- - Monday, July 3, 2017


By Jan Rueger

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 370 pages, illustrated

If there is any sphere where size does not necessarily count, it is a place’s geopolitical importance. Thirty-five years ago, when Margaret Thatcher sent a formidable armada 8,000 miles down both the North and South Atlantic Oceans to recapture the Falkland Islands, recently seized by Argentina, she demonstrated that in no uncertain terms.

But the Falkland Islands, with its population of nearly 3,000 proudly British islanders, dwarfs the rocky North Sea outpost of Heligoland and its archipelago with little more than 1,000 inhabitants. Yet, as Jan Rueger, professor of history at Birkbeck College of the University of London, demonstrates in his sweeping, incisive and highly informed book, Heligoland once loomed large in European great power politics.

Although since 1952, it once more belongs to Germany, as it did between 1890 and 1945, its population is distinctively Nordic and for much of its history was a Danish possession. But in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, with Britain the dominant world — and not coincidentally naval — superpower, it made Heligoland its smallest colony for most of the rest of the 19th century. Of course, there was no such thing as a German nation per se until the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, but after then it was only a matter of time before, given Heligoland’s position a mere 40 miles off Germany’s coast, it would change hands.

It is surprising the colonial status quo endured as long as it did, and I think it would not have survived the Congress of Berlin in 1878 had it not been for British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s pre-eminence among European statesman then. “Der alte Jude, dass ist der Mann!” (The old Jew, that’s the man), Germany’s Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck admiringly proclaimed after that important meeting.

But as Mr. Rueger points out, because of a naval bill Bismarck introduced the year after the empire’s proclamation, the British ambassador in Berlin “alerted London. ‘It is the first time Prince Bismarck has officially declared the possession of Heligoland by a foreign power to be disadvantageous to Germany.’ To be sure, the bill had not announced any plans for Germany to acquire the island — but it did highlight that Berlin was thinking of the British outpost as lying squarely in its own sphere of interest.”

By the following year, with the recognition that “Heligoland was ‘an exceptional case’; it depended ‘entirely on its German connection’ the new German Mark became the colony’s official currency.” And, as Mr. Rueger writes portentously: “Whitehall officials noted for the first time that there was ‘a tendency towards the Germanization of Heligoland,’ ” notwithstanding its continuing status as a British colony.

When in 1890, Britain and Germany signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, which effectively swapped Heligoland for German recognition of a British protectorate of the small but commercially and strategically important island of Zanzibar off the coast of what was then German East Africa (later Tanganyika and now joined with the mainland as Tanzania), there was a neat symmetry to the deal.

A British outpost so close to the Kiel Canal Germany was building to link the North Sea to the Baltic was intolerable to its new young kaiser, who had already dismissed his patron as chancellor: “He was determined not to let the opportunity pass now that Bismarck had gone — ‘without Heligoland the Baltic Canal has no meaning for our fleet,’ he told his ministers.”

More focused on its global than its European role, the British government placed a high value on adding another piece in its colonial jigsaw puzzle, particularly one with the added advantage of lying right off Germany’s most important East African port, Dar-es-Salaam. Interestingly enough, Queen Victoria had serious reservations about the deal, writing forcefully to Prime Minister Salisbury (whom she generally admired):

“It is a very bad precedent. The next thing will be to propose to give up Gibraltar; and soon nothing will be secure, and all our colonies will wish to be free. I very much deprecate it.”

Her reference to the precedent regarding Gibraltar seems particularly prescient given the Rock’s looming large in current negotiations over Britain leaving the European Union.

Heligoland’s strategic importance would change radically at the turn of the 20th century with a fierce naval rivalry growing between the British and German Empires. When World War I came, it saw two of the relatively few engagements between their navies, and was once again crucial in the struggle between Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom, which used it for some years as a bombing range after recapturing it at the end of World War II.

Mr. Rueger writes trenchantly, “Heligoland thus came to symbolize the seismic shift that took place in the Anglo-German relationship in the two decades before the First World War. This was neither inevitable nor accidental. It took deliberate decisions made in specific circumstances for [it] to take a turn for the worse. Nothing illustrates this better than the German naval programme inaugurated in 1898.”

In his detailed study, he goes on to show that this pattern would repeat itself until finally, in the second half of the 20th century, with postwar reconciliation, Heligoland could become the peaceful German backwater it remains today.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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