The relationship between Britain and Germany, which played such an important role in shaping the fate of Europe in the twentieth century, has been a fertile field of study in recent years. Scholars have now moved beyond simplistic notions of a ‘rivalry’ which prefigured seemingly inevitable conflicts in 1914 and 1939 to present a more nuanced picture which includes the countervailing currents of co-operation, competition, shared interests and beliefs, apathy, and (mis)understanding which characterized relations between the two powers. Prof. Rüger has played an important part in this process, particularly in confounding stereotypes of how ‘maritime’ Britain related to ‘continental’ Germany. In short, he has shown how the sea has proven an important medium across which Anglo-German relations have played out, producing opportunities and instances of collaboration and reciprocity, as well as periods of bitter conflict. In his first book, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), the author admitted to entertaining ‘whimsical ideas…about islands in the North Sea’. In the volume under review, we are now treated to an explanation of what he meant by this phrase—an attempt to use the small island of Heligoland, under Danish rule until 1807, British to 1890, and German (with minor interruptions) ever since—to explore the Anglo-German relationship, and the history of Europe more generally, from Napoleon to Hitler and beyond. This approach is a methodologically innovative one, based upon an eclectic range of sources in both languages and from institutions across Europe and North America. Whilst microhistory is by now a familiar feature of modern historiography, Rüger’s is not a typical example of the specific illustrating the general. Conditions and developments on Heligoland itself form an important part of the story and bring out many of the themes of the book, but they are complemented by a detailed account of how the island was viewed both in Britain and Germany (in cultural, social, military, and political terms). The island thus acts as a geographical and conceptual nexus through which the vast breadth and complexity of the Anglo-German relationship can be funnelled down to a manageable size without sacrificing any of its detail or humanity. The breadth of research used to achieve this synthesis—from areas as diverse as music, art, and literature, to naval planning and Nazi propaganda—is impressive, as is the author’s skill in selecting what to leave out in what might easily have become an unwieldy study. The book is organized chronologically, beginning with Britain’s acquisition of the island during the Napoleonic wars, during which Heligoland acted as a crucial node in both the British blockade of the continent and in her intelligence network in Northern Germany. Thereafter we learn of how, under British rule, the island colony became something of a retreat for political ideologues fleeing repression on the continent, and a source of artistic inspiration for a growing number of German visitors and tourists. The transfer of the island’s sovereignty from Britain to Germany in 1890 is used to expose the false dichotomy often drawn between depictions of a UK aligned towards either Empire or continent. Rüger makes the important point that the acquisition of Zanzibar and territories in East Africa in exchange for a rock in the North Sea was widely hailed as a good bargain in London at the time. This was due not to a disinterest in European affairs in London, but rather because the British hoped for better relations with Berlin in order for Germany to act as a counterweight to their imperial rivals, France and Russia. Britain therefore traded a European colony for territory in African in service both of its imperial and European policy: far from being mutually exclusive the two ends were sometimes complementary. The sections on the twentieth century see the island become the symbol of German Weltpolitik and naval ambition in a very complete sense—witnessing a large investment of resources for little appreciable strategic gain, predicated upon a fundamental misapprehension as to how Britain would respond. Here Rüger’s theme of the island as a focal point of Anglo-German tension becomes clear, in both a military and symbolic sense. Perhaps most interesting are the sections dealing with plans and discussions about the future of the island in the wake of both wars, which reveal much about the attitudes of both Britain and Germany to the future of their relationship and of Europe. A number of key themes emerge from the book. The islanders’ agency in preserving their historic rights and traditions and their attempts to veer and haul between London and Berlin to win local concessions is a fascinating study in European colonialism. Equally, Rüger does a creditable job of using Heligoland to argue against simplifying British diplomacy into self-contained ‘European’ and ‘imperial’ spheres. His charting of the island’s role in German culture and ideas of nation is similarly persuasive. As with any work of this scope and degree of ambition, some readers will doubtless take issue with aspects of the approach—which does occasionally digress away from Heligoland itself—or with instances of omission. Encapsulating a century and a half of Anglo-German history into one volume would be an impossible task and is doubtless one of the reasons behind using Heligoland as a prism through which to view the currents of enmity and empathy which ran across the North Sea during this period. Yet such criticisms would not do justice either to the interesting methodological premise of this book or to its contents. Heligoland is a valuable addition to the literature to Anglo-German affairs since 1800, and one which—due to its inclusivity and breadth—will be of interest to all scholars interested in either country or indeed the history of Europe, in that period. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jul 7, 2017
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