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Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018
Jan Ruger is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire and joint editor of Rewriting German History.
On Heligoland: Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea:
How to write the history of two nations divided but also inextricably linked by their shared past was at the heart of my interest in Heligoland. From early on I thought of this outpost in the North Sea as a prism through which to view the long history of Anglo-German rivalry, conflict and, eventually, reconciliation. In making a small island the main character of the book, I tried to engage with both the large-scale conflict between the two nations and the small-scale history of how this relationship manifested itself in the everyday lives of people and their places.
For generations this cliff-bound island expressed a German will to battle Britain; and it mirrored a British determination to prevent Germany from establishing hegemony on the Continent. I wanted to explain this struggle while not losing sight of those caught in between, amongst them the Heligolanders.
I am delighted to see that this approach was seen as persuasive enough for the book to be shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. It is a tremendous honour to be in the running for a prize that has been awarded to so many historians whom I greatly admire. And it is hugely encouraging to see that books based on a close reading of the sources and a critical dialogue with fellow historians can find a broader audience.
Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018 An absolutely engrossing work of micro-history exploring how one tiny North Sea archipelago played an improbably large role in defining modern Europe. Located 300 miles off the east coast of England, and 29 miles off the German coastline, Heligoland has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Following a period under Danish sovereignty, the land became Britain’s smallest colony for most of the nineteenth century. After a spell as a seaside spa for European liberals, Britain ceded the land to Germany in 1890, whereupon it was transformed into a naval base by the Kaiser and later Hitler, thereby consolidating its pivotal role in Anglo-German relations. The land was fiercely fought over in both world wars - in fact, Britain directed the largest non-nuclear explosion in history at the island in 1947. But, as the author shows through his crisply engaging style, drawing upon endlessly varied sources of archival information – literature, art, film – the island’s symbolic importance continued deep into the twentieth century. I came away with untold new insights, and the utmost admiration for the author’s nimble melding of scholarly excellence with readability. ~ Joanne Owen