No more so than Heligoland, the archipelago of ‘rock and sand’ in the North Sea 50 miles from the German Coast, Britain’s smallest and most difficult 19th century colony. These Heligoland islands may be half the size of Gibraltar, but their political significance over the past two centuries, as Britons and Germans have fought for supremacy in the North Sea, has become a metaphor for rivalry, conflict and a stark reminder of our battered past.
Ruger has written a micro-history that captures the complexity of Anglo-German relations through the changing ownership of an ‘elevated, barren, rocky spot’ that begins with George III’s order to take possession of Heliogoland from the Danes in 1806. There follows a detailed chronology as the small number of islanders see their home being turned into naval strongholds under the Kaiser from 1890, and for both World Wars. There are also periods when the islands became a popular spa tourist destination attracting novelists, film makers, and gangsters.
Citizens, teachers, and politicians now have a new reference to view the nature and political history of German and British relations, as reflected in the ownership of this fortress settlement, until it was obliterated by the Royal Navy’s Operation ‘Big Bang’ in 1947 with the ‘largest non-nuclear explosion in history’ and then handed back to West Germany in 1952. Queen Elizabeth’s words to the President of Germany in 2015 that our two nations have reached a state of ‘complete reconciliation’ must never be taken for granted as Europe faces an uncertain future. Heligoland is a metaphor of warning and hope for us all.