A Swap for Zanzibar

Neal Ascherson

  • Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea by Jan Rüger
    Oxford, 370 pp, £25.00, January, ISBN 978 0 19 967246 2

At Heligoland, passengers are landed in boats and scrutinised as they pass by numbers of the visitors who assemble to see the arrival … Heligoland, which formerly appertained to Schleswig, was ceded to England in 1807 and still continues under English supremacy … Hotels: City of London, Queen of England, Belvedere … Table d’hôte everywhere at 3 p.m… . à la carte at the Deutscher Hof and Fremdenwillkomm.

Baedeker, 1868

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Deutschland! (Adolf Hitler, 18 March 1938). A worthwhile steamer trip leads to the cliff-island of Heligoland, 50 km from the mainland (half a square km area, 2800 inhabitants, numerous hotels), belonging to the Deutsches Reich since 1890.

Baedeker, 1938

Two strikingly different accounts of this red crag protruding from the North Sea. The first relaxed, even humorous. The second oddly curt, even tense. The difference reflects a slow transformation in relations between Britain and Germany, and in the international image of Heligoland. The easy-going holiday island, where British and German visitors picnicked together on the sand under their parasols, had hardened into a sea-fortress protecting Germany, an outpost gun-platform challenging the Royal Navy’s command of the North Sea.

The British had acquired Heligoland almost casually. It had loosely belonged to Denmark, and in 1807 the navy set out to destroy Denmark’s maritime strength before it fell under Napoleon’s control. Heligoland was picked up without a fight on the way to Copenhagen. During the rest of the Napoleonic Wars, it served as a valuable base for agents encouraging German revolts against the French and supplying military intelligence about French movements. So, after Waterloo, the British were disinclined to give it back, and – the Danes and Prussians making no great fuss – they kept it.

Under the Union Jack, the colonial governors tolerated and even encouraged German tourism. Hotels and restaurants appeared, and soon a Spielbank gambling casino (the Colonial Office strongly disapproved, but successive governors pleaded that it was something German visitors expected; moreover, it provided most of the island administration’s meagre revenue). Heligoland was an expensive distance from the North German ports, so visitors in those early Baedeker days were mostly well-behaved ladies and gentlemen of substance. Any old European currency was acceptable in the hotels and restaurants. The fact that the flag over Heligoland was British seems not to have bothered anybody.

Sixty years later, the Baedeker opens with ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Deutschland! – Adolf Hitler’. Heligoland had been ceded to Germany in 1890, and the 1938 edition (crawling with apologies for having gone to print too early in the year to include former Austria as part of the Reich) had pretty clearly taken advice about military security. The entry on Heligoland is brief because the Nazi regime was beginning to discourage visitors, especially inquisitive foreign visitors: Heligoland was in the middle of a gigantic programme of naval fortification.

The British hadn’t had a particular vision of what might be done with the island. Enjoyable debates about what the point of owning Heligoland could be, if any, ambled on behind the scenes in London for much of the 19th century. What was the point of having the Ionian Islands, come to that? Gibraltar, acquired a century earlier, was always a different matter because of its command of the Straits, the Royal Navy’s gateway into the Mediterranean on the route to India. But Jan Rüger argues persistently that there was no real contradiction between the possession of these offshore fragments of Europe and the development of an enormous colonial empire elsewhere. ‘We are used to thinking of Europe and the British Empire as opposite poles,’ he writes:

historians and politicians alike have fostered a narrative in which the empire allowed Britain to disengage from Europe, as if the two were clear-cut opposites … This is very much a 20th-century idea, reflecting, more than anything, Britain’s changed global position after the Second World War. The imperial project was never isolated from Europe, nor did it allow Britons to isolate themselves from Europe.

Wise and relevant words, to be set against shameless Brexiter distortions of history. Rüger calls 19th-century Heligoland ‘Britain’s smallest colony, an inconvenient and notoriously discontented border island’. But imperialist competition between the Powers gave such fragments unexpected significance as sensitive registers of international tension, and even – in the case of Heligoland, many years later – as bargaining chips.

Preoccupied as he is with diplomatic history and Anglo-German relations – on which he is an authority – Rüger gives tantalisingly little space to the islanders themselves. There were a couple of thousand of them. At first they were fishing families; later, as the holidaymakers, poets, soldiers, sailors and spies of Northern Europe came pouring off the steamers, they became part-time hoteliers, waiters, boatmen and building workers. Their language was Frisian. How long they had been on the island nobody could be sure. But what comes triumphantly through in this book is that they belonged to that luckless family of small European peoples who, when asked, ‘Who are you?’ reply: ‘Who’s asking?’ They learned early how to adapt to the taste of the current occupant, whatever the new official language or flag, asking not to be bothered unreasonably in return for nominal loyalty. A traditional song in tiny Luxemburg proclaims: ‘mir wölle bleiwe wat mir sinn’ – ‘we want to stay just as we are.’ The Heligolanders were like that. And for most but not all of the time, a saving bloody-mindedness allowed them to get away with it.

They quite liked the British, who allowed them – a trifle reluctantly – to hang on to what they asserted had been their ancient privileges when attached to Danish Slesvig (Schleswig): freedom from taxes and military service. Some of the islanders learned to speak English; few of their British rulers bothered to learn German, let alone Frisian. The exception was the ultra-keen governor Henry Maxse, a fluent German-speaker determined to make Heligoland straighten its back and polish its boots like a proper British colony. The islanders were flattered but uneasy about this sudden interest in them, and matters came to a head in 1864 when Maxse decided that they must have a regular Colonial Office constitution with an elected Legco (legislative council) and miniature versions of the other institutions of a British possession. But one of those institutions was taxation, and here the islanders drew a line. Immovably, they declined to pay. There was unrest and then protest, as the Heligolanders appealed to Prussia for support.

The Colonial Office was exasperated. ‘Heligoland is a little place inhabited by little people who are doubtless very illiterate and narrow-minded.’ But in 1868 the British acknowledged that imposing the constitution would be more trouble than it was worth and put Heligoland under direct rule, abolishing all political rights and privileges. Prussian propaganda made a feast of this ‘English hypocrisy’, but the island remained under languid rather than oppressive direct rule for the rest of its 83 British years.

The German years after 1890 were more dramatic. Like so many of these liminal peoples, the Heligolanders were reinvented by excitable intellectuals of the dominant power. The French – at deluded moments – told themselves that Alsatians were more essentially French than anyone else. The Germans came to assert that Grenzdeutscher, the inhabitants of far-flung Germanic enclaves in Slav lands, distilled the superiority of the Volk as no Bavarian or Prussian could. The Poles informed their minority in Upper Silesia (pragmatic mining folk who could change religion as well as language, depending on where the frontier currently ran) that they were incomparably Polish. The Heligolanders were presented by some German propagandists as fanatical sentries of the Fatherland, as irreducible as their mighty red sandstone cliffs. Others imagined them as primal innocents, an unspoiled handful of survivors from the very dawn of the Germanic race.

The price of such patriotic sainthood was usually to be summoned to die for the country one was supposed to love so much. But here again, the Heligolanders managed to let themselves off fairly lightly. Many had taken British citizenship by the time of the 1890 transfer of sovereignty, some serving in the armed forces and others emigrating to distant lands of the empire. The cession agreement, astonishingly liberal, allowed the remaining islanders to opt to become British for a period under German rule, though not many did: the swelling nationalism of the German Reich under Wilhelm II put such islanders under social and economic pressures so fierce that it made no sense to resist them.

Nobody had consulted the inhabitants before Heligoland was handed over to Germany. The Colonial Office considered political plebiscites among the natives of a British possession highly undesirable. But British journalists covering the story apparently conducted some kind of poll of their own, showing that – in spite of the constitution fracas 26 years before – the islanders strongly resented being evicted from British rule. Whitehall ignored them. As Rüger explains at length, this was a moment when diplomatic relations – and cultural relations – between Britain and Germany were strikingly warm; France and its relationship with Russia seemed more threatening to the balance of power, as seen from London, than German militarism. The Colonial Office had for decades been impatient with the cost and bother of this speck in the North Sea, and the price of Heligoland – a swap for German-controlled Zanzibar and the adjoining coast – seemed a brilliant bargain. The Germans were irrationally fervent about Heligoland, which ‘realistic’ Britishers considered pretty much worthless by any cool estimate. The explorer Henry Stanley commented that Britain had ‘got a new suit in exchange for an old trouser button’.

But even then, long before the great naval arms race steered Britain and Germany towards collision, there were voices suggesting that something precious had been thrown away. A day would come, they predicted, when London would regret blithely handing over an island colony which could become the strategic base for an attack on England’s east coast. Queen Victoria disapproved too. ‘Giving up what one has is always a bad thing,’ she observed when Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, reported to her. Twenty years later, with Heligoland fortified to support Germany’s furious drive to build a battle fleet capable of daunting the Royal Navy, those few critics were bitterly remembered. Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher, father of the Dreadnoughts, and Winston Churchill were among those who regarded ‘the Heligoland Mistake’ almost as a betrayal.

German attitudes to Heligoland, at least during British rule, had not concentrated on the ‘English threat’. Rüger is right to point this out: the underlying theme of his book is the dual nature of the British-German relationship, veering backwards and forwards from close economic and diplomatic co-operation to suspicion and military rivalry, and sometimes – as in the years leading up to 1914 – displaying both at the same time. Certainly, the first decades of ‘English supremacy’ in Heligoland showed a mild British interest in German aspirations.

Under Prussian leadership, the Germans had fought a so-called ‘liberation war’ against Napoleon, raising hopes for a united democratic German nation, but after 1815 the German people were still divided into a patchwork of states, most of them tiny and many of them politically Neanderthal. Where could a radical German patriot go to express his fury without fear of dungeon and gallows? The answer, ironically, was Heligoland. The British, for the first few decades at least, paid little attention to the politics of visitors to this offshore crumb of ethnic Deutschtum. So it came about that in 1841 Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles!’ on a German-speaking island under the Union Jack. Heinrich Heine had arrived ten years earlier, composing his romantic-political Heligoland Letters in a place free from censors and police spies. It helped that both Heine and von Fallersleben found the place wonderfully healthy and relaxing: ‘You have no idea how much I am enjoying the dolce far niente here,’ Heine wrote. His only complaint was about English trippers, who ‘give off a certain gas, the deadly, thick air of boredom’.

Soon all manner of German dissidents, from armed-struggle fugitives to liberal reformers, were setting off to the island in parties for away-weeks of plotting and seafood. Their shared longing was to bring about a free and unified Germany. And the case of Heligoland, indisputably ‘Germanic’ to romantic nationalists and yet under foreign occupation, was conspicuous. So, in spite of the island’s convenience as a sanctuary from which to insult the German states, especially Prussia, Heligoland became a patriotic symbol. How ‘German’ the islanders themselves had ever felt was beside the point. By the time of Heligoland’s 1890 ‘return’ to Germany (to which it had never belonged), it had become a destination for national pilgrimage as well as an overcrowded little beach resort.

Under Wilhelm II, the island was loaded with fortifications and riddled with underground refuge and communication tunnels. As Alfred von Tirpitz set about his breakneck programme of warship construction, British novelists in the years before 1914 wrote bestseller fantasies about Teutonic invasion fleets secretly mustering on the North German coast behind the cover of Heligoland. The Riddle of the Sands (1903) was the best known, but almost all these fictions derided British folly in surrendering Heligoland, ‘the crown jewel of the North Sea’, to an aggressive Germany.

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In the event everyone was wrong about Heligoland. In the two great wars of the 20th century, its role as a German naval base was insignificant. British warships didn’t bother to attack it. The enormous guns in their cliff-top emplacements hardly ever fired at anything. None of the three main North Sea battles of the 1914-18 war, Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland, approached the island for more than fleeting moments. In the Second World War, the battleships of the Third Reich found Heligoland much too exposed to be safely used as a base; there was a big U-boat presence there early on but then the main submarine force was transferred to ports along the Atlantic coast of France. These anti-climaxes brought no relief to the wretched islanders themselves. The entire civilian population was forcibly evacuated at the outbreak of war in 1914, and again in 1945. And yet the heroic myth, the symbol of unconquerable Festung Helgoland, persisted. In the First World War, Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty grew intoxicated with the dream of a vast amphibious onslaught to storm the island. Fortunately he was talked down by colleagues, who saw that to attack Heligoland would be suicidally difficult, costly in lives and ships, and ultimately pointless because it would be impossible to hold.

Disarmed, the island revived as a tourist resort during the Weimar Republic. Werner Heisenberg said – unverifiably – that he had experienced a Eureka vision of quantum mechanics during a Heligoland holiday. F.W. Murnau shot Nosferatu there – the place became a favourite film location – and young Leni Riefenstahl arrived to act in Arnold Fanck’s Holy Mountain. In 1928, Hitler came on a pilgrimage to see this potential bastion against England, accompanied by Goebbels and his doomed niece Geli Raubal. Meanwhile, money poured into the island, and rich Berlin businessmen built villas.

In 1933, the incoming Nazis arrested identifiable Communists and Social Democrats on the island, but also sent ‘separatists’ (leaders of the authentic Heligolanders) to concentration camps. Nazification covered the island with swastika banners and revived the image of Heligoland as the nation’s ‘holy outpost in the sea’; Jewish holidaymakers were harassed, and the Nazis herded local people into a campaign against ‘rich’ – property-owning – ‘Jews’. Soon Heligoland was Judenfrei – ‘Aryanised’. Yet the prewar Nazi years were prosperous even so. Hitler personally intervened to save the islanders’ tax exemptions. The Strength through Joy movement brought mass tourism to the island, increasing visitor numbers by 70 per cent in one year, and the government invested in more and more holiday facilities. The SS and its cranky enthusiasts imported their rubbish archaeology to prove that this rock was the birthplace of the Aryan-Germanic race. Despite all this, the Nazis sensed that the Heligolanders still harboured dangerously independent views. One party official reported that during the Weimar period, Heligoland had become ‘the Dorado of the Berlin Jews, the racketeers and Socialist bigwigs, who liked to take their spa holidays there. There was naturally a strong danger that these circles would infect the population with subversive ideas. One can conclude that National Socialism is facing considerable educational tasks in Heligoland.’

The rearmament of Heligoland – a clear breach of the Versailles Treaty – began in 1936. No mention of it was permitted in the press. Soon foreign visitors were no longer allowed and photography was forbidden: ‘Heligoland resembled a gigantic building site, with thousands of workers constructing one of the Reich’s most sophisticated systems of fortifications, bunkers and U-boat pens.’ At the outset of the Second World War, Heligoland was splashed across the Nazi media as Germany’s heroic bulwark in the ‘great struggle against our most persistent enemy, Albion’. But as Hitler’s attention turned to Russia in 1941, the island fell out of the news; the mighty fortress served as little more than a site for radar arrays.

Symbolism, rather than any sane assessment of target value, seems to have infected RAF Bomber Command’s thinking about the island. In hindsight, the only rational ground for attacking the place would have been to knock out the radar installations which warned Germany of Allied bomber streams approaching over the North Sea. Otherwise, the best treatment for this isolated gun-platform out in the ocean would surely have been to stay clear of it. But Rüger’s account suggests that Air Marshal Arthur Harris of Bomber Command, like Churchill thirty years before, took at face value Berlin’s nonsense about Heligoland as the very nerve-centre of German defiance and identity.

In the early morning of 18 April 1945, a fateful day in the history of Heligoland, Gestapo and SS squads arrested five civilian islanders and ten soldiers, members of a brave, hopeless conspiracy to seize control of the fortress and surrender it to the British armies already conquering the North German coast. The islanders were shot for treason. But only a few hours after the arrests, the first RAF pathfinder aircraft arrived over the island and began to drop marker flares. They were leading the six waves of a thousand-bomber raid which – almost completely unopposed – dropped 5000 tons of high explosive on Heligoland and reduced almost every human structure to mangled wreckage.

The attack lasted less than ten minutes. Then the survivors, defenders and inhabitants alike, crept out of their deep tunnel shelters into a smouldering wilderness they no longer recognised and were ferried to the mainland as the Third Reich surrendered. The formal capitulation of Heligoland to the Royal Navy didn’t take place until 11 May. Then, after the remaining garrison was evacuated, Heligoland became for the first time in millennia an uninhabited rock.

Britain had, in effect, regained possession of Heligoland. But, still obsessed with its supposed symbolism, the British were in no mood to repeat their old tolerance. Instead, exactly two years later, they returned to the place to prepare the ‘Big Bang’, an explosion billed as the biggest non-nuclear blast in history, which would remove all traces of the fortifications, tear the island to pieces and render it for all time unfit for human use. ‘Blow the bloody place up’ was not a new idea. It had been one of three options considered by Arthur Balfour in 1919 when deciding how the (imaginary) menace of Heligoland could be struck out of the hands of defeated Germany for ever. The other two were ‘re-annexation’ and ‘neutralisation’ under a League of Nations mandate. Balfour fancied the last idea, as long as Britain could acquire the mandate – in effect, re-annexation without obvious imperial hubris. But in the end he was pushed into a compromise: returning Heligoland to Germany on condition that all of its fortifications were demolished.

As usual, nobody in 1919 had asked the islanders what they wanted. Nobody except – as usual – Fleet Street’s finest, who gave big space to an appeal by Heligolanders to return to British sovereignty, to islanders singing ‘God Save the King’ and to refusals to hoist the German flag. The German government allowed the Berlin press to shout about ‘treason’ and licking English boots, but in fact they were nervous: exposing the ‘disloyal’ feelings of Heligolanders could undermine efforts to rally the patriotism of German or ‘Germanic’ frontier populations in Alsace or Upper Silesia. Back then, demolishing the colossal bunkers and casemates had taken two and half years, filmed by German newsreel to illustrate the nation’s humiliation at Allied hands. But in 1945, the victors had no mind to waste time. This was to be a naval operation, with British film cameras to record it, and on that grim anniversary, 18 April 1947, ‘on the fourth pip of the BBC’s one o’clock time signal’, nearly 7000 tons of assorted explosives were detonated. The shock was easily felt on the mainland: seismographs over in Britain jumped and scribbled.

To the delight of Germany, the scarred island itself survived. ‘Der rote Felsen steht noch’ – ‘the red rock is still standing’ – was one headline. But the British then proceeded to make bad much worse by setting up a long-running PR disaster, denying all access to Heligoland and using the empty island as an RAF bombing range. As Rüger puts it,

The reaction in Germany could not have been worse. The British were continuing the bombing war as if Germany had not capitulated over two years previously. The RAF was out to annihilate the island for ever and with it Germany’s self-respect. Had Germany not suffered enough? A number of initiatives began to document ‘British atrocities’ against ‘the German island’.

Rüger goes on to provide a fascinating and ironic account of how the fate of Heligoland was now woven into the cause of the ‘Expellee League’, the association of Germans driven from their homes in lost provinces or in East and Central Europe. A whole victimology library about Heligoland arose: ‘For once, Germany could claim the moral high ground against the Western Allies.’

In 1950, a pair of German students carrying the flags of Germany and the European Movement landed on the island. Soon they were joined by other campers, some of them returning islanders. In a curious, now forgotten episode, the East German regime also sent ‘young patriots’ to squat and demonstrate for peace, making the most of their arrest and jail sentences. The police, under British orders, kept removing the campers, but they continued to return, accompanied by ever more journalists. This ill-tempered farce continued until the British finally gave up, and handed Heligoland back to the West German state on 1 March 1952.

The British seem not to have turned up for the ceremony. There wasn’t much clear ground to stand on anyway, among the mountains of rubble. But Konrad Adenauer (who didn’t attend either) said that ‘peaceful Heligoland, set in the seas between Germany and Britain, will be in future a symbol of the will to peace and friendship of both nations.’ Few Britons now know where the place is. Still fewer know that it was once a British colony, a tiny offshore reminder that Britain is as much a European nation as it was ever a global power.