Heligoland: Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea, Jan Rüger
Oxford University Press, 2017
An exclusive extract from the widely-praised new book by Jan Rüger on how a small German island in the North Sea became a bitterly contested outpost of the British Empire.
Out in the North Sea, five hours north-west of Hamburg and 300 miles off the east coast of England, sits Heligoland. In good weather its imposing cliffs can be seen from more than a dozen miles, rising abruptly to eighty feet above the crashing waves. It is a steep, triangular bastion of an island. Half a mile to the East lies a flat sand dune, Sandy Island, which looks like a geological accident that could be washed away by the North Sea at any moment. In between these twin islets ebbs and flows a comparably calm stretch of water, sheltered from the north-westerly wind by the cliffs. Sailors have relied on this natural harbour ever since humans began to cross the sea between Europe and the British Isles.
For generations Britain and Germany have collided in this archipelago half the size of Gibraltar. The two nations’ pasts are etched into the rust-coloured, blotched sandstone cliffs. Wherever you turn, Heligoland’s scarred landscape reveals the imprint of war: the craters and broken rock formations, the iron and concrete remnants of Germany’s naval stronghold, built and demolished with equal determination, the over-grown ruins of the dream of sea power, bombed again and again. In 1947 British forces set off here the largest non-nuclear explosion on record, blowing up what was left of Hitler’s island fortress. In its ruins a long history of Anglo-German conflict was meant to come to a conclusive end. Pressed in Parliament on why it was not prepared to give Heligoland ‘back’, the Attlee government declared that the island represented everything that was wrong with the Germans: ‘If any tradition was worth breaking,and if any sentiment was worth changing, then the German sentiment about Heligoland was such a one’. Above all, the outpost stood for a long tradition of militarism which London was determined to see buried forever.
But long before it became Germany’s North Sea bulwark and fought over in two world wars, Heligoland had been Britain’s smallest colony, an inconvenient and notoriously discontented border island. Its location at the fringes of Europe, where the British empire ended and the German-speaking world began, intrigued geographers and colonial officials. In 1888, Sir Charles Prestwood Lucas, the head of the Dominion department at the Colonial Office, described Heligoland
as the point at which Great Britain and Germany come most nearly into contact with each other, and ... the only part of the world in which the British government rules an exclusively Teuton though not English-speaking population.
‘Contact’was an understatement. A web of laws and customs made it impossible to draw a clear boundary on the island between the British empire and the different Germanies that existed in the long nineteenth century. For the Germans flocking to the colony ever since it opened its spa resort in 1826, Heligoland was just outside the Fatherland, but very much part of it.
From early on this was an island of the mind as much as an island of rock and stone. Poets and painters, from Heinrich Heine in the 1830s to Anselm Kiefer in the 1980s, styled the outpost as a monument of German identity. However different these constructs of nationhood were, they focused on two aspects in common: Germany’s boundaries and its relationship with the sea, the latter almost inevitably involving the British. German sentiment about Heligoland was thus always in part a sentiment about Britain, its naval power, its attitude towards Europe and its role in the world.
For generations the island symbolised a German desire to be equal with and to be recognized as equal by the British. Having acquired it from Britain in 1890, the German government turned Heligoland into a fortress that expressed this ambition, a showpiece of the grand strategy that was meant to force Britain into acknowledging Germany as a world power. But the Kaiser’s battle fleet, built up over two decades, did little to compel the Britishto give way. Heligoland, demilitarized after the First World War, became a symbol of this failure. For the Nazis it was a metaphor of the Fatherland’s shameful humiliation bythe Allies, ‘a silent warning’, as Joseph Goebbels had it, demanding revenge. After he took power, Hitler had the fortress rebuilt and vastly expanded as an icon of Germany’s will to be bold with Britain.
Comprehensively destroyed by the RAF, the island’s ruins turned into an emblem of German victimhood and nationalism after the Second World War. When the UK released it into German hands in 1952, Chancellor Adenauer proclaimed that his country had ‘finally been given back a piece of soil to which we Germans are attached with so much love’. The island would now show to the world that the Germans had overcome the past: ‘Peaceful Heligoland, set in the seas between Germany and Britain, will be in future a symbol of the will to peace and friendship of both nations.
For the British Heligoland provided a lens through which to interpret Germany. The island was a ‘parable’ for the Anglo-German relationship, wrote Austin Harrison, the editor of The Observer, in 1907. The meanings of this metaphor changed dramatically in the course of the two centuries, as the relationship of the two countries was transformed. When the Salisbury government ceded the colony to the Kaiser, it was proclaimed as a token of friendship, heralding a new era of Anglo-German collaboration. Only from the turn of the century did Heligoland change in the British imagination. The forlorn colonial enclave, that ‘gem of the North Sea’, became a dark rock symbolising the German menace. H.G. Wells, Erskine Childers and a host of lesser writers used the outpost as a symbol of the German threat –and Britain’s failure to stand up to it. Giving the island to the Kaiser had been a momentous mistake, argued Winston Churchill and Admiral John Fisher. Their mantra, ‘no more Heligolands’, meant: no more concessions, no more appeasement.