, meanwhile, did Heligoland change the course of Anglo-German relations?

Heligoland after bombing

Jan Ruger then responded to the three presentations and the issues raised. He felt that ‘microhistory’ was the appropriate term for his work, but was also aware of tensions between that approach and his. He felt he might indeed have spent more time elucidating the theme of microhistory and its application to the subject of Heligoland. He noted that, with respect to the islanders themselves, there was a problem of source material. There were scant records kept by the islanders themselves, much was bombed and destroyed on the island in 1945-6 (see photo above), and there was also a sceptical attitude on the part of the islanders themselves after the Second World War towards historians seeking information.

On the other hand, the efforts of the German state to make Germans out of Heligolanders is well documented. The book might also have spent far more time discussing the environment of the island – on land and sea – and the impact of geography on historical development. Britain never, he said, considered condominium as a solution to Heligoland, though it did – as discussed in the book – consider applying the status of mandate under the League of Nations. A point made by Frank Trentmann regarding the refugees in 1945 – that they often emphasised their Germanness in order to gain support – also made sense respecting the Heligolanders. Jan Ruger noted the Heligolanders also suffered from guilt feelings, given the presence of forced labour camps on their island during the Nazi period.

Overall, the seminar proved to be a most enjoyable and enlightening session on a relatively neglected aspect of Anglo-German history.

John R. Davis is Professor of History at Kingston University, Surrey, U.K.

For John’s review of Jan Ruger’s book on Heligoland, go to:

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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