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Heligoland By Jan Ruger (Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London)


The story of Heligoland, the North Sea island which for generations stood as a symbol of Anglo-German conflict. A fascinating microcosm of a long and often troubled relationship, covering two centuries and two world wars.

Heligoland Summary

Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea by Jan Ruger (Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London)

On 18 April 1947, British forces set off the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. The target was a small island in the North Sea, fifty miles off the German coast, which for generations had stood as a symbol of Anglo-German conflict: Heligoland. A long tradition of rivalry was to come to an end here, in the ruins of Hitler's island fortress. Pressed as to why it was not prepared to give Heligoland back, the British 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'. Drawing on a wide range of archival material, Jan Ruger explores how Britain and Germany have collided and collaborated in this North Sea enclave. For much of the nineteenth century, this was Britain's smallest colony, an inconvenient and notoriously discontented outpost at the edge of Europe. Situated at the fault line between imperial and national histories, the island became a metaphor for Anglo-German rivalry once Germany had acquired it in 1890. Turned into a naval stronghold under the Kaiser and again under Hitler, it was fought over in both world wars. Heavy bombardment by the Allies reduced it to ruins, until the Royal Navy re-took it in May 1945. Returned to West Germany in 1952, it became a showpiece of reconciliation, but one that continues to wear the scars of the twentieth century. Tracing this rich history of contact and conflict from the Napoleonic Wars to the Cold War, Heligoland brings to life a fascinating microcosm of the Anglo-German relationship. For generations this cliff-bound island expressed a German will to bully and battle Britain; and it mirrored a British determination to prevent Germany from establishing hegemony on the Continent. Caught in between were the Heligolanders and those involved with them: spies and smugglers, poets and painters, sailors and soldiers. Far more than just the history of a small island in the North Sea, this is the compelling story of a relationship which has defined modern Europe.

Heligoland Reviews

Jan Ruger [...] has achieved the notable feat of telling a story almost none of us knows. His account of Heligoland's Napoleonic-era experience is a high spot, but the whole work is studded with unexpected gems about extraordinary people. * Max Hastings, The Sunday Times, Paperback of the week (26th May, 2019) *
Fascinating. * Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books *
Pacey and erudite... succeeds admirably. * European History Quarterly *
A Ruger's work on this small island is historiography at its best. * Dieter Langewiesche, German Historical Institute London Bulletin *
Ruger's book moves seamlessly between the views and demands of the inhabitants of Heligoland... and the considerations and policies impacting the island in the halls of government in Great Britain and Germany. Well-researched from multiple archives... the book also provides a useful and important reminder to historians of the need to consider a "long view". * Alan M. Anderson, Naval Historical Foundation *
Masterful... fascinating... this is microhistory at its best. * W. Mark Hamilton, Mariner's Mirror *
A thought-provoking treatise of how nations coexist - or dont. * Joseph Callo, H Net *
This brilliant, quirky book tells the almost unknown story of the tiny North Sea German island that became an unlikely corner of the British Empire. * Sunday Times, Best Books for the Summer 2017 *
The reader of Ruger's volume will be fascinated, surprised, horrified and moved. * John R. Davis, Reviews in History *
A fascinating book which uses a scrap of land in the North Sea to illustrate the tumultuous relationship between Britain and Germany. * History Hit Podcast with Dan Snow *
Ruger's book brilliantly spins a far bigger history out of one small, half-forgotten place. For so long the fault line between two powers, Heligoland deserves to be rescued from oblivion; it has found an admirable historian. * Ben Wilson, The Sunday Telegraph *
The whole book is studded with unexpected gems about extraordinary people ... a fine tale. * Max Hastings, The Sunday Times *
Resonant... a prism through which to view the entire span of Anglo-German rivalry, conflict and, eventually, reconciliation. * Martin Kettle, Guardian *
Utterly fascinating ... impeccable, original, scholarly and superbly written * Simon Heffer, Literary Review *
Mr Ruger makes his case that Heligoland's fortunes are a useful bellwether of wider relations and he relates his story in an engaging style ... More people should know Heligoland's story for the echoes it has today. * The Economist *
Fascinating * Ian Brunskill, Wall Street Journal Europe *
A gem of a study ... concise, scholarly, and readable. On one level it is simply an authoritative narrative history of an island and ist people, but on another it represents so much more: a case study of the twists and turns of Britain's relationship with Germany, Europe, and the wider world over two tumultuous centuries. * Nick Hewitt, Military History Monthly *
Visitors today may be quite unaware of Heligoland's curious history or of the weight of symbolism it once bore. Day trippers come now to enjoy the bird watching, the 1950s architecture, the duty-free cigarettes. Before setting out, they should read Mr. Ruger's fascinating book. * The Wall Street Journal *
For those devourers of "forgotten" history, this book is a must ... riveting * Ian Hernon, Tribune *
distinguished German historian Jan Ruger ... has written a micro-history that captures the complexity of Anglo-German relations * Nigel Winser, Geographical *
A brilliant and subtle history of Anglo-German relations, told through the evocative study of a contested island. This fascinating book is a triumphant demonstration of the power of microhistory. * Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 *
This is a brilliant demonstration of how the very small can have a significance over time on the very large. Drawing on literature, cartography, art, music and film, as well as a wide spread of archives, Jan Ruger shows how and why Heligoland became caught up in a succession of epic and destructive wars, conflicting but also overlapping national identities, the rise and fall of Anglo-German antagonism, and the competition for empire. * Linda Colley, Princeton University *
Jan Ruger's new book takes the North Sea island of Heligoland as a lens through which to examine Anglo-German relations over the past two centuries. The result is an entertaining and illuminating study full of colourful detail, that traces the phases of co-operation and hostility between the two powers over the decades from the Kaiser to Hitler and beyond. * Richard J. Evans, author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 *
Ruger's Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea succeeds brilliantly in exposing how Britons and Germans moved from admiration to antagonism, from cooperation to conflict, intermingling elements of both during the long nineteenth century, between the world wars, and after the Second World War. Focusing on the specific, it illustrates the shifting dynamics of the general relationship. The micro-study references higher level diplomacy and the military dimensions of the Anglo-German relationship but focuses on how art, poetry, music, and the everyday interactions of islanders, visitors, and representatives of the state made Heligoland into something more than two small islands buffeted by the waves of the North Sea. * Douglas Peifer, H-War *

About Jan Ruger (Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London)

Jan Ruger teaches history at Birkbeck, University of London, having previously held a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale. He is particularly interested in comparative and transnational history, the cultural history of conflict, and the history of Anglo-German relations. His previous book is The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (2007), which explores the theatre of power and identity that unfolded between Britain and Germany in the decades before the First World War.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Between Worlds 1: Edge of Europe 2: Nation and Empire 3: A Matter of Sentiment 4: Making Germans 5: Island Fortress 6: To Heligoland and Back 7: Disarming Germany 8: Hitler's Island 9: Out of Ruins Epilogue: No More Heligolands List of Abbreviations Notes Sources Acknowledgements Picture Credits Index

Additional information

Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea by Jan Ruger (Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London)
Oxford University Press
Winner of Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018.
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