Dr Jan Rueger, Birkbeck College

 

In July 1950, the British government was questioned in Parliament as to whether it should give Heligoland, a small island in the North Sea, back to Germany. The answer was a resounding ‘no’. As the minister responsible put it, the island represented everything that had gone wrong between the two countries: ‘If any tradition was worth breaking, and if any sentiment was worth changing, then the German sentiment about Heligoland was such a one’.

 

My project takes Heligoland as a prism through which to re-assess the Anglo-German relationship. Throughout the past two centuries the island has been a symbol of contact and conflict. While a British colony, it was frequented by German émigrés and writers. It was from here that national liberals propagated the idea of a unified Germany. When the UK ceded Heligoland in 1890, it was intended by both sides as a token of friendship, but became a symbol of rivalry. After the war, it was occupied by British forces. Under the Nazis the island was re-militarised and again styled as a national symbol. For Hitler and Goebbels it represented past German weakness and the need to be bold with Britain; for Himmler it was the mystic island from which the Aryan race had originated. Heavy bombardment in 1945 reduced it to ruins. When it was finally given to Western Germany in 1952, Chancellor Adenauer proclaimed: ‘Set in the seas between Britain and Germany, Heligoland will be a token of peace and friendship between us.’

Re-visiting the Anglo-German relationship from this site in the North Sea makes it necessary for us to step outside the traditional pattern of two parallel national historiographies. The British and German pasts have intersected in Heligoland for much of the past two centuries, suggesting that the two nations’ boundaries were more blurred and permeable than the received national histories allow for. My research studies in detail the island’s position between the two nations and its role in the many forms of Anglo-German contact and conflict.

However, this will not be a mere microhistory of the two nations’ entanglement. Using Heligoland as a case study, the project will re-assess key questions in British and German historiography. It will focus on three related issues. The first is the schism that has opened amongst historians of the Anglo-German relationship. On the one hand there are those scholars who have explained the rivalry between Britain and Germany in strategic and economic terms, creating a sense of inevitability: the rise of Germany was bound to lead, sooner or later, to conflict with Britain. On the other hand there are those who have explored the two countries’ cultural exchange and transfer. In their analysis war between Britain and Germany appears as an accident rather than the logical outcome of long-term trends. My project will go beyond these conflicting schools of thought by bringing together political and cultural approaches, offering an account that is neither deterministic nor relativistic.

Second, my research will suggest a fresh approach to the relationship between Britain and Europe. For too long, historians studying Britain’s external relations have either focussed on the Continent as the main source of influence or emphasized British history as distinct from Europe and best understood in an imperial context. My research will demonstrate that the two perspetives need to be thought of in one context. Despite much rhetoric about ‘splendid isolation’, Britain was bound up with the Continent throughout the 19th century – in ways that escape categorisation as either ‘imperial’ or ‘European’.

Third, the project will offer new insight into the history of German nationalism. It will analyse, in particular, the link between the quest for national unity and ideas of naval expansion, which can be found throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This will lead to new findings about the continuities and ruptures in German thinking about nationhood and the sea.

 

Dr Jan Rueger

RCUK Gateway to Research

Publication: Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea. Now available from Oxford University Press (January 2017).