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05 February 2017 @ 11:51 am
Review of Heligoland by Jan Rüger, pub OUP 2017  
Though accessibly written, this is an academic history with all the expected trimmings: photos, bibliography, and thorough notes. As usual, these are arranged under the various chapter headings, which means that when you want to look one up you must first ascertain the chapter title you're on and then scrabble through the notes to find it. I saw a history book recently that included the relevant page numbers from the text at the top of each page of notes, making it so much easier to look up the notes while reading the text. I'd recommend that practice to all writers of annotated books.

This is a "micro-history" which illuminates a bigger story, namely the relationship between Britain and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, via one small place, a much-disputed island in the North Sea. It belonged at various times to Denmark, Britain and Germany and while the latter two owned it, there were constant influxes of tourists, political agitators, spies, artists, construction workers and military men to unsettle the original population of fisherfolk.  The entire population was evacuated twice, in connection with the world wars; the Germans twice turned it into an armed camp and the British attempted to blow it into oblivion, though amazingly it's still there.

Not surprisingly, the Heligolanders themselves had very little notion of loyalty to any of the various nations who made use of them and their island for their own purposes, and quite sensibly spent their time playing one off against the other. They seem to have always had an innate reluctance to paying taxes or duties of any kind and managed to avoid doing so under the British, the Kaiser, Weimar and even the Nazis; indeed the place is still a tax-free zone.

What this book left me with, in fact, was a keen desire to know more about the Heligolanders themselves, this original population who kept vanishing behind the myths others created around them, not to mention the influxes of outsiders. In particular I'd have liked to know more about how they adapted on their return in the 1950s to a place that had been reconstructed from scratch and, needless to say, not in the way they themselves had favoured. The photos from various eras are fascinating, but none shows the island and its buildings as they are today, which seems a pity.

However, it would not be a fair criticism of this book to say that it concentrates too little on the Heligolanders, because its whole purpose is to discuss, through the history of the island, the relationship between Britain and Germany and their contest for supremacy in the North Sea. This it does very thoroughly and readably; the fact that it left me wanting to know more about a quite different aspect of things is a bonus.