Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea.
Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea. By Jan Ruger. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 370. $34.95.)
On the tiny North Sea islands of Heligoland, few signs remain of its dramatic history. Thoroughly bombed in the Second World War and demilitarized through violent demolitions that permanently scarred its topography, Heligoland has since been completely rebuilt as an out-of-the-way holiday destination for German spa-goers. Yet, as the author observes, "To visit Heligoland today is to walk through an archaeology of the Anglo-German past" (235). National monuments, remnants of fortifications, and lingering craters speak to a complex legacy that up until now has been largely unexplored.
Jan Ruger's excellent volume tells in full the story of Heligoland, which for two centuries was an imagined island borderland standing between the naval power of Great Britain and the rising ambitions of Germany. Through a blend of diplomatic, cultural, and military sources, Ruger details how European conflicts, nationalist aspirations, and global currents intersected at this most innocuous of places. Beginning with the British seizure of the islands from Denmark during the Napoleonic Wars and ending with their postwar reconstruction in the 1960s, this book reveals how Heligoland both reflected and informed the ways in which the Germans and the British saw themselves and each other. "German sentiment about Heligoland was thus always in part a sentiment about Britain," Ruger explains, though the British saw it "as a lens through which to interpret Germany" (2-3). Both sides imposed a range of symbolic meanings and obliged the islands to take on a variety of roles. Its rugged beauty inspired artists and poets, while its strategic location occupied the minds of politicians and military planners. Though sparsely populated and isolated, Heligoland became a haven for spies, a den of smugglers, a refuge for political outcasts, and a hotspot for elites. It was at various times a colonial bargaining chip, a gambler's paradise, and a maritime fortress.
With his study of Heligoland, Ruger has identified a critical fault line that tells us much about Anglo-German relations, and he does so with a gripping narrative that will delight the lay reader. His work is deeply researched and thoroughly contextualized, with fascinating vignettes about the many well-known figures who visited the island, including August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, who wrote the German national anthem on the island, Franz Kafka, Werner Heisenberg, Leni Riefenstahl, and Adolf Hitler. Along the way, he connects Heligoland to a worldwide history of empires while never losing sight of the Heligolanders themselves. Through individual stories, we learn about a unique people who never quite fit the mold of either side but who often used their liminal status to resist nationalist pressures. What emerges is an admirable, entertaining book that brings British colonial history closer to Europe while contributing to our understanding of German identity through a locale resting both at the very edge of Germany's frontiers and at the heart of its national consciousness.
J. Laurence Hare
University of Arkansas
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|Author:||Hare, J. Laurence|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
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