German Regional Differences--Heligoland Archipelago

Figure 1.-- This German boys wears a sailor suit, we think during World War I. Note that the tally on his cap reads "SMS Heligoland". This was a German World war I dreadnought.

A number of small German islands are located close to the coast along the country's North Sea coast. An exception is is the small Heligoland Archipelago. Heligoland only recently was acquired by Germany, a reflection of the country's relatively weak naval power. The Heligoland Archipelago is the only German North Sea islands not in the immediate vicinity of the coast. Thet are located in the Heligoland Bight about 70 kilometers from Cuxhaven at the mouth of the River Elbe. Heligoland was for centuries a Danish possession and then acquired by Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.


The German Bight which includes the Heligoland Bight coastal area and the islands are known to have been inhabited in prehistoric times. Flint tools have been found in the sea around Heligoland. Pre-historic burial mounds wre reported on the Oberland section of the main island. Excavations found skeletons and artefacts. Archeologists have also found copper plates in the water near the islands, presumably from Oberland. [Ritsema, pp.21-23.] It is interesting that so many artifacts have been found underwater. This probably is the result of changing sea levels and the fact that artifacts were better preserved under water.


The Frisians appear to have the modern Germanic language cloest to Old English, or the language the Anglo Saxons brought to Britain. The language survives in the northeastern Netherlands and northwesren Germany today. The Frisins do not seem to have participated in the Anglo-Saxon invasions, but the Anglo-Saxond may have passed through Frisin territry or the Frisians mazy have transported some of them. Radbod was the last Frisian king. He retired to Heligoland after his mainland territory was conquuered by the Franks (697). [Alcuin]

Medieval Economy

The Frisians were a more seafaring people than the Franks who did nor pursue Radbod. The Frisians on Heigoland supported themselves through fishing, hunting birds and sealing. They also developed a reputation for seafaring skills. Raiders often hired navigators from Heigoland for attacks on rich Hanseatic League ports like Bremen and Hamburg. North Sea fishing was an important economic activity. Fishermen were known to use Heigoland as a base for the herring fihery.


The status of Heigoland is unclear after the Frisians. The Vikings appear to have seized the island like so many North Sea and North atlantic islands. King Valdemar II of Denmark listed the island among his territories (1231). Ownership was, however, contested. In particular the nearby Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein at times seized control of the island. One source suggests Schleswig-Holstein held the islands for some time (1402-1714). There was a short period in which the Hanseatic city of Hamburg seized the island. Denmark captured the island (1714) and controlled for most a century.

Britain (1807-1890)

Small Heigoland played a colorful role in the 19th century. The British Royal Navy seized Heigoland during the Napoleonic Wars (1807). With Nelson's stunning victory at Trafalgur, Royal Navy vessels were freed for other operations. It became useful as a smuggling center to help defeat Napoleon's Continental System which sought to keep the British from trading with French-dominated continental Europe. A side benefit of the smuggling, was intelugence on continental developments and Frence moves. Thousands of Germans fled French occupation. Napoleon's great victories at Austerlitz and Jenna left both Austria and Prussia in German hands. Napoleone proceed to aboloish the Holy Roman Empire and reshape the map of Germany. Germans could easily reach Heligoland from the mainland and then move on the Britain to join the King's German Legion. British soverignity was recognized at the Congress of Vienna (1814). In the more traquil days after the Napoleonic Wars, Heligoland gradually transformned itself from smuggling to tourism. An enterprising hosteler opened a spa (1826). The island quickly develped as a popular resort for the well-to-do. The sea and light also attracted artists. Along with them came German and to a lesser extent Austrian writers who faced censorship in their countries. The British allowed them much greater freedom. Perhaps the most notable German author living on British run Heligoland was Heinrich Heine, one of the most beloved German writers. (His burls wwe among those burned by the NAZIs.) Another writer was August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben. Hrligoland was also a haven for failed revolutionaries during 1830 and 1848.

Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty (1890)

Germany finally obtained possession of Heligoland (1890). The British and Germans negotiated the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty. The Scramble for Africa created all kinds of territorial issues between the major colonial countries, especiallyEngland, France, and Germany. Britain transferred Heligoland to Germany and ceeded claims to Madagascar to France. In exchange France and Germany ceeded thair claims to Zanzibar off East Africa to Britain. The primary British interest was the continuing slave trade from Zanzibar. Britain at the time was working to end the Indian Ocean slave trade. There was a provision in the Treaty to protect the interests of the Heligolanders.

German Empire

Heligoland for the Germans was of some strtegic importance. It was located near the mouths of the Weser and Elbe River and the western terminus of the Kiel Canal. The Germans turned Heligoland into an important naval base for the new navy the Kaiser began to build., The Germans built bunkers with heavy artillery and as World War I approached, shelters for U-boats.

World War I (1914-18)

With the outbreak of World War I, the Germans evacuted the island's civilian population. The first naval battle of the War, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was fought off Heligoland (August 1914). The British with the onset of the War proceeded to institute a blockade in the North Sea. Other than this the high comand of both navies were hesitant to initiate fleet actions. The British were the first to engage. The Afmiralty devised a plan to ambush German destroyers rinning patrols in the Heligolnd Bight. The British ordered Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitta to proceed with a large destroyer fleet supported by two cruisers. Commodore Roger Keyes commanded supporting submarines. William Goodenough, and vice Admiral David Beatty commanded a more powerful fleet od cruisers and fast battle cruisers stood ready further oiut. The British were mor sucessful than they anticipated. They managed to sink three German light cruisers and one destroyer and damage other vessels. Some British ships wre damaged, but none sunk. The heavier forces under Beatty were committed Admiral John Jellicoe and prived vital to the British. The British celebrated the engagement as areat victory. The Kaiser was outraged. He looked on the Imperial Navy as his personal possession. He issued orders that significantly restrict the authority of the naval high command. The Imperial fleet was instructed to remain in port and avoid any contact with superior forces.

Inter-War Era (1918-39)

The Helogolanders were allowed to return to the ialand after the War (1918). The naval fortificatins were dismanteled. It becane a popular resort again. Werner Heisenberg formulated the basic equation for Quantum mechanics while on Heligoland (1920s). The NAZIs as part of their military expansion program, reopened the naval base.

World War II (1939-45)

With the outbreak of World war II, the civilian population was not evacuated as in World war I. The island became a major target of Allied bombing, especially in 1944-45. The major target was the E-Boat and U-boat pens on the islands. The civilians could shelter from the bombing in rock shelters. Many of the raids were connected with minelaying operations, in part to close off the Elbe River. Most of the 128 people killed in the bombing raids were anti-aircraft flak crews. For some unknown reason, the NAZI concentration on Alderney (one of the Channel Islands) was named after Heligoland.

Post-War Era

The British evacuated Heligoland after the German surrender (1945). They then used the uninhabited islands as a bombing range. The Royal Navy detonated 6,800 tonnes of explosives which at the time was called variously ("Big Bang" or "British Bang"). It was the largest non-nuclear detonation in history. Royal Navy engineers were attempting to destoy the fortifications built during the NAZI era. Reports suggest that the British would not hve been too displeased if the entire island had been destroyed. The blast shook the entire island. It did change the island's shape and created Mittelland. The British turned the battered islands back over to the Germans (1952). A huge effort was required to clear bombs and other undetebnated munitions. The Germans also carried out a landscaping project as well as a house contruction project before people could return. Heligoland is now once again a popular resort island. It has a tax free status, including no EU VAT. Thus tourists who vist Heligoland can bring back duty free liquor, cigarettes, and other products. The German Navy operates a search and rescue (SAR) base . The Biologische Anstalt Helgoland is located on the island.


Alcuin. Life of Willebrord.

Ritsema, Alex. Heligoland, Past and Present (2007).


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Created: 2:13 AM 8/15/2008
Last updated: 2:13 AM 8/15/2008