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Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea’

Jan Rüger

Oxford University Press

‘Heligoland’ tells the story of a long and often troubled relationship which has defined modern Europe. For generations Britain and Germany have collided in a North Sea island half the size of Gibraltar. The two nations’ pasts are etched into its rust-coloured sandstone cliffs. Wherever you turn, Heligoland’s scarred landscape reveals the imprint of war: the craters and broken rock formations, the remnants of Germany’s naval fortress, built and demolished with equal determination. For much of the nineteenth century, this was Britain’s smallest colony, an inconvenient and notoriously discontented outpost at the edge of Europe. Once Britain had ceded it to Germany, the island became a metaphor for Anglo-German rivalry. 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. Eventually returned to West Germany, ‘Heligoland’ became a showpiece of reconciliation, but one that continues to bear 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.


  • An engrossing and accomplished history that uses the island of Heligoland to trace the complex course of Anglo-German relations across two centuries. Rüger offers a daring account that brilliantly uses micro-history to find the bigger picture.

Wolfson History Prize judges